Media Reform: Politics or Democracy?

There is a widespread and paradoxical fallacy among media reformers that considers the nature of our media as a “second issue” that can and must be harnessed to specific political agendas of the progressive variety.

In fact, media is a primary issue that serves the entire socio-political process, not just the needs of progressive politics.

Failure to recognize this ultimately will marginalize the efforts of the media reform community.

It limits the issue of reform to one smaller fragment of the larger body politic, and does little to build inclusive media that can accommodate the breadth, depth and diversity of the political discourse — not to mention the journalistic inquiry — this nation requires to survive as a democracy.

The Problem of Political Media
This problem of media as a “second issue” is exemplified by an essay by Jeff Chester in The Nation on May 30.

Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, offers some truly spot-on observations of the speed, effectiveness and depth of the Internet’s commercialization. He astutely notes:

The leading online companies and Fortune 500 advertisers are hard at work monetizing the key business model for digital media–interactive advertising. A sophisticated apparatus that tracks our online behavior and delivers compelling and personalized multimedia marketing messages will suck consumers into an ubiquitous environment that presents us with the right ad at the right time.

Chester is aware of the dangers a for-profit business model represents for mass media and democracy — and he takes his cues from Neal Postman, C. Edwin Baker and Ben Bagdikian up to that point.

Yet his vision of this as little more than opportunity for “progressive Internet entrepreneurs” is deeply disappointing.

It displays mere political provincialism at a time of more general need for our nation and world.

It’s not that media isn’t of value to a political organization, but instead that he addresses the needs of politics rather than the needs of democracy.

It is the latest in a long, long line of media-reform prescriptions that fixate on political reform and advocacy to counter “mainstream” media — but which do nothing, nothing at all, to empower the people actually doing the work within media.

Journalists Neglected
Not once within Chester’s op-ed is the word “journalist” or “reporter” mentioned.

This is typical of the debate about media and democracy, which views reporters and editors variously as both the poor, downtrodden, expendable tools of the corporation or the arrogant priesthood of the corporation — but which never *ever* prescribes a reform agenda that would actually empower those reporters and editors to do their job on behalf of all Americans.

Chester acknowledges that the public media sector is, in fact, massively undercapitalized in this country.

He also acknowledges that this inadequacy — this lack of presence from broadly civic-minded public media interests — provides nothing but open space for corporate interests to create immersive, brand-driven online experiences for local information needs

We all know what that means. More showbiz. More profit-driven media, more disregard for anything except what sells, what hits highest, and what products have the most inter-brand synergy.

However, his solution — build yet more media that serves vested interests rather than broad social dialogue — displays a lack of vision that is endemic to the media reform debate.

What’s more, he seeks to adapt a “communitainment” model — one that “seamlessly integrates communications, community and entertainment” — on behalf of the progressive political agenda.

Yikes! Democracy would be far better served by harnessing sophisticated meta-critique and skepticism toward that self-serving, immersive “communitainment” model.

Show me that, and I’ll show you effective bullshit detection aptly suited to the needs of democracy in America — or anywhere.

Public Media & the Failure of Vision
We have to recognize that PBS and NPR, for all their value as media outlets, are rapidly becoming evolutionary backwaters in the fast-changing media ecology.

They are ponderously hierarchical and top-heavy in the decentralized Internet era. They lack vision, reach and relevance to the vast majority of Americans.

Chester’s call for a monetized form of “progressive” media is therefore not just unambitious — it actively subverts the idea of an expanded Fourth Estate at a time of real crisis for media and democracy.

As he notes, the terra nova of the Internet is being expediently colonized by commercial interests.

Do not underestimate how much is at stake — hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars, and profound, widespread cultural influence — or the resources they will commit to this.

Effective branding and masterful CRM integration with an immersive online “communitainment” experience is a holy grail that is already in reach.

This makes the call for more “progressive media entrepreneurs” so very disappointing.

Besides adding up to more neglect and continued lack of vision for truly civic-minded mass media, this prescription also has the peculiar effect of limiting the scope and potential of civic dialogue in mass media.

How?

Fragmentation.

Chester’s op-ed calls for yet another solipsistic, ideological cul de sac in the so-called Information Superhighway, where the choir awaits eagerly to be preached at, and comfortably affirmed.

A recent item in Gigaom.com identified ten ways “the Internet (as we know it) will die,” number four of which is “Death by a thousand fragments”:

In his book “The Big Switch,” Nicholas Carr cites one study that claimed more than 90 percent of the links originating within either the conservative or liberal community stay within that community. Some link referral tools can even be configured to keep visitors on sites with the same world view. The end result? Islands of like-minded people, increasingly sure there is only one right answer and that they’re in sole possession of it. And an end to the dreams of a global community envisioned by the Internet’s creators.

New Visions, New Hope
This fragmentation is already well underway. Outside of traditional public media investment, philanthropic support for mediamaking has almost exclusively been focused on partisan media.

Alternet.org, TomPaine.com, Grist.com — it is good that they exist, but wouldn’t it also be good if the Fourth Estate encompassed much more expansive territory on the Internet?

