|January 3, 2006|
Mediaocracy 2006: Out with the Old, In With the New
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
A new year always starts with hope and many unfulfilled resolutions. And then, it is often downhill from there. My mother was born on a January 2, so I know that the first month of the year can be a time of promise. As a media critic who spends much of his intellectual energy in media combat, a few words of reflection are in order, with a nod to some promising trends.
A pre-new year’s conversation with Gerald Calente, director of the Trends Research Institute (you may have seen him on CNN) confirmed that I am not off in my prognostications and that the media system we have grown to first love and then hate is on the way out.
TV is converging with the web, he says, offering a new opportunity for progressives who are tired of being frozen out of the media matrix.
Over the weekend I also noticed that the always innovative but apparently poorly promoted (and hence viewed) TRIO channel is moving from digital cable in New York to broadband, a sign of changing times. Here’s their online announcement:
“NBC UNIVERSAL TO LAUNCH TRIO BROADBAND INITIATIVE UNDER BRAVOTV.COM BANNER WITH CONTENT PEGGED TO UNIQUE 'TRIO' BRAND AND POP CULTURE SENSIBILITY ON JANUARY 1, 2006
'TRIO' TO DISCONTINUE AS A STAND-ALONE DIGITAL CABLE TELEVISION SERVICE”
The flight from our traditional viewing platforms has begun. The old media is dying and the new media order is on the way—although not here yet. It is a larger trend I write about in my just published “manifesto,” The Death of the Media and the Fight for Democracy (Melville House):
While his prediction may have been off by a few years, he saw what others didn't — perhaps because it takes a novelist to understand reality in a deeper way. He wrote before all the changes we are witnessing -- more viewers watching cable than network, the growth of satellite channels, a dramatic decline of newspaper circulation, the rise of the internet and the proliferation of diverse content, the search engines and the bloggers and the new digital technologies. A writer, Bruce Sterling, has been tracking the death of media. He wrote his own manifesto about it also drawing on dinosaur metaphors.
The media consuming public seems to have an unlimited appetite for new media, but it is not just technologies that die but people's relationships to them. With more to watch and more to experience, attention spans shrink with more distractions designed to divert our attentions away from programming that asks us to care about our society in one way or another. Increasingly, even as it gets slicker, the public that is supposed to like what they see, is turning it off and tuning it out.
Our media is being confronted by a public that isn’t very happy with its output. We know this from surveys that span the political spectrum that may be reported but are rarely dwelt on. The last thing media outlets want to report is why the public is turning against them. In a media designed for "tune-in," tune-out seems to be the trend. Opinion surveys report widespread dissatisfaction--see recent reports by the Pew Center in American Life--but other statistics are more compelling--the statistics that report fewer viewers watching network news programs and readers buying newspapers.
Match that up with the comparatively low voter turnout in The US and you find that in ours, the most media rich nation on earth, democratic participation is shrinking. Many critics have criticized the media for actually depoliticizing politics and in the process undermining democracy. Media scandals seem to be erupting more frequently than political scandals, and the credibility of major media continues to decline. One Pew Center public opinion poll in one of those rare moments when members of the public were asked for their views -- found that as many as 70% of the people asked expressed dissatisfaction with the media. Nearly 70 percent were angry, but for different reasons. Nearly half think the media is too left wing —not surprising after years of the Republican Party’s punditocracy trashing the so-called "liberal media." The other half blames the right wing for souring them on media, pointing to Fox News and a tendency for big media to defer to big government.
In the general public, there is a growing consensus of complaint as media insiders puzzle over slipping ratings or more young people abandoning news networks for comedy channels for their news. There seems to be a growing anti-media consensus at the very time that media institutions seem to be more powerful than ever. Linda Foley, who runs the Newspaper Guild, sees hostility to big media growing. She writes: "Across all states and nearly all states of mind, “the media” have replaced “politicians” as one of our most reviled institutions. This united disdain and distrust of commercial media has been fomenting for several decades. The days when Woodward and Bernstein were folk heroes and Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America are long gone.
What happened? For one thing, media—particularly local media—got bigger and more distant. In an effort to homogenize content to make it appeal to broader swaths of audiences across multiple communities and lifestyles, U.S. media have dumbed down the news and sexed up the entertainment to minimize costs and increase sales and profits. (Sex sells; news doesn't.)
Part of the reason is the blurring of lines between facts and opinion, news and entertainment; reality on TV is being replaced by "reality-based" programming. Many of our elections are now viewed mostly through the window of manipulative political commercials not held to standards of truthfulness. There are more pundits on the air than journalists. A trend towards sillier and sillier programming results in a lack of respect for media outlets.
How can this system be changed, or can it? That’s the question on the agenda in this news year, and change is all around us.
One way to renew a failing system is to bring new players into it. Mega web portals like Yahoo and Google are newcomers making deals every day with the old brands. Google buys into AOL; Yahoo buys into photo-sharing site Flickr, and now it has acquired bookmarking phenomenon Delicious to expand its new search software. It’s hard to keep up with all the technical innovation.
It's technically feasible right now to watch TV and use the Web interchangeably on the same screen. There is a promise here of a break up of the old monopoly structures and in it, an opportunity for those of us dissatisfied with the old to create something new.
Some see a chance to cash in—not just bitch, but also get rich. Others recognize that more diversity on the airwaves is possible. And that will be a good thing for allowing real media choice to help renew our democracy.
At the very end of last year, one of America’s great media critics, George Gerber, died. His mantra was that we need a media with more to tell, not just sell. He called for activism and movements to protect and expand our cultural environment. He may be gone, but that time may be coming—not necessarily in the way he imagined
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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News Dissector Danny Schechter is blogger-in-chief of Mediachannel.org. For more on The Death of The Media and When News Lies, his book on Iraq war coverage, see Newsdissector.org/store.htm. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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