observations and opinion
The democracy we depend upon is imperiled by the gutting of professional journalism.
This article is Part 1. Part 2 “Saving the Free Press” discusses solutions to the problem.
The rapid erosion of the print media has stranded free speech on a shrinking and barren island. While many journalists and news organs have taken to sea – bobbing in the internet ocean like small boats – their survival is uncertain. Rootless, unmoored and living only what they can catch, the “new media” are poor and imperilled.
A de-institutionalized, de-professionalized and destitute press, scrambling to acquire news and report it in the current internet environment, is nothing less than fatal to our liberty and democratic society. Free citizens are less free, perhaps not at all free, without a window into what is happening in their world. Never perfect, the press is far less perfect today than a year ago, or ten or twenty years ago.
And if the free press dies, what dies with it? Accountability – government accountability, corporate responsibility, civic institutions – all of them are weakened. There is no obvious replacement for the free press, so we must ask ourselves now, before it is too late, if we are prepared to let it go.
All of this has happened, of course, because “the user” has stopped paying for most of what he takes from journalists. In the not so long ago days of paper, the transaction between reader and writer was simple: a journalist worked for a paper or magazine, the owner sold the paper or magazine to retailers (or delivered it) and the user paid. Just as important, advertisers paid the news organ for space – a chance to be in front of the reader’s eyeballs. With all that revenue, the owner then paid the journalist, who could continue doing the job of investigation and reporting.
That is how we got most of our real journalism. Sounds quaint now, I know.
What happened of course, was the internet. Suddenly there was a cable running between the writer and the reader. It was like each reader had her own printing press. The whole infrastructure of production and delivery was rendered obsolete. Reading a newspaper today feels a little like cranking an Amish butter churn – you get a little butter, but it’s peculiar – mainly it’s about the experience.
Unfortunately, when the production and delivery system became unnecessary, the reverse supply line of money back to journalists was severed. It was an accident really – the internet started out being “free” to users, who regarded it more like electricity than anything else. They plug into it, they may pay a little extra for huge usage, but they don’t drop a nickel in a meter every time they want to turn on a lamp.
And so after a time, we are here. And while we might readily slather blame on the feckless owners of papers and magazines, for putting profit above product, those owners are simply the last and best-paid people on the shrinking island. Their degree of responsibility for this calamity is less relevant today than the consequences of the calamity tomorrow.
The situation today is no less perilous or important than the financial crisis of 2008: major institutions that house and operate vital aspects of life, teeter on the brink. If they collapse any further than they have, the things they do will be severely jeopardized. With such paralysis comes deeper and broader impoverishment – not financial this time – but social.
We are living through the Free Press Crisis.
In this dire moment, we see the owners of the surviving news institutions asking for a bailout. Another familiar echo of 2008. But even if we think the bailouts of 2008 were wise, that doesn’t make them the right model to emulate with the free press in 2017. Straight transfers of money from government’s treasury to owners’ pockets will relieve those last few rich survivors on the island, of the stress that has already made refugees of too many. It also will take good resources and direct them to sustaining a business model which has proven itself unable to survive in the new world.
No, straight transfusions of money to the remaining old media companies are akin to having a team of doctors prop up a 100 year old man, while hungry kids stare through the windows. It is unwise, unjust and will only reward the people who have already profited from what profit is left in the business. And it will starve us of any chance for a better approach.
That does not mean, however, we can turn our faces away and ignore the free press crisis. Well, we can ignore it, but only if we wish professional journalism to die. Which, as already discussed, is a form of social and political suicide.
To shrug and say “well, businesses fail all the time” is to pretend that the free press is like every other business. It is not. Its only similarity to other businesses is that it managed to survive, for a very long time, on advertising and user fees alone as funding sources. But that is not what the free press is or does – the free press is not like landscaping business, or a tailor’s shop or hip diner.
No, the free press is not analogous to other private businesses. Rather, it is a pillar of democracy, like the judiciary: it produces a social good which is intrinsic and essential to human liberty. Journalism is like justice: without it, citizens know less, have fewer rights and become ever more subject to the oppression of the state, the majority and organized money.
Imagine for a moment if we turned the courts over to private operators. Imagine if the people running our large media companies were permitted to do with the courts, what they have done with newspapers. Shudder for a moment and then think. The free press must have all the protections of the justice system: autonomy, standards, traditions, transparency and public support. Forever. Not as a bailout out for the failures of the recent past, but as lifeblood for the successes of the future.
No perfect proposal is present as yet. This writer thinks that journalism should have an independent source of funds – its own tax base, completely separate from legislative involvement or meddling. It also needs a serious public institution, like a judicial council, establishing standards and governing how resources are allocated. We also need to draw funds out of the “transmission system” – the internet itself, so that users and distributors pay for the content they find so profitable.
It is time to be creative. It is time to stop rewarding failure, but also to invest in this most vital organ of democratic life. It is time to be smart, to be bold, to try something and fail and try again.
And to quote an old friend of democracy:
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Or we can do nothing, because we resent taxes, dislike newspaper owners or hew to some fantasy that government has no role in preserving democracy. Yes, we can do nothing. After all, it easier to worship our grudges and prejudices, than it is to think and act.