The Death of Democracy

February 16, 2003 12:52 AM

“A democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry.” —Thomas Jefferson, quoted today by Rogers Cadenhead.

The death of democracy is inextricably linked to the transformation of the news media from journalism into entertainment.

News as journalism seeks some approximation of ‘the Truth’, to inform and educate its public. As such, it must:

  • Present a balanced viewpoint, including both sides of any issues covered.
  • Cover (and emphasise) stories based on their overall importance to the target audience.
  • Ask difficult questions of those in power, and demand answers.

Journalism as entertainment, on the other hand, has the sole aim of gathering, and keeping an audience, usually to funnel the audience to advertisers. As such, it must:

  • Present a viewpoint that does not offend the opinions of its target audience.
  • Cover (and emphasise) stories based on their immediate emotional impact on the audience.
  • Ask only those questions sanctioned by those in power, so that they continue to favour your organization with appearances and information.

Of course, things were never as pure as the first list, neither are they now as corrupt as the second. My mother told me a frightening story last week about my uncle, who was a Fleet St editor, and quit the business because between the interests of the paper's conservative owners, and the threats of the socialist printing unions, he had very little leeway to report anything. Even given that, it's pretty clear that the world of the media has been sliding down the slope between the first and the second extremes for quite a while now.

As an aside, this is one reason weblogs aren't journalism. Weblogs present a single side of an issue (the author's), and cover stories based on the interests of the author. Since people gravitate to opinions that match their own, it is unlikely that a weblog will ever challenge your prejudices, or at least it is unlikely that you will read it again after it has. The one thing weblogs have been good at, is in asking questions that the mainstream media is no longer able to.

The downfall of political reporting is well-documented. Politicians always knew they needed the media, which gave the media power. However, one day the politicians realised that the media needed them just as much. By selectively giving exclusives and interviews, politicians can condition the media. It's Pavlovian. Don't ask the difficult questions, you get more interviews. Report favourably, and you get leaked more information. Get more interviews, scoop your competition with the new stories, and you rate better than those who have the questions, but nobody to answer them.

Which means that while it's good that weblogs can dare ask questions that the mainstream media aren't asking, they're unlikely to ever get answers to them, unless there's so much noise that the mainstream media is embarrassed into action.

It's getting to the point where opinion polls on war in Iraq contemptuously ignored by my country's government, because those in power trust the power of their media allies to convince us they're right, and we're wrong. Where we all have questions we want to ask our elected officials, but get no answers because those in the position to ask them for us have their own agenda.

The public are not informed and educated. We are pandered to, and fed information that suit the agendas of those who dispense it. Don't think I'm excusing myself here. I am a socialist. I gravitate towards media that validates my opinions just as much as any die-hard American Republican glues himself to Fox News. I just wish there were a middle route.

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