We’ve seen way too many articles recently about newspapers in financial trouble: closing bureaus, cutting back on commissioned pieces that require in-depth reporting, and erecting paywalls for their online editions in an attempt to reverse the exodus of subscribers expecting to get all their news for free. While the physical print model of news journals might disappear relatively soon — which will instantly eliminate any such news source from the 1/5 of Americans who rarely use or have access to the Internet, and don’t use smart phones — it doesn’t mean that what they do also needs to end. As the future of these institutions seems increasingly in peril, I recently began to notice some of the incredibly important things they do and have done.
In the midst of further research for Here Lies Love (someday it will see the light of day as a performance!), I read that it was the San Jose Mercury News that exposed the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth. (This would have been in the ’80s.) The Philippine press was, of course, heavily censored at the time, so they couldn’t research or write about such things. This story, which of course filtered back to the Philippines, wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back over there, but it was significant in opening the eyes of the Philippine populace to what was going on behind the curtain of the New Society.
In July there was a massive series in The Washington Post called “Top Secret America” (it sounds like a Team America sequel, but it’s real) detailing the massive spending and expansion of a big-beyond-belief series of agencies and outside contractors all engaged in “anti terrorist” activities. It’s hugely expensive, out of control and unaccountable. Also ineffective. It’s a huge exposé, and all the information was already public knowledge, though it required years of digging and organization to assemble a collection of coherent articles.
Just today The New York Times ran a piece about little Portugal managing to power 45% of its grid using sustainable energy after only 5 years of work (on solar, wind arrays and restructuring state utility companies). The obvious implication, to me — from the almost editorial-like nature of the article — was, “Why can’t we, the richest nation on earth, do this?” (Sustainable energy use in the US is barely 5%, and at present rate and with present policies might not catch up to Portugal in our lifetimes.) The article, as I see it, is a goad, a prod, a provocation — and proof that yes, it can be done. But not when you give oil companies massive tax breaks and offer them huge financial incentive programs; not when you don’t enforce the off shore drilling regulations that exist; and certainly not when oil guys were running the government.
These are just three examples. None of this information — or rather, the organized presentation of this information — would have come through other institutions. They simply don’t have the resources that print or TV have.
So, as we watch print media and the press struggle financially, I wonder what is to become of this segment of our democracy that is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. This country and many others were founded on the idea that a free and open press constitutes, effectively, a separate wing of the government — keeping the other branches honest, and exposing stuff that the government, lobbyists, the military or large corporations would prefer to keep hidden. Checks and balances.
Not everyone agrees that the fourth estate is a positive force. Sometimes it’s likened to a mob, sometimes to a pack of gossips, muckrakers and scandal mongers who simply stir things up for their own pleasure, and throw their critical weight around as a way of exorcising personal psychological demons. As a performing artist I’ve had moments of agreeing with this latter assessment. But what if no one, no agency or medium, had enough popularity, readership or weight to expose situations or inform the public about some of this stuff? — never mind biased music writers. An ignorant public is a gullible public, a bunch of suckers, ripe for plucking.
The broadcast press — radio and TV — who could have picked up the slack have mostly imploded as far as serving this function. (NPR and PBS don’t have the budgets, and PBS was also under politically motivated attack.) The provocations and lies of Fox, and the celebrity focus and lack of investigation of most of the rest, render what could have been a real alternative to print invalid.
Where there used to be the occasional in-depth series on TV news shows, now there is rumormongering, inciting fear and outright lies. Most Americans get their news from TV, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they think all Muslims are somehow guilty for 9/11 or that Saddam Hussein was connected to al Qaeda.
Although we emphasize freedom of the press, shout about it and hold it up as something worth fighting for, that freedom is worthless and irrelevant if it’s rendered nearly invisible and virtually inaudible. As they used to say in Soviet Russia: when nothing was permitted, everything was important, and now that everything is permitted, nothing is important. In the Soviet days of samizdat pamphlets, “news” carried weight, and people met and talked about what they’d heard or read. But with Russia approaching Italy’s standing as a land of media awash in bimbos, game shows and corruption, most serious news that isn’t propaganda is next to invisible in the capitalist fog of anything for entertainment.
It’s not exactly true that everything is permitted anymore, what with Putin’s crew assassinating any dissenting politician or critical journalist, but you get the point: freedom of the press approaches meaninglessness as any serious work increasingly becomes discouraged because it doesn’t sell, and the lowest common denominator of journalism takes over. Dictators don’t need to take repressive measures to silence criticism, they just need to be more entertaining.
What about the Internet? Are there web institutions or investigative sites that will step in when print journalism can’t afford to fund years of investigation and research anymore? Drudge Report? The Smoking Gun? Wikileaks? Huffington? It’s a running joke to think that you might threaten someone who had wronged you or who was harming others by saying, “Beware the power of the blogosphere!” — though we know the blogosphere has indeed righted some wrongs and uncovered injustices. But it’s not as powerful and doesn’t have the resources that the press once had.
I’m glad these online institutions exist, and the Wikileak of the Afghan material will speed the end of an invasion whose plan and purpose was never thought out in the first place. But sometimes it’s not enough to leak, cull and aggregate. Research and analysis that takes time (and money) can have a larger effect on the public and their representatives than the biggest mountains of data.
Once again though, if 1/5 of the country doesn’t or can’t or won’t use the Internet, then when and if these online alternatives become the main source for news, those people will instantly be completely disenfranchised. They will be like serfs who aren’t taught to read because, well, why bother?
If one accepts that a democracy without an informed citizenry isn’t a democracy and shouldn’t refer to itself as one, then do we need to rethink how a democracy can work in our culture the near future? Some think the hive mind and self-regulating social networks are a model — that when everyone can speak and everyone is connected then the intelligence and the checks and balances will emerge all by themselves — but I’m not sure I’m ready to believe that millions of people with very little insight and almost no information can somehow magically turn into one smart collective entity.
That said, our cells don’t know what we (think we) know — individual cells don’t all “know” how to make a whole person, for example — but in a structural sense, actually, they do. The DNA for a whole person is contained in every cell, but it’s maybe less a complete blueprint than a small (relatively, for what it accomplishes) set of rules. Like swooping, flocking birds, fish or thousands of other creatures, the behavior of some groups appears to be intelligent, but it’s not. Not in the sense of being self-aware. Is that the model for a future society of “idiots” — a kind of emergent evolutionary structure? Everyone would be given a few basic rules to follow — as if instinctively — and then a whole society eventually emerges from that? It’s more like an ant colony than what we have now. It works for them. Do we want to be more like the ants?