Saturday, March 14, 2009

More of the Same Problem With Our Media

In case you've missed it, something interesting happened Thursday night -- Jon Stewart in a show segment that more or less would probably make Morley Safer proud, took apart "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer.

And, following up it looks like his producers asked for the interview to be squelched by the rest of the NBC network.

I don't see any easy way to regulate our media. We can make all kinds of pontifications and express the deepest beliefs about freedom, but the fact of the matter is that popular crap sells advertising. Fox news, by pandering to ultra-conservatives gains a chunk of viewers that (from what I can tell) end up upon a news island of sorts, believing the rest of the media to be run by "media elite" liberals.

We could make laws to fix this, but I think the end result would be something even worse than what we have today -- because ignorance is much easier to achieve than intelligence. It's much easier to not understand the facts of the matter and to draw some stupid conclusions than it is to dive in and understand the specifics.

It's easier to live in a fantasy world, such as the one that Ayn Rand has created, than the real world we live in today.

Because of these kinds of vectors and human nature, we face a problem of sorts with the media -- media conglomerates that own the news have motivation to go for economies of scale. They are not motivated to, for example, fund local news efforts. It's easy to see that newspapers are dying, local TV stations are much a thing of the past. Cable, the Internet, blogs -- there's a lot of diversity that's supposedly going to come in and balance this problem.

Except that maybe my blog, for example, is read by a bunch of people in Cleveland or Washington -- and at the end of the day, is no substitute for a newspaper. Not quite that long ago, newspapers employed local reporters and op-ed writers. Those people told the local story to an audience that more or less cared. They had an easy way to make local waves when the tide was needed.

This is the focal point of this post -- as these things are dying off, one has to wonder just what's going to maintain the sense of community required for a local society to function. What will be the local check and balance for broadcasting local corruption or just a basic focus on local issues?

The terrifying part for me here is that usually I can see some way to either remove some regulation -- or to add it. I don't think this particular problem is going to solve itself, in other words. I've known people that started their own publications -- it's extremely hard to do. Finding advertisers and talent to write the content is difficult enough -- the reader base has to have motivation to consume the news.

Lacking any kind of state run news (thankfully), it's a stretch to see something commercial coming along. Maybe though, it will be something based upon a device -- like blackberry or iphone essential local news. Still, all of this is hard to imagine given the fact that a lot of people think "Information wants to be free", but the hard reality is that "Information wants to be useless".

Both of the phrases in the prior paragraph are conjecture-style sayings. The first saying indicates that no matter how badly people try to charge for information, the public will find a way to broadcast said information for "free" (note, not counting, obviously, all of the bandwidth charges involved).

The second saying more or less coined by Bruce Sterling I interpret to mean something else. It states that after all information is broadcast through media done for free, it will essentially be unusable. Why? Because you won't know the source, won't know how far away from your viewpoint the broadcaster is, how old it is, whether or not it was filtered or compared to and so on.

In other words, I would love to think that our free society principals and some blogging are going to be a substitute for a local paper -- but it's becoming really obvious (to me at least) that this is nuts.

Let's take the time machine back a ways -- let's go to some small town in the 1800 where some local press-jockey runs his own paper. The audience was controlled, the need for the paper, obvious. The cost to run the paper -- probably some serious blood, sweat and tears, but somehow, at the end of the day, the papers were cut, the copy delivered, the local news told. The local society, I'm sure, had differing views at times to the words that were being printed. At the end of the day, however, what was there served as a way to glue a local community together. Right or wrong, some people made a living doing this.

And here we are, 200 years later -- with things like free software, free desktop publishing software, cheap printers and ubiquitous digital delivery protocols -- and somehow we can't find the collective spit as a society to employ people with similar motivation to deliver local news?

What in the hell is wrong with this picture?

It's a conundrum for me. The vulnerability is obvious -- America could have a Tienanmen's square incident, and it could go unreported in the local news, because there won't be any local news. In case you're thinking "fat chance", read my last post (which is just the opposite, and a related concern).

Certain functions, news reporting and medical billing to name a couple of obvious ones, don't jibe as typical capitalistic transactions. News reporting in my view, is something that should be rewarded on an ethical scale somehow. Similar to this, when someone is dying in the emergency room at a hospital, they're obviously vulnerable at that moment -- it would be horrible to rob them blind at the same time just because you hold their lives in the balance of the "transaction".

Capitalism is great -- I believe in it wholeheartedly for creating work and making our productive society -- but it's high time we realized collectively and as a society that there are things that have to be reexamined -- and the news is one of them. I don't think we should regulate the news, but there must be some way to reward ethical news behavior outside of the framework we're seeing today.

Because it's obviously a sad day when the best news reporting you can find is being done by a couple of comedians on Comedy Central.

1 comment:

ackmac said...

The Crammer-Stewart interview is disturbing. In my opinion, this provided fodder for a stimulating conversation. You are a great listener or was it the birthday wine that left you vulnerable to my dribble at the Maize?