Thanks to those of you who attended our event on March 16th. We heard lots of good feed back and everyone seemed to enjoy the presentation by Todd Gitlin. For those of you who weren't there, you can get a sense of the event by checking out Ian Lind's post, which was live blogged from the event. Also, here is a transcript of the talk given by Todd. Its maybe a bit lengthy, but definitely worth the read.
WikiLeaks: Imperfect Shelter in a Perfect Storm
It's a pleasure to be in a roomful of people who take seriously that democracy is not a museum piece to be installed in a glass case, but a work in progress to be created by citizens.
The word "crisis" is overused, but there are crises. You know about the boy who cried "wolf." Just because the over anxious boy kept thinking the wolf was at the door, and sounding a warning to which others became accustomed, and therefore ignored, did not mean that the wolf was not nearby. When the real wolf showed up, no one was ready.
A whole pack of wolves have arrived at journalism's door. One is the precipitous decline in the circulation of newspapers. The second is the decline in advertising revenue, which, combined with the first, has badly damaged the profitability of newspapers. The third, contributing to the first, is the diffusion of attention. The fourth is the more elusive crisis of authority. The fifth, a perennial--so much so as to be perhaps a condition more than a crisis--is journalism's inability or unwillingness to penetrate the veil of obfuscation behind which power conducts its risky business.
Circulation and Revenue
Is the newspaper industry moribund, melting away before our eyes?
I will spare you the circulation and revenue numbers, which would be obsolete by the time I finish. Suffice to say that, roughly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is gone.
Now, here's an interesting thing: Overall, newspapers remain profitable, in the low to mid teens, but they took on huge debts to make acquisitions in recent years--not at the 20-plus percentage rates they achieved in the '80s and '90s, but still profitable. The Tribune Company, having borrowed $13 billion to enable a real estate tycoon to buy the Times Mirror, went bankrupt. Expecting declining profits in the future, investors pursued what is cynically called a "harvest strategy" --bidding up their stock market value in expectation that profits would be harvested quickly, before the bottom fell out of their financial value. Profitability, they reasoned, would come from cost-cutting, which meant cutting back the practice of journalism. The chains cut back on coverage in order to try to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue. This did not win back readers. One prominent television commentator recently said: "The New York Times has 60 people in its Baghdad bureau. As far as I can tell, the Times doesn't have that many subscribers under the age of forty." He was joking, of course.
So the papers are skimpier, the stories are shorter, the white space is whiter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Celebrity news in yesterday's Star-Advertiser takes up all of page 2. Book coverage has collapsed. The newsroom is skimpier, younger, more tech-savvy, more multi-platform, more overworked, has less institutional memory. Editors are fewer.
As circulation shrank, so did business acumen, and ice versa. Companies made many poor business decisions, including the mountainous debt I've already referred to and the precedent of free internet access. When poor business decisions are chronic and widespread, you have to conclude that the companies have entered a twilight where anxiety outruns understanding. This is not only a moral and cultural problem, but an intellectual one.
Moreover, to limit the discussion to the last decade overstates the precipitous danger and understates the magnitude of an extended crisis--which is probably a protracted crisis in the way in which people know--or believe they know--the world. In the U.S., the newspaper circulation has been declining, per capita, at a constant rate since 1960. The young are not reading the papers. While they "look" at the papers online, it is not clear how much looking they do. We may well be living amidst a sea change in how we encounter the world, how we take in its traces and make sense of them, a change comparable to the shift from oral to written culture among the ancient Greeks and the shift to printing with movable type in early modern Europe.
This shift has been in play, accelerating, disrupting theories of linear progress, for almost two centuries--from photography through the film and television to the Internet, in the rise of screens and the relative decline of sequential text. It isn't my purpose here to try to sum up what might be gained and lost in such a transition-- surely both sides of the leger are active. Nor is it my purpose to lock onto some hard-and-fast black-and-white theory of an utter, utter change in sensibility. The newspaper was always a tool for simultaneity (you don't so much read a paper as swim around in it, McLuhan was fond of saying) at least as much as a tool for cognitive sequence and the cultivation of logic. But what if the sensibility that is now consolidating itself--with the Internet, mobile phones, GPS, Facebook, and Twitter and so on--the media for the Daily Me, for point-to-point and many-to-many transmission--what if all this portents an irreversible sea-change in the very conditions of successful business? The question is not answerable. But that is exactly the point. To navigate a business in such choppy seas is no task for the faint-hearted.
