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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

On The Carnegie Report: MSM's Fall Does Not Mean The End of 'Real' Journalism

Former MSNBC.com founding editor-in-chief Merrill Brown is out with a major study entitled "Abandoning the News" that focuses on the attitudes and actions regarding news of the 18-34-year-old segment of the nation's population.

Brown's lengthy piece is based on a survey conducted a year ago by Frank Magid & Associates. Carnegie Corporation, which commissioned Brown's report, has launched an initiative on the future of news.

Brown's report covers all the basics of the Internet media revolution as it is reflected among 18-34 year-olds. Nearly half of the respondents get most of their daily news from Internet sources such as Yahoo.com and MSN.com. Big losers are network news programs and the daily newspaper, the heart of the MSM. Etc. Etc.

But that's all getting to be old news. What strikes me about the Brown report is this statement:

"Even the accepted premise of how a free press and the skills of journalism bind together democratic institutions similarly merits a certain reassessment and reality check. There is little evidence that today's politicians accept the notion that it's mandatory to connect to the population via the 'national press corp," often choosing to go around the press and communicate through their own Internet site, through friendly talk shows and blog forums."

Brown seems to equate the national press corp as uniquely representing the "free press and the skills of journalism" that "bind together democratic institutions." He also seems to assume that politicians like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush displaying hostile attitudes toward the MSM is evidence of an erosion of democratic institutions caused by the dissing of the famously insular White House press corps.

Frankly, I doubt that the press as a whole has ever been as powerful as it is today, thanks to the rise of Talk Radio, the incredible proliferation of blogs focused on public policy issues, the impact of Internet news aggregators like Yahoo and the mounting pressure generated by the Internet for more transparency in all sectors of society. It's just that the TV blowdrys and newspaper poobahs asking most of the questions in the White House briefing room have less power today than ever before.

Perhaps I am mis-reading Brown, but in any case both assumptions are wrong-headed because they misrepresent the reality of the press both at the time of the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, which gives the press a crucial role in binding our democracy, and today, even as we witness the decline of the MSM and the rise of the new media inspired by the Internet.

Let's start with the nature of the press at the Founding. There were two dominant forms of the press, pamphleteers and newspapers. The pamphleteers were typically one or perhaps a couple of often anonymous present or recent participants in public office and were distributed by hand and mail.

The idea of a pamphlet as both a source of news and informed opinion was not unique to the colonies; it originated among the Protestant Reformers who opposed the Catholic and Anglican church establishments in England. More than a few of the Reformers lost their lives or otherwise suffered for demanding their right to publish and "speak truth" to and about power.

The colonial era pamphlets were essentially extended opinion pieces written to influence other decision makers and to shape the public discourse on the issues of the day. The typical pamphlet was much "deeper" than our current public discourse, with frequent references to classical works of philosophy, literature and religion and yet these publications were eagerly read and discussed among the wider population.

The newspapers of the day were also published by one or a couple of individuals on a weekly or even less frequent basis. Dailies would not come into their own for decades. The very first newspaper in the colonies - "Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick" - was edited by Benjamin Harris, an associate of Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine who helped him launch the venture. Unfortunately, Harris was forced by the Royal Governor to cease publication after the first issue appeared because his imminence took umbrage at the content.

It was not until the familiar case of John Peter Zenger in 1735 that newspapers were freed from suppression by officials unhappy with criticism, even when it was factual. Before Zenger, simply publishing something that brought disrepute upon the government was grounds for suppression of a newspaper, pamphleteer or other printing press product that angered somebody in power.

In a case argued by a young lawyer named Andrew Hamilton, Zenger was vindicated by the jury, which was convinced that he had published the truth. Thus was effectively established in America the "truth defense" against a charge of libel.

The pattern set by Harris and Zenger continued for decades as the editor usually wrote and produced the paper, sold what ads there were and handled the business end of the operation, which often involved "special relationships" with partisan interests.

Much of the actual news about events was of necessity several days or even weeks old, so the most current parts of the paper were the opinions. Folks who decry the alleged decline of civility in contemporary political debate would be horrified to read what was routinely written by the newspapers of George Washington in his day.

He was accused, among much else, alternately of conspiring to become America's first monarch and of being a mere tool of Hamilton who was doing the conspiring. Washington was not alone. John Adams was accused of seeking a dictatorship with the Alien and Sedition laws, while the accusations we know so well today surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, his alleged slave mistress, originated in the newspapers during his years in the White House. No politician was exempt from the most biting and scandalous charges.

