Â When a people are free and affluent, as are we, and therefore able to do most anything they wish, their lives are defined no so much by what they do as by what they eschew. What pleasures, powers, toya or whims doÂ they forgo? What they deny themselves comes to define themselves.
In this regard empirical evidence suggests Americans are harming themselvesÂ through excess. Consider childhood obesity and theÂ analogous adult epidemic of Type II diabetes. Both conditions cause physiological harm.Â Both are self-inflicted maladies caused by overeating and poor nutrition. We are free to buy what we choose. Even the poorest of us canÂ afford snacks and treats. Yet so many of us consistently make such poor choices thatÂ weÂ create aÂ public health menace.
How does thisÂ relate to media?Â
Quite simply, advertising is to media as food is the body. It is the chief source of sustenance. Advertising exists to convince us to buy things. It is not a reasoned exercise in persuasion. Advertising seeks to increase consumption, end of story.
I, on the other hand,Â love journalism,Â that rather prim and school-marmishÂ theory that pretends we canÂ comprehend the totality of a situation and impart this knowledge to others so as to captureÂ some essential truth. I sayÂ theoryÂ not because I think journalism is aÂ pretense.Â Rather this ideal, often called objectivity,Â is franklyÂ unattainable. Total comprehension is a god-like power notÂ bestowed onÂ mortals.Â Objectivity is a great ideal toward which to aspire and the only shame is that, being human, journalists are doomed to fall short.
Nevertheless, this pursuit of truth ennobles journalism, at least in the minds of its practitionersÂ if not in the estimation of their audiences. YetÂ when IÂ use the discipline of journalism to examineÂ the financial underpinnings of the craftÂ I worry.Â The notionÂ ofÂ journalismÂ that I admire, the wholeÂ watchdog role of the Fourth Estate,Â arose during an eraÂ ofÂ mass media dominance.Â Back in the day ofÂ prime time television andÂ powerful network newscasts, when newspaper landed on most’s peopleÂ driveways, the news media delivered a single message, exemplifiedÂ by Walter Cronkite’s tag line, “And that’s the way it was.” In those days mass media were abundantly profitable. Journalism was the eccentric inÂ the media family, the self-righteous field that could be tolerated, even celebrated as a public service that justified the cultural dominance of media owners and the advertising-derived profit that was its corollary.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that’s no longer the way it is, and whileÂ the why ofÂ it wouldÂ fill sociological,Â philosophical and economic treatises, for the purposes of this blog let’s agree that advertising has shifted and continues to shift toward the Internet and away from the mass media.Â The institutions that housed professionalÂ journalism and journalistsÂ are in retreat. The new citizen-journalists, gaining audience throughÂ web media,Â are in theirÂ infancy and it is not clearÂ what role they will play in helpingÂ create an informed public. I am hopeful but not naively so,Â that the amateursÂ may yetÂ teach the professionals a thing or two about journalism.Â
But asÂ time and technology mediate the balance between old and new media, between professional and amateur journalists,Â itÂ strikes meÂ that must all sup atÂ same trough: advertising. They must all pay attention to the buzzword I hearÂ so frequently coupled to journalism — the notion of a business model. (There’s a term I never learned in journalism school, where any reference to the financial foundation of journalism elcited references to a “Chinese wall.”)
And I would ask what is the betterÂ business model for media:Â to get paid for telling people about the limited time two-for-one special at the fast food joint; orÂ to pay some journalist to explain why downingÂ that 64-ounce soda would excessive?