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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Unmasking the real journalism in the internet age
In newsrooms across the country, nearly 1,000 people were laid off from their jobs as journalists, editors, and writers last week. The layoffs, part of a more significant industry trend, have given rise to a new theory of media: that the industry is returning to its 19th-century roots, where every outlet is owned by a wealthy benefactor and is overtly partisan.
This theory is partially true. The advent of the internet — and, soon after, social media — overturned the profit model of most media companies. The captive audience that local newspapers once enjoyed is harder to come by these days, and less circulation means less advertising revenue. And indeed, many publications that remain in print nowadays are owned by wealthy benefactors.
But the theory is also wrong in two ways.
First, the mass disruption in the media space doesn’t mean the death of news on a local or national level is coming. Just because an industry is struggling doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on the products they produce, or that people will go without.
Second, the news media really never stopped being a partisan-driven profession. The 20th century’s mass media formation provided the veneer of objectivity to journalists, but the bias from the partisan eras was still baked into the overall profession.
The tools and corporate structures of news organizations may have changed, but their biases did not.
This problem went well beyond the partisan newspaper days of centuries past. As the Hoover Institution reports: “[T]he notion that reporters should possess Olympian objectivity is relatively recent. In the nineteenth century, most newspapers were explicitly linked to a particular political party and the economic interests of the publisher.”
What changed in the 20th century was that journalists, newspapers, and news organizations on radio and television shifted from being overt extensions of a party to being standalone organizations — but while still reflecting the biases of their preferred parties.
One of the best examples of this during the 20th century was New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the then-newly formed Soviet Union. Duranty was a true believer in Soviet-style communism and saw it was the future of the world. To that end, he was one of the few Western reporters allowed into the USSR to report.
He returned their kindness by covering up and whitewashing Soviet atrocities — specifically Holodomor, the man-made famine used to kill Ukrainian dissenters.
Today’s journalists tell themselves that while Duranty was terrible, his era was the end of partisan newspapers and reporting. But that narrative pretends that the industry wasn’t biased between the events of Duranty and CBS News anchor Dan Rather happily reporting falsified documents on George W. Bush.
The bias and partisanship were still there. There was no golden age of news media objectivity.
What we’re watching now is a collapse of the corporate structure and profession of journalism. The layoffs are symptomatic of a much larger collapse in journalism as a whole. As Jeremy Littau at Slate aptly observed, the news media is in a bunker mentality:
Newspapers that once lacked competitors were competing with everyone, and they were unprepared after decades of scant investment. The tragic mistake these companies made was not that they gave away content for free, as one argument goes, but rather that they took too long to realize the internet had destroyed their local monopoly on meeting citizen’s information needs. They should have safeguarded their connection to this community of readers who were their advertising golden goose. Instead, they hunkered down and treated the internet as just another place to publish, and they paid dearly for it.
This loss of power, coupled with an ever-shrinking profession, is one of the major driving forces behind Americans’ resentment of the media. During the 2016 election season, national outlets enjoyed reporting from what they called “Trump country,” where they argued that all the people in the coal industry and manufacturing needed to get reskilled instead of getting angry.
But the irony is that these journalists are in the same boat now. The market has found far better ways of getting information to people in a more efficient way, and journalism hasn’t caught up.
Instead of looking in a newspaper or going to local news for information, you can just as easily find it online. Your friends post their own stories about what’s going on in your neighborhood, you get sports scores and weather through apps, and communities connect — for better or worse — through Facebook and similar platforms.
The death of local and regional newspapers doesn’t mean the end of news for those communities — it just means those communities are getting their news differently. And most of it is crowdsourced over the internet.
We’re left with the only thing journalists have left to offer: partisan coverage of newsworthy events. And they don’t even have a monopoly on that sector anymore.
The newspapers and opinion sites that do exist are owned mainly as pet projects, like Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post, or the new billionaire buyer and the Los Angeles Times. The news isn’t profitable, and so they need wealthy people to buy them as a fun side hobby, like a car or a yacht.
Journalism isn’t returning to the 19th century. It’s just returning to what it actually is and no longer lying about it.
Publications like these are partisan outlets that are nothing more than the arms of political parties. And now, we’re seeing an unmasking of sorts: the internet is focing journalism to admit their biases — or go out of business.
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