Wednesday, July 07, 2010

My commentary > news in the digital age

Much has been made about news in the digital age; it's proliferation onto internet blogs, u-tube videos, Skype interviews and the like.

One could make a strong argument that news content, i.e. definition & accuracy, has gone through a radical re-evaluation & we -- as a society -- are worse off because of it.  OTOH, the reverse may also be true, that the death of traditional TV journalism & newspapers, as we know it, may ultimately be a good thing. I worked in the news business during it's zenith (in the 60's, 70's & 80's) and am particularly sensitive to this charge.

I remember when an event occurred & if a news organization was lucky enough to be nearby & could cover the event with a film crew & a correspondent, the film first had to be processed, shipped, edited, narrated & finally aired within a 22 minute block of time alloted to an evening news program (I think it is the same 22 minutes today). Competition for that time, i.e. which story will 'make air', was very tough, based on what was adjudged to be the important news of that day. The criteria for what is important has changed drastically over time & therein lies part of the problem.

Another part of the problem was time, itself.  Or put it another way -- the immediacy of news. The historic  process of collecting television news was very time consuming. Under, even the very best of circumstances, it might have been days before a news item came before the public in it's final form. And that final form was dictated by the many hands it went through before it got to air: the source (there were only 2 real TV news organizations), where the camera was pointed & what kind of lens was used (50 mm best approximates eyesight), the correspondent's knowledge, that person's personality & state of mind, the producer's construct of the final story, the editor's editing & finally the executive producer or managing editor's imprimatur.  Sometimes it went beyond that to lawyers & executives. The same might be said for print reporters who obviously have different hurtles but still have to jump through hoops to get published in what continues to become a more and more difficult venue to support financially, i.e. traditional newspapers & news magazines.

Sure, over time, the processes I've described have gotten faster with the advent of satellites, video tape, computers and the like but the process is basically the same.

When I look into the future, the trend I see is more & more of these traditional venues being choked to death while -- at the same time -- I see citizen reporters flourishing. I think this is good.

For example I can point to citizen reporters who showed & tweeted us about what was going on inside the Iran democracy riots. Ditto for China. This kind of coverage is happening more & more. You see invitations for iReport(ers), requests to send in 'amateur' photographs & home videos of tornadoes & hurricanes and other events. And how many news events changed public opinion based on citizen 'journalists'? All you have to do is remember Matt Drudge's early scoops & the Rodney King video tape shot by a bystander for an answer. And do you remember the Pentagon Papers?

That genie will never be put back in the bottle & I think that's a good thing for modern 'journalism'. It creates competitive views. The problem is we simply have to learn how to digest it; we have to learn how to chew our news food 30 times before swallowing instead of gulping it down & fooling our mental stomachs that we're done eating. We can no longer afford to be spoon fed. We have to start eating healthier now & that will take some effort.  

Historically, in the widest possible view of 'journalism' as a social imperative, after radio, there were once  2 TV networks (CBS & NBC). Then 3 (ABC). Then 4 (CNN). Then cable, computers, the internet (blogs, u-tube, video streams & podcasts) & now cell phones, facebook, twitter, etc. 

Where did Barack Obama & Hilary Clinton make important announcements during their respective campaigns? Where does Sarah Palin currently make her political commentary? 

Maybe we need to find a better word than journalism & journalists to define what is happening today. For example, no longer does a news 'anchor' merit the same meaning as it once did. Anchors have morphed into news 'readers' mainly. Maybe journalists should become information merchants or maybe the word informer should take on a more positive meaning.  Do producers actually produce news?

Anyway, I feel the 5th column has a better chance of surviving than ever before since it is now so fractured. No longer can it be silenced. No longer can it be turned off as happens in many countries or co-opted by profits the way CBS News was by Tish, ABC News was by Disney & to a lesser degree, NBC News was by GE & who knows what will happen under Comcast management.

While a Rolling Stone article on General McChrystal certainly had an immediate effect on his future, the future of General Petraeus & others, it (1) did not change public opinion on the war in Afghanistan nor the conduct or direction of the war, itself.  Nor did it (2) advance the cause of journalists covering military affairs as we know from the new public affairs directives issued by Secretary Gates shortly after the publication of that Rolling Stone article. 

So while I agree that there are many bloggers out there who offer up opinions as news -- and even though those opinions may be based on faulty data or reasoning -- I can counter by saying there are many radio, TV network & cable TV shows dispensing inaccurate 'news' matter as well, but the fact that we now have so many other outlets means (to me), that there is bound to be a greater chance that the truth will finally emerge somewhere, somehow, like squeezing the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube.

I am constantly amazed how the network evening news, the morning shows, etc. not only cover the same damned stories in the same way, they also program them at the same time & take simultaneous commercial breaks. If that doesn't say something about the state of TV news.... and the kind of information we get from it daily, I don't know what does.