Sadly, public media in general has little to speak for on the Internet.

Important programs such as the Center for Public Integrity or the Center for Investigative Reporting remain beachheads, without a broad, community-level presence like the daily press or broadcast media.

Voice of San Diego and MinnPost are glimpses of the future — but there’s still a missing network element, and additional challenges arise with their ad-friendly business model. The Christian Science Monitor recently noted that part of MinnPost’s beat is “high-brow culture”; this creates a good environment for high-brow advertising, but questions remain as to whether that approach can effectively serve those citizens who lack such cultural and economic clout or interest.

The entrepeneurial future is full of promise and pitfalls, and we are in its defining moments. So I want to speak up and say that we must frankly recognize that the undue influence of advertising and political interests undermines the Fourth Estate.

This has always been the case, but the issue has grown amazingly acute. We have enough political media in this world, it’s time to get over our politics and think about the broad needs of democracy.

Thus the idea of “progressive media entrepreneurship,” to coin a phrase, registers as a non-starter for me. It speaks of a spiral of ideological self-interest that could never truly serve the citizenry as a whole — just a fragment of it.

Isn’t the Fourth Estate supposed to be bigger than all that?

Do our ideals of mass media and democracy not, after all, envision serving a diversity of voices, issues and needs?

Can’t we do better than mere political provincialism? “Progressive media entrepreneurs” is a Little League approach to a Big Media problem.

This attitude is, in part, why I’m not attending the National Conference on Media Reform this year — that and total exhaustion from overcommitment at work. Outside of the programming, which is too politicized, it’s a marvelous event to meet people who care about media.

Well, let’s get that networking started. Talk to me about empowering journalists by getting the political ideologues and commercial bean-counters out of the way. That would be a breakthrough conversation about media and democracy!

— josh wilson

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3 Responses to Media Reform: Politics or Democracy?

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    It’s highly ironic that those who endlessly debate what is best for the public so rarely include the public in the debate. In a rush to give the people what the public “really needs,” these great thinkers forget that the people can read anything they want on the Internet – it’s the biggest single advantage of this still-young medium.

    Yes, large corporations will seek to corral this audience, but individual readers often fail to follow, a revolt that has already led to some spectacular commercial failures. Idealogues from the left and the right will try to impose their particular brands of truth on the public consciousness, but will mostly succeed only with those who already agree. And both nonprofit and for-profit ventures will strive to gain market share, but only those embraced by the public will ultimately thrive.

    The sinners are not those who would seek to turn a profit (or not), but those who condescend to their readers. Investors aren’t inherently evil; some, afterall, will invest in the good journalism needed to sustain democracy. Advertisers won’t control the news agenda if news publishers don’t let them. Self-sustaining nonprofits will add to the richness of public discourse. And a new breed of micro-financing sites will help sustain independent writers, filmmakers and photographers.

    At the end of the day, the public will sort out the winners from the losers, the trusted from the tricksters, the important from the frivolous. And the ultimate victors in the new media landscape (beyond the public itself) won’t be those with the “right” message or the best customer-management tools, but those who empower the public to make intelligent decisions by publishing high-quality journalism and inviting readers to join in the debate.

    As an independent for-profit news publisher, we’ve dedicated our company, RedwoodAge.com, to that ideal. And we invite our colleagues to join us – from the mightiest corporations to the humblest nonprofit.

  2. admin says:

    Tom — you’ve made another great point about the power of entrepreneurship. Innovation positively percolates on the ground, where people are actually making media — doing the work of production, publishing, distribution, setting/maintaining standards, and building community.

    What lacks is more aggressive support for that. Currently the social-entrepreneurship funding pool is limited to national- and international-scale programs with neither the means nor the idiomatic savvy to connect effectively with local and regional needs and opportunities.

    A new kind of structure is needed (heard that one before).

    What about, to complement all the community foundations, a new type of community social venture organization? One with an interest in media and culture as related to civic life?

    Think we can pull that rabbit out of a hat?

  3. Jeff Chester says:

    I appreciate the review. I believe we need to rebuild three distinct systems to respond to changes in the media marketplace. They include the system of serious journalism (investigative reporting, for example); public and other non-commercial media (PBS, public access, etc); and also a “progressive” infrastructure. I think we know by now that the traditional news media is largely incapable of advancing a reform agenda, for health care, environment, social justice. News plays a crucial role, but its job isn’t to engage in the advocacy and organizing required to bring about such changes. Both news and public media are getting the attention of some foundations–progressive media isn’t. The dimensions of the new media landscape (broadband PC, mobile, etc) are already determined–it will be primarily commercial, and ownership of content will be largely for-profit. The point of my article was to issue a warning that the stampede of venture investment and, more alarmingly, a powerful global business model based on personalized interactive advertising, is shaping our new media future. Unless the revenues from such a system are more diversely distributed–including services owned by women and people of color–our new media system will be hindered from fulfilling its much needed larger democratic potential.

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