Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Death of local news...not replaced by internet

By Chris Hedges, from truthdig.com, June 28, 2011
We are losing a peculiar culture and an ethic. This loss is impoverishing our civil discourse and leaving us less and less connected to the city, the nation and the world around us. The death of newsprint represents the end of an era. And news gathering will not be replaced by the Internet. Journalism, at least on the large scale of old newsrooms, is no longer commercially viable. Reporting is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It requires going out and talking to people. It means doing this every day. It means looking constantly for sources, tips, leads, documents, informants, whistle-blowers, new facts and information, untold stories and news. Reporters often spend days finding little or nothing of significance. The work can be tedious and is expensive. And as the budgets of large metropolitan dailies shrink, the very trade of reporting declines. Most city papers at their zenith employed several hundred reporters and editors and had operating budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The steady decline of the news business means we are plunging larger and larger parts of our society into dark holes and opening up greater opportunities for unchecked corruption, disinformation and the abuse of power.

A democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial sources of information, when it can discern lies from truth, when civic discourse is grounded in verifiable fact. And with the decimation of reporting these sources of information are disappearing. The increasing fusion of news and entertainment, the rise of a class of celebrity journalists on television who define reporting by their access to the famous and the powerful, the retreat by many readers into the ideological ghettos of the Internet and the ruthless drive by corporations to destroy the traditional news business are leaving us deaf, dumb and blind. The relentless assault on the “liberal press” by right-wing propaganda outlets such as Fox News or by the Christian right is in fact an assault on a system of information grounded in verifiable fact. And once this bedrock of civil discourse is eradicated, people will be free, as many already are, to believe whatever they want to believe, to pick and choose what facts or opinions suit their world and what do not. In this new world lies will become true.
I, like many who cared more about truth than news, was pushed out of The New York Times, specifically over my vocal and public opposition to the war in Iraq. This is not a new story. Those reporters who persistently challenge the orthodoxy of belief, who question and examine the reigning political passions, always tacitly embraced by the commercial media, are often banished. There is a constant battle in newsrooms between the managers, those who serve the interests of the institution and the needs of the advertisers, and reporters whose loyalty is to readers. I have a great affection for reporters, who hide their idealism behind a thin veneer of cynicism and worldliness. I also harbor a deep distrust and even loathing for the careerists who rise up the food chain to become managers and editors.

I believe it was Senator Patrick Moynahan from New York who reminded his colleagues in the Senate, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts."
It is this split between what really amount to self-interest, among those who lead most institutions, as compared with those who toil as workers in those institutions, that provides an unbridgeable divide. Those who are managers/leaders are dependent on their masters....in the news business that means the advertisers. Those who report, who write the columns are ideally slave to the truth of their facts, and often those facts are not comfortable to those advertisers.
And a similar conflict occurs in most insitutions: in industrial corporations, the shareholders' interests (dividends) are primary, those of workers a much lower secondary. In churches, the interests of donors certainly always trump those of the penitents in the pews. Those differences are significant and often cannot be truly bridged. Numbers of bottoms sitting in pews converts to numbers of dollars on the plates, converts to an increase in both of those numbers, irrespective of the pablum that is flowing from the pulpit.
I recall, in another life, a stint as a radio editorialist in a medium-sized Northern Ontario city, where a peripheral mall was being proposed, while the downtown was languishing in need of an equally high octane infusion of money, imagination and commercial know-how. Of course, those proposing the mall on the city's bypass had deep pockets (this was mid-eighties) and were engaging in a serious political battle with the forces favouring the downtown development. Both proposals had "anchor" department store commitments, and both would attract local as well as ancillary business from approximately a 100 mile radius, since there was no similar shopping opportunity within that circle.
You may already have guessed that I supported the downtown development. I pounded the case for its preferential approval over the peripheral mall, believing then, as I do today, that only one such development would be feasible in such a city for at least the next century. One day, I was asked to 'go for a walk' literally and metaphorically, by the radio station manager, who politely and firmly told me that his advertising revenues were threatened if I were to continue with my current opposition, on his airwaves. Apparently, the peripheral mall developers would pull all their advertising dollars, if I were allowed to continue my editorial stance on their station. And that threat meant hundreds of thousands of dollars, an amount the station manager could not do without.
I was toast, at that station, and the peripheral mall won the approval of the city council, and the downtown still struggles, in a boutique/office/theatre and restaurant mix, without the retail trade that parades through the peripheral mall every day.
Dollars have trumped the best interests of any city, and those dollars are not usually from the 'inside' of the city. Usually, at least in Canada, those dollars come from the outside, and include such megacorporations as Wall-Mart, whose stampede across North America has left millions of local shops a mere memory in most localities, for the simple reason that people save a few pennies, and they will go anywhere for a few pennies saved, regardless of the larger price of the loss of their downtown core. In the large cities, such development may have been able to be accommodated. In the smaller cities, they were a brutal assault to the core/heart of the community.
Today the triumph of cash, especially to politicians, just as it was to those politicians in that Northern Ontario city, is final. That cash and those who bring it to the table trump all other interests. Consequently, those who rant against the sale of the community to interests that really have only one motive, profit, are silenced, just like the hundreds of newsrooms that are literally silent across North America.
And, while I use this new medium, it does not replace the local newsroom, whose pulsing heart, and whose soldiering reporters found the kind of information that really opened the eyes of all the people in the community, because that's what they were paid to do.
Today, we literally know much less about our own communities, because of the loss of the street reporters, the local columnists and the local analysts of the news because the owners of the presses don't even live in the community where those papers are located, but are content with a mere veneer of journalism so long as those advertising dollars fill their far-away bank accounts.
And it is not only their carelessness that is represented by their publications. It is also the loss of the intimate knowledge of those communities, leaving most people with a thimble-full of local news, compared with the wine-cask that is available and that could and would nuture a community's sense of itself.

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