The Mute World (Politics & Society)

The Declaration of Media Independence

Veteran journalist and regular Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges recently wrote an article lamenting the decline of print journalism and media as we know it.

In the article, which Alternet fittingly re-titles “Lies Become Truths: The Demise of the Newspaper Leaves Americans Dumber, Blinder and Prone to Ideological Manipulation” in its cross-post, Hedges reflects nostalgically on his first visit to a newsroom as a teenager and the epiphany that he experiences that tells him he has found what he wants to do with his life; he pays homage to his reporting idols and their legendary feats, and he asserts that the decline of the newspaper business will ultimately leave the public “deaf, dumb, and blind.”

The arguments that Hedges makes are not new to anyone who is involved in or has an interest in journalism and/or media, particularly print media. Much has been written and stated about the decline in newspaper sales and magazine subscriptions, unemployed journalists, and journalists who are scrambling to keep up with the changing forms of media in order  to keep themselves current and marketable. From a business standpoint, these developments are without a doubt both frightening and disappointing. It is the intellectual and societal consequences that Hedges’ offers that are more open to debate.

While few people would argue the importance of newspapers in recording history, spreading information, and keeping the public informed, in general, Hedges’ tone of imminent doom and destruction demonstrates a somewhat overly idealistic and limited view of the nature and role of media in society at large.

The decline of print media is definitely sad, and even worrisome in certain respects, but not because the public is suddenly going to be left to fend for itself, ignorant and gullible.

Hedges places a great deal of weight on print media providing “trustworthy” and “impartial” information. Even as someone who hopes to enter the profession myself, every lesson that I’ve ever learned about media has emphasized the importance of being skeptical and critical of the media, not worshipping it as if it were some all-knowing entity that fights tirelessly for the downtrodden, even though like Hedges, I wholeheartedly believe that it should.

He claims that the print newspaper decline is contributing to our “impoverished civil discourse” and “leaving us less and less connected to the city, the nation and the world,” but how connected are newspapers to the general public in the first place? More importantly, to whom are they connected? By whom, and where?

Granted, I can only speak from my limited New York City experience (and a little bit of D. C. experience). I don’t know exactly where The New York Times offices are located, but I’m pretty sure that they are  situated in a very specific neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily legitimize its “connection” to “the city.” One would be hard-pressed to even find a New York Times on the stoop of any home (or even at a corner store) in several sections of New York City.

We live in a capitalist society. Sales trends don’t just change for no apparent reason. Who and/or how many people, were actually reading these papers in the first place? Perhaps, a growing portion of the population can no longer afford print subscriptions, or they don’t feel as “connected” to the publications as was previously thought, and thus they no longer feel the need to support it financially. News, like education and many other public services, is not equally accessible to everyone, and now  profits are showing this. If the public would rather be entertained than informed, as many people seem to believe, then the media must do a better job of demonstrating the importance and relevance of the information that it really needs to present.

Local, national, and international correspondents do not bridge the physical and emotional distance that newspapers, no matter how detailed, often fail to cover. The public did not simply get dumber; it became disillusioned. Hedges alludes to this disconnect when he says, “The Washington Post does not cover Washington. It covers official Washington.” Yet, he defends what he views as the “official” and minimizes the ascent of what he sees as the “unofficial.”

He worries about the public increasingly consuming its news from “the ideological ghettos of the Internet,” but the Internet has the potential to assist the media by helping to truly connect it to the public (more or different aspects of it anyway) and to perform its role as the defender of truth and justice that Hedges hopes for. The blogs, websites, and Tumblr accounts with no corporate sponsors or advertising campaigns, average citizens writing what they see, how they see it, because they want to and they can–this is the truly independent media.

What is an “ideological ghetto?”  No, not every source is a reputable one and some websites do more harm to your hard-drive than good for your mind, but it is an open forum where people who might not have otherwise gotten the opportunity now have a more equal chance to learn and to be heard. The same people who could never find a copy of The New York Times in their neighborhoods can now visit The New York Times website. The same is true for several other publications that many people might never have come into direct contact with, but that they can now search and follow on a regular basis.

A professional writer recently expressed his disdain to me that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can now sit behind a computer and call himself or herself a writer, but I don’t see the problem. As long as you had the ability to put words on a canvas, any canvas, be it a napkin, a notebook, or a laptop, you were always a writer to me. I don’t aim to exercise a monopoly over the profession. If I’m true to what I do, I do not feel threatened by you doing what you do.

“And once this bedrock of civil discourse is eradicated,” Hedges continues, “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.” You mean, people will be left to think their own thoughts and believe what they want to believe? Wait, you mean people haven’t always done that, newspaper or no newspaper? Print or digital?  Oh. My. Goodness. It’s intellectual anarchy. I’m sure the scribes felt the same way when the printing press was invented.

All sarcasm aside, I’m sure print media isn’t going to just evaporate into thin air, and I wouldn’t want it to. I personally prefer turning pages in my hands. Again, no one can deny the crucial role of reporters and the traditional techniques that journalists use to tell the important stories that form the backbone of our society. Everyone knows that the victor has always had the privilege of presenting history. This generation has finally figured out a way to help level the playing field by telling more of the stories, our way–ourselves.

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