The Clamor for Attention
Attention has been migrating from slower access to faster; from concentration to multitasking; from the textual to the visual and the auditory, and toward multi-media combinations. Multitasking alters cognitive patterns. Attention attenuates. Advertisers have for decades talked about the need to "break through the clutter," the clutter consisting, amusingly, of everyone else's attempts to break through the clutter. Now, media and not just messages, clutter. Measured by the criterion of how people spend their time, the central activity of our civilization is connection to media. At work, at home, on the street, in the car, in elevators and malls, commuting or waiting, we spend much of our day in a torrent of images and sounds, navigating through it, filtering it, desirous of it and through it--sometimes immersed, sometimes floating, sometimes wading, sometimes choosing, sometimes engulfed. Success goes to the media, portals, sites, and such that attract attention.
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spent with newspapers. Fewer than one-fifth of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to look at a daily newspaper--which is not to say how much of it they read. By the way, the average American newspaper reader is 55 years old.
Of course, significant numbers of readers are accessing--which is not to say reading--newspapers online, but the amount of time they seem to spend there is bifurcated. In roughly half of the top 30 newspaper sites, readership is steady or falling, though "of the top 5 online newspapers--ranked by unique users-- [the] three [national papers] reported growth in the average time spent per person: NYTimes.com, USAToday.com, and the Wall Street Journal Online." One thing is clear for all other papers: whatever the readership online, it is not profitable.
As for the national television news, the median age of evening news viewers is 61 and rising. The average age of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News is over 65. The average age of all network TV viewers has crossed 50 (The median age in the United States is 38). Cable news audiences spiked up during the 2008 campaign, but then subsided. Even local news, the home of if it bleeds, it leads, has seen viewership decline.
The undermining of newspapers is the product of many converging factors, which I would summarize under the heading, media saturation, which is the product of feverish competition for the attention of persons that is capable of being monetized--and it works. There is, of course, the rise of the Internet. There is the increased time Americans spend working and commuting, which is that much less time for newspapers.
As for public broadcasting, our neglected step-child, Americans pay on average $3 per capita in public contributions and even that is in jeopardy because of targeting from the right-wing. Corporate support has declined and more time is devoted on-air to news from NPR, and its audience grows--these are disproportionately the college-educated and older--NPR's financial model is breaking up.
True enough, the rise of opinion blogs and sites gives reason to think that political discourse is far from dead--even, perhaps, more absorbing, at least for the young, than the old regime of newspapers and television. The 2008 political campaign generated unusual interest from young people, who told pollsters they "get their news" from the Internet (although it's far from clear that their claims can be taken at face value). But it is worth considering that very little of the hard nuts-and-bolts work of reporting is done by Internet sites. Almost all current-events blogs collect news from newspaper or the handful of Internet sites that commission actual reporting (as opposed to commentary, informed or uninformed).
True, blogs do amalgamate and "connect dots," and the connecting of dots is a necessary function of a journalism that enables people to govern themselves. But very few online sites practice the unearthing of facts. For the most part, they opinionate--which is useful, but parasitic activity. The circulation of news bits originally gathered by newspapers and other dead-tree journalistic endeavors does not open up reportorial jobs. Precious few full-time reporters make a living from the Internet. Most blogs and other news sites are written by people who make their living in other ways, or are working for vanity owners willing to lose money (for a while), or are promoting their freelance careers until they acquire families. Increasingly, Internet journalists make their livings with day jobs, communicating with networks of involved readers who cluster around their sites deliberately. These are not the people who stumble upon the big news having looked into the paper because of an interest in sports, comics, or crossword puzzles.
