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Book Review: "The Death and Life of American Journalism'

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Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in "The Death and Life of American Journalism" argue correctly that the old models for delivering the news are dead. They see the government as the savior of last resort. The authors cite the massive postal and printing subsidies that lasted into the 19th century as a precedent for government intervention. And they propose building a new generation of journalists and publications from new government subsidies and from programs such as their suggested News AmeriCorps, which would train the next generation of journalists.

The authors offer a series of innovations including "citizen news vouchers" and low-cost, low-profit newsrooms. They write: "The government will pay half the salary of every reporter and editor up to $45,000 each. Assuming most daily and weekly newspapers go post-corporate and employment returns to the high-water mark of two decades ago--the latter is a very big assumption, we know--this would cost the state $3.5 billion annually. If employment stayed at current levels it would run half that total. Newspapers that benefit from these subsidies would also be prime candidates for News AmeriCorps rookie journalists."

As utopian fantasies go, this is pretty good. But it ignores the critical shift within American society from a print-based culture to an image-based culture. It assumes, incorrectly, that people still value and want traditional news. They do not. We have become unmoored from a world of print, from complexity and nuance, and with it information systems built on the primacy of verifiable fact. Newspapers, which engage rather than entertain, can no longer compete with the emotional battles that hyperventilating hosts on trash talk shows mount daily. The public, which has walked away from newspapers, has embraced the emotional carnival that has turned news into another form of mindless entertainment. And the authors, with whom I have a great deal of sympathy, mistakenly believe that the general public values what they value. Their cri de coeur for a return to reason, logic and truth is the last cry raised by the forlorn representatives of a dying civilization. Cicero did the same in ancient Rome. And when his severed head and hands were mounted on the podium in the Colosseum and his executioner, Mark Anthony, announced that Cicero would speak and write no more, the crowd roared its approval. The plan proposed by the authors would work only if the public, and our corporate state, recognized and cared about journalism as a vital public good. But without public outcry and visionary political leaders, neither of which we have in abundance, there is little hope that the government or anyone will save us.

We are shedding, with the decline and death of many newspapers, thousands of reporters and editors, based in the culture of researched and verifiable fact, who monitored city councils, police departments, mayor's offices, courts and state legislators to prevent egregious abuse and corruption. And we are also, even more ominously, losing the meticulous skills of reporting, editing, fact-checking and investigating that make daily information trustworthy. The decline of print has severed a connection with a reality-based culture, one in which we attempt to make fact the foundation for opinion and debate, and replaced it with a culture in which facts, opinions, lies and fantasy are interchangeable. As news has been overtaken by gossip, the hollowness of celebrity culture and carefully staged pseudo-events, along with the hysteria and drama that dominate much of the airwaves, our civil and political discourse has been contaminated by propaganda and entertainment masquerading as news. And the ratings of high-octane propaganda outlets such as Fox News, as well as the collapse of the newspaper industry, prove it.

Corporations, which have hijacked the state, are delighted with the demise of journalism. And the mass communications systems they control pump out endless streams of gossip, trivia and filth in lieu of news. But news, which costs money and takes talent to produce, is dying not only because citizens are migrating to the Internet and corporations are no longer using newsprint to advertise, but because in an age of profound culture decline the masses prefer to be entertained rather than informed. We no longer value the culture or journalism, as we no longer value classical theater or great books, and this devaluation means the general public is not inclined to pay for it. Journalists, like artists, are expected to provide their work free--this is the idea behind websites like The Huffington Post--and the only people who receive adequate compensation in our society are those skilled in the art of manipulation. Money flows to advertising rather than to art or journalism because manipulation is more highly valued than truth or beauty. Journalism, like culture, in America has become advertising.

Certainly, as the authors point out, the faux objectivity and neutrality of the traditional news industry hastened the cultural irrelevance of traditional news gathering. The narrowing of debates within the press to the minor differences among the power elite had a debilitating effect on news. The structure of "objectivity" works far better when there are powerful social movements, such as the civil rights movement, that provide an actual alternative and demand a voice. But without these movements the press functions as courtiers in the corridors of power. It dutifully reports the Democratic and Republic positions, a condition that imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. The two parties are in fundamental agreement about the underlying economic, political and military structures which are largely responsible for our decline. The power elites do not question the permanent war economy, unfettered capitalism and the rise of the security state, and voices that do are, in effect, censored out of the commercial press because they have no power base. This has left most traditional reporters without a moral core and trapped in a ridiculous court pantomime that has damaged their content as much as the loss of advertising and the rise of the Internet. The lie told by newspapers and traditional news is the lie of omission, which is not as bad as the outright lies told on Fox News, but in the end it is still a lie. Our power elite are bankrupt, and the press, tethered to the elite, is as bankrupt as those it covers.

"The real problem with professional journalism becomes evident when political elites do not debate an issue and march in virtual lockstep," the authors write. "In such a case professional journalism is, at best, ineffectual, and, at worst, propagandistic. This has often been the case in U.S. foreign policy, where both parties are beholden to an enormous global military complex, and accept the right of the United States, and the United States alone, to invade countries when it suits U.S. interests. In matters of war and foreign policy, journalists who question the basic assumptions and policy objectives and who attempt to raise issues no one in either party wishes to debate are considered "ideological' and "unprofessional.' This has a powerful disciplinary effect upon journalists."

American society, once we lose a system of information based on verifiable fact, will become disconnected from reality. All totalitarian societies impart their propaganda through manipulated images and spectacles. And the death of traditional news is one more stage in the terminal illness that is ravaging American democracy. The rise of a totalitarian capitalism will follow, and we already have many of the new system's information networks in place. Corporations, as the authors point out, "will be better positioned than ever to produce self-promotional "information'--better described as "propaganda'--that can masquerade as "news.' The technology actually makes it easier. A major development in the past decade has been video news releases, PR-produced news stories that are often run as if they were legitimate journalism on local TV news broadcasts. The stories invariably promote the products of the corporation which funds the work surreptitiously."

Journalism will again become what it was more than a century ago--a form of art. It will be as concerned with truth and beauty as it is with justice. It will no longer speak in the deformed language of balance and objectivity but instead be a conduit for unvarnished moral outrage and passion. It will, like classical theater, be relegated to the margins of society but will endure for the literate and the moral. It will sustain all who seek to live with a conscience in an unconscious age. Journalism will survive, but it will reach a limited audience, as the sparsely attended productions of Aristophanes or Racine in small New York theaters are all that is left of great classical theater. The larger society will be deluged with propaganda, spectacle and entertainment as news. Those who carry the flame of journalism forward will live lives as difficult, financially precarious and outside the mainstream as most classical actors and musicians.

The solutions proposed by McChesney and Nichols to save journalism would work if we lived in a culture that placed primacy on truth and beauty. The failure to recognize America's profound cultural shift into collective self-delusion makes the book stillborn. The authors, who know and understand journalism and the news industry, have a lot to say about the history of journalism and its decline that is worth reading, but their fatal flaw is to propose solutions that are no longer culturally relevant. They grasp the terrible consequences of a culture disconnected from a world of verifiable fact. They admirably look for solutions to save us from a world where opinions and facts are interchangeable, where lies become true. I applaud their effort, but I fear it is too late.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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