Saturday, May 23, 2009

Aligning the Past and Future of Journalism

Todd Gitlin's recent piece in opendemocracy.net, "Journalism's Many Crises," is an excellent analysis of the multiple woes that afflict journalism today. If we are to work journalism out of this mess, we need good pieces like Todd's and more thinking that puts the present situation in a historical context that properly weighs the vices and virtues of the old news media system that is collapsing around us.

In the USA, where the crisis can be traced to the deregulation of television in the 1980s, it is helpful to remember two contrasting ideas.

One, there was no golden age of US journalism. In the US, the media system that emerged after World War II had all sorts of flaws and blind spots, particularly in its deference to state authority in the Cold War.

Two, for all its flaws, the "old media" in the US nevertheless had real virtues that are worth recovering in new times. If objectivity was American journalism's chief ideal, it was an ideal that was always open to question and criticism. Equally important, perhaps even more important, was the media's ability to assemble and serve a broad public. Metropolitan daily news papers, national magazines, and national networks created a national public and a belief in common concerns that had to be addressed with information, analysis and debate.

As Todd rightly observes, the mass media's ability to assemble a broad public always flew against the tendencies toward the private strain in American life. But constructing the public was an important function of the American media nonetheless. (Think of what the history of the civil rights movement would have been if freedom marches had remained a "southern" story with no claim on the national conscience.)

I am guardedly confident that someone will figure out an economic model to sustain journalism in the future. In the USA, the pursuit of wealth will always find a way. But in this age of media fragmentation, we need a new model for public service media that is attentive to the wholes and parts of our public life. What that might look like, and how we might achieve it, is still an open question that demands our deepest thoughts and strongest actions.

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