Such was the character of the press Hamilton, James Madison and the rest of the Founders knew when they wrote the Constitution, to which was then added the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment declaring Congress could make no law abriding the freedoms of speech, religion, petition, assembly and press.

By the way, for more on the historic roots of the press, I highly recommend "Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism" by University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky. My own understanding of the roots and purpose of journalism was powerfully affected by Olasky's several works in the field. He is a strong-minded and articulate evangelical Christian scholar and editor but that fact ought not prevent anybody from appreciating the depth and quality of his scholarship.

Where the history of American journalism intersects with contemporary analyses of how the MSM is being eclipsed by the Internet and the New Media it is generating is on this point: There is nothing sacred about the MSM's formats - passive delivery of dated news via deadwood newspapers and television broadcasts - nor is there any reason the skill sets required to report credibly, accurately and honestly cannot be duplicated on a blog or other Internet-based New Media format.

As even the most cursory understanding of the history of communications since the Reformation makes clear, the present epoch is not the first time in which a media revolution has taken place. Indeed, a case can be made the Internet gives stronger play to some traditional journalism skills essential to in-depth investigative reporting and I believe an eventual result of the Internet's dominance will be a revival of the art of writing well and concisely.

Suggestions that the MSM's declining audiences must necessarily also damage or even destroy the capacity of journalists to fulfill their traditional role as the information link of democracy, as recognized by the First Amendment, sound like nothing so much as, for example, the predictions of disaster issued by horse owners upon the appearance of the Model T.

It is an understandable but unfortunate kind of myopia among those who have long profited by a disappearing technology. They always see disaster ahead because they are indeed losing their previously advantaged position. But their loss doesn't mean the rest of us are going to suffer as well. In fact, those most closely associated with a new technology are often the greatest gainers.

The same myopia is often on display when MSM journalists critique bloggers. Jill Abrahamson's familiar Harvard query to Jeff Jarvis - "do you now how much it costs to maintain a bureau in Bagdhad?" - comes whenever I encounter manifestations of the mentality that says only the MSM can cover news the way it should be covered.

Abrahamson was right, of course. It does cost lots of money to maintain a New York Times-style bureau in a foreign capitol. But that doesn't mean only an MSM outlet can perform the same news functions in a foreign capitol and deliver them authoritatively, credibly and efficiently at much lower cost. Frankly, people who depended upon military bloggers probably had a much more accurate understanding of what was going on during the combat phase of the War in Iraq than did many of the embedded MSM journalists.

Given time, experience and investment, the New Media will create new solutions to the Bagdhad problem that result in more complete and useful reporting there. We just don't know what those solutions look like yet. To consider just a couple of possibilities here, why couldn't in most circumstances a trained journalist armed with a powerful laptop, a dependable Internet link and the ability to work a foreign beat should be able to do as good a job as a traditional MSMer. And what about the capacity of the blog as a tool for instantly linking the journalist with far more sources on a given story than could ever be provided by even the best MSM fact-checking staff?

Put another way, the health of the First Amendment does not depend upon the continued existence of the MSM or, for that matter, the approval of whichever politican happens to occupy the White House.

Having said all of this, I don't mean to suggest Brown's report is unworthy of your attention. It is one of the most succinct descriptions to date of how and why the MSM is losing the future to the Internet's New Media. Perhaps the most important point raised by Brown is that the pace of the displacement is accelerating as the 18-34-year-olds flood to the new media forms and in turn spark the creation of yet more new media forms.

I believe the accelerating pace and the multiplying spectrum of attempts to define the parameters of new media mean we are much closer than any of us realize to the emergence of a news media universe in which the MSM represents little more than fading stars in the background.

UPDATE: Merrill Brown responded in an email as follows:
"Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of my report. You are right to point out that in both history and common practice there's little reason to believe that a weakening of the historic structure of the national press will inevitably weaken American democracy or the First Amendment. I did not mean to suggest that.
"My words were carefully chosen in the paragraph you quote. In fact I describe an "accepted premise" which I assume you’d agree has been widely held. Politicians and the media, to name two constituents, use to generally have a shared view about the critical nature of the national press in political discourse. You clearly share the view I articulate that such a premise today surely merits a “reality check.” These assumptions about the role of the national press are now of course widely questioned.
"Without parsing too much of either your piece or mine, we are in general agreement, although I worry more than you appear to about how journalism of real scale – coverage of national election campaigns, broad global issues and wars – gets funded in the media world that’s now emerging."