Arguably, the erosion of trust is journalism's deepest trouble as well as the one longest in the making. Surveys establish that newspapers have been losing public confidence, as have television networks and local broadcasters as well. Overall, CNN is no more trusted than Fox News. The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times. According to one recent study, fewer than one in five Americans say they believe "all or most" media reporting, down from more than 27 percent--a rather low figure itself--five years ago. from the news organization's point of view, there is a crisis of credibility. If the public doubts that objective journalism is possible, on what basis can journalists claim professional status? On what does their standing rest? In what sense do they matter in the life of the society? Should they fasten themselves to the mast of objectivity or free themselves altogether from its strictures-- and in the latter case, how should they proceed?
Journalism's legitimacy crisis has two overlapping sources: generalized distrust, and ideological disaffection from right to left. The authority of American journalism has, for a century or so, rested on its claim to objectivity and a popular belief that that claim is justified. These claims are weak. It's been said that: "There is today a widespread and growing doubt [of] the news about contentious affairs... rang[ing] from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption, from the blief that the news is colored to the belief that news is poisoned." This was written in 1920 by one of America's most influential practitioners and theorists of journalism, Walter Lippmann, writing with Charles Merz, in a deeply persuasive critique of the New York Times's coverage of the Russian Revolution.
The truth is that for most of American history, and not only American history, journalism has always pushed uphill to get people to pay attention. Perhaps the great genius of the newspaper was not simply the invention of reporting, but the paper's ability to serve as the great aggregator. Fragmentation has derailed that model. As newspapers and television news forfeit their authority now, people who do want more than a smattering of news increasingly congregate around talk radio, cable TV, and online sites that match their ideological preconceptions.
Deference and Secrecy
The abiding and characteristic sin of journalism is deference to authorities.
Once it was absolute. In 18th-century France, information about the operations of the government was not supposed to circulate at all: "le secret du roi." By contrast, the Enlightenment was thought to guarantee an age of freedom.
But we have seen in the last decade three devastating failures to report the world--devastating not simply in their abject professional failures, but in that they made for frictionless glides into catastrophe. The first was in the shallow, confused reporting of the haphazard Florida recount of 2000, an element in the slow-motion coup d'etat that took place that year.
The second was in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the major media tossed away skepticism in favor of cheerleading on the question of Bush's commitment to the existence of an alliance between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, and on the question of Iraq's WMDs. Official mea culpas in the New York Times and Washington Post only acknowledged after the fact how reporting was sexed up, because journalists did not hesitate to defer to government officials who were held to have rightly cornered the national security market.
And recently, we had the run-up to the financial crisis, where the overwhelming majority of articles in the financial pressed looked upon the housing-credit bubble as a miraculous achievement of nature. In this case, the authorities deferred to were the bankers, deregulators, and financial analysts whose state in the bubble was sizable and whose mastery of arcana, and/or ability to obscure the proliferation of nonsensical gambles in the name of unrestrained market rationality, was held to be definitive.
Given these grave failures of journalism, even when it was operating at greater strength not so long ago, one might say that rampant distrust is reasonable and even a good thing. Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion 85 years ago that journalism was an instrument of public purpose, an effort "to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act." The press' failure to connect the dots, to piece together the facts and meaning of developments in their profusion, broke the crucial link in the chain, the one that Lippmann summarized in the operative words: "on which men can act."
So even a forthright and borad-gauged address to the crises of circulation, revenue, attention, and authority will not restart any Golden Age. It would be foolish to expect it. it is not as though journalism is the only rotten pillar of global society. Journalism cannot be relied on when breakdowns in public trust and intelligence are severe, as long as the political system benefits from institutional myopia, and great fortunes thrive on public ignorance.
The Data Vaults
Public ignorance is a function not only of what people wish to know but what they could know. That is, its in a sense a function of the ratio between what interested publics know and what the powerful know. In modern times, in other words, it depends inversely on the immense data-gathering powers of the state and the chief institutions of wealth. To extend their writ, they must rely upon vaults of data.
Which brings me to WikiLeaks, which is, as I believe, Jay Rosen has said, the first stateless news organization.
