This has been a great week for me as a professor and chair of the department of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. It was even a greater week for our students. Many speakers came to campus and interacted with the students on “all things journalism.”
Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, gave the Stuart Bullion Memorial Lecture in Journalism. His speech “The Death of News and the Rise of the Entertainment Culture” touched on the major factors facing journalism in general, and newspapers in particular, today. Here are some excerpts:
The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.
The Internet will not save newspapers. Although all most newspapers have Web sites, and have had for a while, newspaper Web sites make up less than 10 percent of newspaper ad revenue. Advertisers have not gravitated to newspaper sites, either unsure of how to use the Internet or suspicious that it can’t match the viewer attention of older media. And the decline of revenues means an assault on the very heart of the news – the ability to gather and produce news. No internet site will ever bring in the kind of revenue that allows a large newspaper, such as The Los Angeles Times, to field a newsroom staff – a staff which even with all its lay offs — still employs 700 people.
Those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs. The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting. Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn’t care what you think. Reporting challenges, countermands or destabilizes established beliefs. Reporting, which is time-consuming and often expensive, begins from the premise that there are things we need to know and understand, even if these things make us uncomfortable. If we lose this ethic we are left with pandering, packaging and partisanship. We are left awash in a sea of competing propaganda. Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors. They cannot get fired. Facts, for many bloggers, are interchangeable with opinions. Take a look at The Drudge Report. This may be the new face of what we call news.
We live in an age of moral nihilism. We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered. And this assault has been a body blow to a free press, which is, like the humanities, designed to promote intellectual and moral questioning. The confusion of bread and circus with news means that social critics, those who do not shout clichés on cable news shows, but who challenge and question the assumptions and structures of the corporate state itself are left without a voice.
We are cleverly entertained during our descent. We have our own version of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses with our ubiquitous and elaborate spectacles, sporting events, celebrity gossip and television reality shows. Societies in decline, as the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, see their emotional and political passions subsumed by the excitement and emotional life of the arena.
Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, who make millions a year give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism. If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike journalists – and they should. Ask Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh, Walter Pincus, Robert Scheer or David Cay Johnston.
You can watch the entire lecture here and I welcome your comments on the future of news, journalism and the rest of the issues raised by Mr. Hedges.
Photo by Robert Jordan