James Fallows has just published an article, “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media,” which I thought was really excellent. I don’t particularly care for his China articles, but Fallows is a veteran in the Western media business. It is a hefty read, but I highly recommend it, in its entirety. His intro below:
Everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel is bemoaning a decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion. But the author, a longtime advocate of these values, takes a journey through the digital-media world and concludes there isn’t any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media—and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future.
It is our opinion too there is a severe lack of “journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion,” when it comes to China reporting in the West. Many readers have repeated this idea that the Western media is not singling out China; they see that general trend on everything. They in fact see the whole media as “unbiased” towards anyone, because in their minds sensationalism (and whatever else) are applied across the board. (It is obviously more than this, and I will pick a non-China, “neutral” example: “Harvard University study catches major U.S. media pants down – systematic reporting of U.S. waterboarding as not torture.” But I really don’t want to delve into this in this post.)
I think it is critically important for people in China to understand how capitalistic media unrestrained on delivering what the public “wants” can manifest itself in something like Gawker. Or Fox News. People actually like for others to “think” for them so that they don’t have to process too much information. As Allen argued here on “Understanding Democracy,” understanding public policy requires investment in large amounts of time and absorbing very complex information. Both are hard to do.
Despite all that, Fallows still concludes with an optimistic view on where things are heading.
The bits I am quoting here will not do justice to his article. Much of the insight is in the details, and so I’ll repeat the recommendation to head over and have a read. You will need the details to draw your own conclusions. Below are his concluding remarks:
It was more striking, then, to hear something similar from Tom Brokaw, who was born in 1940 and was 15 years old when his family first got a TV. “We’re creating a whole new universe,” he told me. “All those planets that are out there, colliding with each other, we don’t know which ones will support life and which will burn up.”
At no stage in the evolution of our press could anyone be sure which approaches would support life, and which would flicker out. Through my own career I have seen enough publications and programs start—and succeed, and fail—to know how hard it is to foresee their course in advance. Therefore I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world. Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective. If so, then America’s problems of public life can only grow worse, since we will lack the means to understand and discuss them.
But perhaps this apparently late stage is actually an early stage, in the collective drive and willingness to devise new means of explaining the world and in the individual ability to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us. Recall the uprisings in Iran and Egypt. Recall the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. My understanding of technological and political history makes me think it is still early. Also, there is no point in thinking anything else.
In his article, he also interviewed Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard:
But she [Lepore] went on to say that it is hard to demonstrate that today’s media and resulting public discussion are, in their totality, worse than before.
So, perhaps, at the end of the day, those who “wants” to understand matters concerning public policy will be a self-select group who invests enough time to gather information and to be more informed.
Obviously, the presumption Fallows take with his article is that media remains “free” and unregulated. That being the case, profit seeking necessitates the media deliver more what the end consumer wants. More sex. More sensationalism. More conflict. I guess it’s like food; they taste bland without the seasoning. Those humans whose bodies are capable of discarding the harmful stuff and pick out the nutritious parts will ultimately be healthier.
That self-select group in society will wade through media in similar fashion.
But for all the trumped up virtues of democracy and “freedom” of the press, isn’t this a pathetically low expectation of the media?