The media theorist Lev Manovich has said that the definitive informational metaphor of our epoch is the database. Governments and corporations are in the business of collecting heaps of data. Surveillance piles it up. Governments crunch it and make it actionable. Corporations monetize it. It has value--economic value, intelligence value. In an effort to make it flow through the immense network of government with less congestion, the U.S. government made it possible, allegedly, for one young soldier to download not only an immense trove of war data, including data about war crimes, but 251,000+ diplomatic cables. Something like 500,000 or 600,000 military personnel are said to have access to the same data leaked to, and by, WikiLeaks. One estimate is that 2.5 million people overall had access, as databases were made vastly more accessible after September 11, 2001, for security purposes. To secure deference in such a setting is not easy.
As Micha Sifry wrote in The Nation, last wee, "The Age of Transparency is here not because of one transnational online network dedicated to open information and whistle-blowing named WikiLeaks, but because the knowledge of how to build and maintain such networks is widespread." He quotes Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, and instrumental in the publication forty years ago of the Pentagon Papers, putting it pithily: "The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets." And there are.
Hillary Clinton said last year: "the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet." Little did she know. The generation that has made the mash-up it's prime aesthetic form has produced the data dump. WikiLeaks and it's emulators--some like OpenLeaks, are hear, and more will be coming--practices a certain (shall we say generational?) style of expose.
Now, one can easily exaggerate the significance of the new networks. In Tunisia, WikiLeaks a few months ago spread news about the vast corruption practiced by President-for-Almost-Life Ben Ali and his family. Does this make the uprising a WikiLeaks revolution? Well, not so fast. WikiLeaks certainly sped up and added scope to the revelations. But an academic expert on Tunisia told me last week, "Everybody knew about the corruption--Ben Ali family raising government ownership of factories from 25 to 50%. Working-class people knew about the ordinary bribery required to get business licenses and the like. It didn't require WikiLeaks." But WikiLeaks certainly helped. This was a great achievement. As were it's casual release of informants' names was indefensibly reckless, rightly denounced by human rights organizations even before the leak of the diplomatic cables.
Credit Julian Assange and his collaborators with a theory. Its his generation's anarchism--the kind that wears a black mask, values disruption as action, and thinks it imperative to obstruct the workings of international meetings. Assange wrote in 2006: "The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in it's leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient international communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption." [sic] To value "system-wide cognitive decline" is to insist that the state is illegitimate. It should not be pressed to do better what it already does poorly. It should not be smarter. Assange, five years, thought it should not be.
But indeed, where there is a state, there is diplomacy. Where there is diplomacy, some of it must take place out of the spotlight. The diplomats may well be better judges of which part that should be than the bureaucratic squads who stamp classifications on government documents. Surely, there are times when the diplomats are better judges of what should be leaked than the Internet.
So the WikiLeaks publication of diplomatic cables is an impediment to the sound, constructive work of states as much as to their wicked schemes. This has been WikiLeaks' grave imperfection.
By contrast, Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 was a great democratic act that helped clarify for the American public how it's leaders had misled it for years. By contrast, WikiLeaks' huge data dump, including the names of agents and recent diplomatic cables, was indiscriminate. Initially, this troubled me a lot. But some learning went on. As best as i can make out, it seems that Assange realized he needed the vastly wider reach of the establishment press, and negotiated over whether or how to publish, redacted or not, a sample of leaked diplomatic cables with the editors of The Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, and Der Spiegel, the leaks became more targeted, more like Ellsberg's. (Ellsberg had, after all, refused to leak four volumes of Pentagon Papers concerning diplomacy, for fear they might damage negotiations.)
For Ellsberg had the right theory. He thought the people had the right to know how a wrong-headed, barbarous war had developed in the shadows, in defiance of public scrutiny. He did not think that the nation-state should be brought to a screaming halt, or that U.S.-out-of-everywhere was a self-evidently virtuous foreign policy program. He knew some truth--not some data--and brilliantly took responsibility for bringing it to light. He was a light unto journalism, which remains in his debt whether journalists know it or not. He made Americans not just better informed, not better titillated, but smarter.
Nonetheless, you try to ventilate the world you have, not the world you wish you had. Jay Rosen, explaining why WikiLeaks came to exist, recently summed it up this way: "The watchdog press died, and what we have is WikiLeaks instead." Its a bit of an exaggeration, but a useful one.
