Paradox of freedom creates ethical pitfall for media

tn_conundrum.jpg 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 do they forgo? What they deny themselves comes to define themselves.

In this regard empirical evidence suggests Americans are harming themselves through excess. Consider childhood obesity and the analogous adult epidemic of Type II diabetes. Both conditions cause physiological harm. Both are self-inflicted maladies caused by overeating and poor nutrition. We are free to buy what we choose. Even the poorest of us can afford snacks and treats. Yet so many of us consistently make such poor choices that we create a public health menace.

How does this relate to media? 

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, love journalism, that rather prim and school-marmish theory that pretends we can comprehend the totality of a situation and impart this knowledge to others so as to capture some essential truth. I say theory not because I think journalism is a pretense. Rather this ideal, often called objectivity, is frankly unattainable. Total comprehension is a god-like power not bestowed on mortals. 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 practitioners if not in the estimation of their audiences. Yet when I use the discipline of journalism to examine the financial underpinnings of the craft I worry. The notion of journalism that I admire, the whole watchdog role of the Fourth Estate, arose during an era of mass media dominance. Back in the day of prime time television and powerful network newscasts, when newspaper landed on most’s people driveways, the news media delivered a single message, exemplified 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 in 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 while the why of it would fill sociological, 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. The institutions that housed professional journalism and journalists are in retreat. The new citizen-journalists, gaining audience through web media, are in their infancy and it is not clear what role they will play in helping create an informed public. I am hopeful but not naively so, that the amateurs may yet teach the professionals a thing or two about journalism. 

But as time and technology mediate the balance between old and new media, between professional and amateur journalists, it strikes me that must all sup at same trough: advertising. They must all pay attention to the buzzword I hear 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 better business model for media: to get paid for telling people about the limited time two-for-one special at the fast food joint; or to pay some journalist to explain why downing that 64-ounce soda would excessive?