This column is dedicated to the intersection of technology and traditional news media. With less than a week to go before America elects a new president, that intersection is looking more and more like the scene of a multi-vehicle pileup.
The victims: democracy, the average voter, my patience.
For me, the most telling collision of the past few weeks — the one that serves as the best example of the old vs. new media/bias vs. objectivity paradigm that’s now all the rage — was the Oct. 23 WFTV-Orlando satellite interview with Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. Anchor Barbara West’s questions hit hard — like body blows — on ACORN’s voter registration efforts, Joe the Plumber, “spreading the wealth,” Marxism, Biden’s recent comment about a Barack Obama administration being “tested” during its first six months in office.
“Are you joking? Is this a real question?” Biden said at one point. “I don’t know who’s writing your questions…”
Feeding the Beast
Normally, if you didn’t live in the country’s 19th-largest television market, you would have missed the ensuing fireworks that rivaled the nighttime spectaculars at nearby Disney World. But thanks to YouTube and the Drudge Report, West’s interview became a family-size helping of raw red meat for the major political blogs and a talking point on all the prime-time opinion shows on cable news channels. A hatchet job to make Lizzie Borden proud, cried those on the left. A counterpoint to the kid-gloves media treatment of Obama and snarky punditry against Gov. Sarah Palin, screamed those on the right.
And so West’s interview joins the cacophony of this election cycle. In her case, it became digital noise by rattling around the Internet echo chamber along with other snippets from traditional media, ranging from interviews on news shows to skits on “Saturday Night Live.” In other examples, that noise has its genesis on the Internet; user-generated controversies that can make a candidate go from offense to defense in a millisecond (clinging to guns and religion, anti-American jeremiads from Jeremiah Wright), examples of the citizen journalism that is causing such consternation in newsrooms across the country.
But if the Internet is giving voters more choices for information in 2008 — if, as CNN’s John King admitted during an interview with South Carolina educational television, technology is allowing viewers to bypass his and other mainstream media outlets — then tell me again how what I’ve been seeing on the Web serves any useful purpose for democracy, not to mention a truly educated citizenry?
Political News or Digital Entertainment?
Professor Ian Bogost at Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Communication and Culture was discussing this very topic in his classes at Georgia Tech this week. “This whole thing about citizen journalism … it’s supposed to solve all these problems for us, but it introduces new ones for us as well,” he told me. “There’s a lot of information out there online or in other forms, but that doesn’t mean it’s been synthesized into a consumable product. It’s just a lot of stuff.”
And who’s job is it to cull wheat from that digital chaff? Experienced print and broadcast journalists, of course, but they’re fast becoming layoff roadkill as the economy speeds downhill — a short-sighted corporate reaction that in my view will ultimately harm this country.
“It would be great if what citizen journalism really meant was the ethics and values of traditional journalism — accuracy and transparency and how to synthesize information,” Bogost says, “but instead people are just publishing more information. That’s not exactly journalism.”
Bogost knows there are voices that trumpet the demise of mainstream, dead-tree/over-the-air journalism as a victory for news by the people, for the people. “Lead bloggers and well-known, former journalism bloggers are celebrating the end of this stodgy, old-guard media regime,” he says. “Things about it are extremely broken, but there are also things about it that have a history of not being broken. Those have to be recultured and kind of taught in new communities of practice.” Maybe those sent packing from traditional newsrooms can provide that guidance, he said.
Until then, the bias that exists in shouting-head cable shows — the ones that don’t label themselves as “news” and the ones that do — also lives on the Internet, where like-minded voters can seek out reinforcement of their beliefs and prejudices on blogs and news aggregators. Broadcast and cable networks have been playing on that digital turf for a while, with recent excursions into social networks, but they’re not serving as field guides. Instead they are ringmasters, and a Facebook page, YouTube video or a Twitter account is more heat-seeking gimmick than a venue for illuminating insight.
“The Internet has become its own mass media and has been sucked into the whirlwind of spectacle and gossip,” Bogost says. “It doesn’t have to be that way on TV either, But when one of the more hard-hitting interviews of McCain takes place on ‘The View,’ that should disturb us, and instead it becomes entertainment. We see it on YouTube and watch it there.”
Voters On Their Own in ’08
History is indeed on the ballot Nov. 4. The broadcast and cable networks, having already spent an historic amount of money to cover Campaign ’08, end it all next Tuesday with blowout overage that will extend onto their Internet properties. Local TV and radio stations will add their voices to the mix, along with their digital colleagues. The political blogs and news Web sites will join the fray, live-blogging until fingers fall off.
It will be too late by then to win back a lot of trust on the part of the average voter/viewer/Web site reader. The damage has been done over the air and online by focusing on the horse race, polls, personalities and party talking points; by letting pundits with agendas and activists with animosities have leeway while actual policies and issues have gone uncovered or undercovered. (Sorry, one story on Obama’s education goals or McCain’s health care plan does not equal full coverage.)
The natural place to find the substantive alternative would be the Internet, but you still have to drill down a little too deep to find it. Newspapers have largely been left out of my argument here; you’re still going to find some digging and investigating at the major dailies and their Web sites, but they’ve got their own economic obstacles to overcome. Let’s see how many are still around — and if so, in what form — when 2012 rolls around.
As far as TV and digital journalism are concerned, Election 2008 represents another blown chance to offer a new way of spreading the wealth — of objective knowledge. And the biggest disappointment for me — no broadcast TV Luddite, trust me — has been the performance on the Internet.
“We do have this dissemination channel,” Bogost told me, “that can take this stuff and put it out there. But it’s still signal versus noise.”