Now, the repute of journalism as a force for Enlightenment rested heavily on the assembling of what was, in a sense, an accidental public. Even in times of high circulation, the readership of newspapers came through two fairly distinct channels. There was an amalgamation of citizens charged, or charging themselves, with the task of knowing their world better in order to govern themselves. These readers were frequently partisan. In the 19th century, they had their own newspapers. Even in the 20th century, with the promotion of the ideal objectivity, they were interested parties. This amalgam was supplemented by a wide array of readers who were drawn to the newspapers to consult features, recipes, comics, sports reports, and movie schedules, and who, having been drawn there, grazed past news of the wider world and became passingly familiar with the actions of governments and other prime movers. The fact that large numbers, even majorities of the population, were drawn to the news became a resource for reformers of all stripes. Public opinion--which was a phantom, as Walter Lippmann argued-- public opinion was there to be mobilized because the public assembled itself around the breakfast tables and on railroad cars, reading the papers. What has to be faced now, WikiLeaks to the contrary notwithstanding, is that with the decline of the newspaper comes the decline of the unitary public as a force capable of being mobilized.
As the sociologist Paul Starr argues, the coverage that suffers the most as newspaper costs are cut in the local- and state-level coverage for which there is the least independent demand. In the chronically corrupt state of New Jersey, for example, there were 50 reporters assigned to cover the state capitol twenty years ago; now, 15 remain. The major national newspapers will survive in some fashion, I don't doubt (much). But the middle levels are crumbling.
Proposals to shore up newspapers, to rescue them from the consequences of their horrendous business decisions, tend to point to two possible sources. Both, in turn, rest on public policy. One way to go is financial support for nonprofit foundations, charities, the likes of which own newspapers in a few cities, and are, selectively, supporting reporting through nonprofit websites. Of course, the very existence of nonprofit foundations rests on tax policies that will determine what kind of journalism survives.
Congress should make it easier for news organizations to refound themselves on nonprofit bases and moreover to subsidize reporting now being shut down. May proposals are circulating: tax subsidies for newspaper subscriptions; new advantages to nonprofit newspaper owners. If there were a national endowment that poured money into serious reporting via local boards dominated by professional (platform-neutral) journalists, it could do a great deal to wall off the journalists from the smothering embrace of the state.
Or the unregulated, laissez-nous-faire market. even in the U.S., we're rapidly running out of alternatives to public finance. The experience of the BBC and other public service broadcasters demonstrates that financing can be heavily insulated from control. The U.S., lacking a license fee, has more trouble. Still, even in the U.S., its time to entertain a grown-up debate among concrete ideas.
There's a great deal of evidence that Europe's public broadcasting systems, heavily subsidized and just as strongly insulated from state control, are deeply, knowledgeably critical of their governments. This can be arranged.
Surely journalism is too important to be left to those business interests. Leaving it to the myopic, inept, greedy, unlucky, and floundering managers of the nation's wizards at the American International Group (AIG), Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, to create a workable, just global credit system on the strength of their good will, their hard-earned knowledge, and their fidelity to the public good.
The mediascape that we inhabit--and that inhabits us--flatters us, networked denizens of sequined semi-democracy, that we have attained, or are one nanosecond away from attaining, a megamedia almost-utopia of glamour and self-aggrandizement, an unlimited smorgasbord of absolute communication that enables every one of us to glance everywhere and nowhere, multitasking like mad, attention-deprived as we are attention-slacked, no longer thinking we are in need of a common public life, no longer capable of imagining a more intelligent, more intensely rewarding way of existing, liberated for mental hook-ups galore and en eternity of frictionless, brainless transcendence. Who should care if, in the process, we are so occupied with cultivating the Daily Me that citizenship unravels? Aren't we networked, friended, branded, be-sloganed, stupendously apped-up to a fare-the-well?
While the celebrants of wealth dance their way down their yellow brick roads to their too-big-to-fail banks, we shall see whether we are veritably as liberated from the need for mere journalism as many of us sometimes imagine.