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Nonprofit journalism no panacea for nation of digital idiots; still, see leads to grant $$$ below.

 Former 60 Minutes producer turned investigative guru Charles Lewis wonders whether kick-ass, take-names journalism should follow the “The Nonprofit Road.”

Charles Lewis is a news-mensch, okay. Let’s get that out of the way. But despite is the passion, there is a fatal flaw in his Columbia Journalism Review article on the the failures of mainstream media and the prospect that foundation-supported journalism could help the public learn what it needs to know.

The problem is what if the people don’t care, and that is where America stands today.

I’ll elaborate momentarily but first let me acknowledge the insights and hope Lewis puts across in his CJR piece. he reminds us that nonprofit journalism has a track record as old as the Associated Press, a news cooperative founded in 1846 and still going strong today (in fact, it struck me that the AP, with 4,000 staffers, including 3,000 journalists, in 121 countries, serving news to 5,000 broadcast outlets and 1,700 newspapers, is the beating heart of journalism and my sense from the outside, is that while the heart is getting stressed these days, it’s still strong; do you disagree?).

Lewis left 60 Minutes to co-found the Center for Public Integrity, which he describes as “the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world.” So he knows of whence he speaks and I wish Lewis and the other non-profiteers success in finding money. (In fact, provided I can muster the time, I will apply for some of the $5 million that will be handed out this year by the Knight Foundation through its 21st Century News Challenge.  Check out the press release. The deadline is October 15. Read the rules. See last year’s winners for clues.)

But even if all the foundations in all the world wrote great fat checks to journalists (proper spelling in my case is T-O-M   A-B-A-T-E) it would not solve the larger problem, which is not a lack of information but a lack of citizen interest and a diminishing sense of political effiicacy.

I cannot offer empirical evidence of such, unless you ask yourself why one third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks.  This struck close to home the other day. My wife and I home-school our kids and the other day I gave my 14-year-old son a writing assignment about the Middle East. We talked about what I wanted and my son revealed some of what he already knew about the situation: that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11 attacks.  I set the record straight but I have no reason to believe my son less well informed than his peers, despite his unfortunate parentage.

How could so many Americans be so greatly misinformed? Well, it could be that they get bad information such as a lazy mainstream media passed on by repeating the deliberate lies of “persons speaking under condition of anonymity” without the professional due diligence of checking out the rumors for themselves. (I remember reading one Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker early on in this mess in which he recounts how a reporter for an Italian newsmagazine went to Nigeria and wrote an article debunking the yellowcake lie — something no U.S. pub did, for shame!)

Of course we have since exposed the lie. So why do one in three Americans, including my son, still believe the falsehood? Because in our media-saturated world we look for sensation and entertainment, not information and reason. Sure some fraction of the audience looks for and finds a little of the latter. But the mass of the market looks to media for music, diversion, directions when lost, or in keeping with the times, as a way to share experiences with peer groups.

 That’s why social media like Twitter explode virally. They allow people to connect. That’s the novelty nowadays. The ease and ubiquity of creating media merely devalues good information by drowning it out with dreck. Think of a Gresham’s Law for Media. If you are not already familiar with the term, “Attention Economy,” look it up. For then it becomes clear why nonprofit journalism is not the solution to the problem of America’s declining faith in and ability toward self-governance — people don’t make or have the time for public affairs.

During a recent panel discussion at Yahoo organized by Media Bistro, I blurted out the term “digital idiots” to describe the state of the audience. It was an off-the-cuff utterance but I think it captures the irony of an always-connected populace whose members are so focused on their own realities that they haven’t the interest or empathy to engage in some activity beyond themselves. I am reminded of the line from Julius Caesar: “The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

That’s why I want to keep journalism in the marketplace, which provides some immediate feedback as to whether or not the audience is consuming the knowledge. To “preserve” journalism in a foundation setting would be to consign it to irrelevancy. It would not learn the skill of engaging with its time-strapped, short-attention-span audience. Journalism would become the tree that fell in the forest but went unheard.

My alternative? Well, I wish I had clearer evidence then I am about to propose but I suggest we look at what works on the Web, where stupidities like, “Ask a Ninja” thrive. What is that? Some guys in black hoods who make stuff up. And people watch it. How does this relate to journalism? Well, obviously I don’t want to make stuff up. But if putting on a black hood, or tapdancing naked, gets the public to focus on a matter of great concern, I would gladly do it (however, I might wear a figleaf were I to do so, as I have a tiny pecker and would hate to see it exposed for the fraud it is).

But mostly I would say that if journalists are not prepared to engage with the audience on its terms, to create truthful and meaningful  messages no longer than can be printed on a bumper sticker, then we might as well take foundation money and go off to some lofty place to create white papers and fulminate about the digital idiots below.

Or journalists can take a lesson from Bill Shakespeare, who wrote some fascinating stuff not long after the last big revoltion in media, when the printing press was shaking up everything from religion to the nation state. And he did it the “Ask a Ninja” way.

This is something I learned at a homeschooling conference of all places, and blogged once before, after finding a credible reference to substantiate the point that Shakespeare, who survives today as the exemplar of haute culture, had in his own day to compete with such entertainments as fights between humans and bears. How did Bill find an audience for plays like Julius Caeser when right next door the viewer could see a bear rip the head off some drunken lout? He took his history and philosophy and larded it up with sword-fighting, treachery, unrequited love, sex, and murder most foul. All the ills, we might say, to which the mortal flesh is heir. He did not, it appears, rely on foundations to support his muse.