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Journalism Industry in a State of Crisis

February 27, 2008

by Sahil Kapur

Prominent activist and media critic Robert McChesney made a notable speech at Pomona College last week in front of community members of the Claremont Colleges. McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, addressed the weakening of the journalism industry and the social implications of its current “state of crisis,” a notion that has become “conventional wisdom” among press scholars. “Journalism is the heart of democracy,” said McChesney, who went on to declare that a well-informed public is imperative to the success of a free society. Journalists have a significant role to play in educating and informing the populous on relevant social concerns. He referenced founding fathers James Madison and Benjamin Franklin’s zeal for complete freedom of the press, as they considered it a cornerstone ideal on which the success of the United States would rest. Unfortunately, the press industry is failing to deliver on its constitutional responsibility of enlightening the public sphere on the problems pertinent to society.

One particular trend in the journalism industry is that important social issues are losing ground to trivial entertainment, such as the personal lives of celebrities. McChesney stated that mass media outlets have been feeding viewers with “a steady diet of crap” rather than effectively informing them. It is regrettable because it diverts people from what actually matters.

Citing an example in Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, McChesney noted the failure of the media to challenge the administration’s intentions and ‘intelligence findings,’ and went on to suggest that a misinformed public was the prime catalyst that gave the president a free ticket to carry out one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in the history of the United States. Rather than contesting the shaky grounds on which the decision was made and evaluating its potential consequences, the media simply reproduced and dispersed the voices of the deciders. Accepting – if not embracing – the agendas of people in power has become the norm as of late. This is not what journalism should be about.

Increased commercialization of the media has largely contributed to an ineffective press. It is becoming more and more difficult to establish a career in the journalism industry if one has a habit of challenging the status quo. Advertisers and promoters ought to be distinct from writers, said McChesney, so that the quality of issues journalists raise is unobstructed by commercial interests. It’s not that there is a shortage of individuals fit for the job. It’s that due to growing commercial pressures, publications have begun to hire writers and anchors based on their bottom line and not on the relevance of issues he or she brings to the table. “Writers only seem to be allowed to raise a question if someone in power is talking about it,” lamented McChesney, “or else the perception is that they’re not being objective, they’re simply pushing an agenda.” Journalists must be allowed to raise questions and spark new debates. Just because an issue is not currently being talked about, doesn’t make it unimportant.

While the internet has revolutionized the manner in which people all over the world receive their information, McChesney believed that this change is neither a cause of nor a solution to the current dilemma. He remarked that large phone companies are pushing for the privatization of the internet, which would allow them to exert a greater stranglehold over the flow of information and other intricacies such as the speed at which websites load. If they succeed, it would be a disaster for the concept of free speech. He urged us to reverse these efforts by supporting the House Internet Freedom Preservation Act (HR-5353), which has been endorsed by Representatives Chip Pickering (R-Miss) and Ed Markey (D-Mass). As a part of his efforts, he co-founded, an organization dedicated to the freedom of press and media reform.

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