When 9/11 occurred I was a sophomore in high school. I heard about it on my way to jazz band, our zero hour class, at about 6am. I remember the morning very vividly despite the fact that I was still half-asleep in the car. I could hear scattered bits of information on the radio but I wasn’t fully conscious of what was happening. It wasn’t until I got to the school and our teacher, with the few students who had arrived for class, were listening to the same station. Then, I realized what had happened…
by Colin CroninFriday, June 26th, 2009
Ever since Woodrow Wilson articulated it in his Fourteen Points, the concept of self-determination has been at the forefront of various movements pursuing the goal of independence. In a nutshell, self-determination is the freedom to decide actions without the imposition of will by others. For nationalist groups, this means the right to govern themselves without the compulsion of another state, and it generally involves some sort of uprising or conflict against such external party or parties.
Cast in the light of the nationalist wave that swept the world in the 20th century, self-determination is now conceptualized as a right that different peoples are entitled to. It is now commonplace to speak of how the Palestinians deserve their own state or the right of the Tibetans to their own country. But acknowledging a right to something is not the same as saying that something should be given. That a group deserves independence does not necessarily mean they should get it.
by Colin CroninSaturday, May 16th, 2009
Last week over at The Melon, my friend and old classmate Elliot Trotter wrote an interesting piece on how he views the evolution of media. In a nutshell, FOX News embodies an emerging new type of media, one that represents a certain perspective (in this case America’s conservative wing). Although grossly biased and slanted to the right, Elliot comments that a “fair and balanced” state will result from a counter-balancing perspective, meaning that something akin to FOX should emerge on the opposite side of the spectrum. He considers The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as potential candidates for this role.
Given most people’s vehemently negative attitude towards FOX, this is a very interesting and rather fresh perspective on how media is changing. However, it is incorrect to assert that mainstream media has only figured out that entertainment sells better than news in the last few years. While things may have become more slighted in recent years (a claim that is by no means beyond dispute), it is undeniable that the disproportionate fixation on entertainment value – usually represented by “blood and guts” aspects of news stories or some form of dramatized human suffering – is very much a product of the modern communications revolution. The first mass communications revolution is usually considered to be the invention of the steam-powered printing press in 1830 which allowed news to be much more timely. Within a few years the first mass-circulation newspaper was being produced in the US.
The second great revolution – which initiated the shift from news to “infotainment” – began in 1968 when the US launched the first television satellite. With this technology, stories could be transmitted from local studios back to network news headquarters for editing and broadcast far more rapidly than previously possible. This was further supplemented by three critical pieces of TV equipment available by the early 1970s: the Minicam (a portable, lightweight video camera), a battery-powered video recorder (also portable), and the time-base corrector (by which video footage was converted into transmittable output to be broadcast over the airwaves). With this combination, live TV could be made directly from remote locations and transmitted instantaneously into the homes of viewers across the globe.
These advancements had consequences for the content of the news. The ability to beam a breaking story live gave rise to intense competition among rival networks to “scoop” one another. There were basically two ways to do this: being the first on the scene or being the first to report some hitherto undisclosed information. Although the first is perhaps the most sought-after prize and honor of journalism, it is also inherently evanescent as an advantage. Since the dawn of modern communications, the trick to keeping ratings up has been not-so-much capturing attention by breaking a story, by rather holding it with equally gripping follow-up reports.
The result has been a world of sound bites and “spin.” Dramatic footage and pointed phrases specifically designed to grab viewers’ attention have gradually displaced detailed analysis (or at least the former has become more synonymous with “good journalism”). The concrete effects were easy enough to see. Eleanor Randolph of the Washington Post pointed out in 1985 that the mainstream news coverage of the TWA Flight 847 hijacking was driven purely by a rush for ratings, at the detriment of important substantive coverage. As TV increasingly became the primary source of news for most Americans, the relevance of this bias correspondingly became more influential.
To some degree, the shift towards “infotainment” is independent of increased politicization of news networks. There are arguments that the US as a whole has become more divided along party lines. This may or may not be true since it is hard to disaggregate the reality from the filter of the media where most people get their information. However, especially in the last decade or so, major news networks have gradually recognized that politicization is a good source of high ratings. While many people roll their eyes when they hear Al Franken or Sean Hannity, it is important to realize that there are many others who flourish listening to these programs. Most people prefer to listen to commentators and news reporting that more-or-less validates their already established viewpoints. It is much rarer to find someone sincerely open to a variety of different opinions.
This last point is somewhat along the lines of what Elliot is identifying in the emerging new media: news sources that embody particular values and principles. Elliot argues that counter-balancing from the liberal side of the spectrum will establish “fair and balanced” amongst a variety of biased sources because each side will be roughly equal in their bias to the left or right. This is problematic for a couple reasons. First, it is improbable that most programs will accurately embody a person’s entire belief set. There are many people in the US who have a variety of views that do not neatly fall under ideological (much less party) lines. Of course there are those who are extremely liberal or conservative – and it is these people, not the moderates or those with mixed views – that tend to capture more nationwide media attention.
Second, the notion of biased networks balancing against one another places too much emphasis on the capacity of conventional news programs to maintain themselves in the future. Personally, I think that most signs are pointing to a decline in major centralized news agencies. Internet-based and open-source resources are revolutionizing the ability for broad mass-movements to communicate, inform, and organize. This is clear in the variety of effects such technology has had on protests in New Zealand, Moldova, Thailand, and at the G20 summit in London. The impact is particularly pronounced in Egypt where Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other online networking mediums were used in organizing the food riots last year and establishing the April 6th Youth Movement (their blog can be viewed here). Newspapers, radio, and TV will remain important sources of news for many people. But since their traditional territorial power is being slowly eroded by these new sources of information, it is difficult to imagine this scenario of biased counter-balancing news networks being the embodiment of new media.
This emerging trend may, however, become more pronounced before it sputters out. But that it is happening is a different issue from whether or not it is desirable. For me, the role of journalism and the news has always been to attempt to report the truth as objectively as possible – making this new media (as Elliot envisions it) an unwanted development. Of course there has always been, and will always be, bias in reporting. But Elliot’s conceptualization is purposely biased to the preferences of a particularly viewership. Such flagrant disregard for any standard of objective reporting is not only detrimental to the quality of journalism – which has already suffered in the mainstream due to the impacts of the communications revolution – but also contrary to any notion of a greater public good. A polarized arena of news agencies split along ideological lines and competing over who can “scoop” one another the best will only serve to divide the country.
It may be that the supposed fracturing of American society along political lines is more a result of media portrayal. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how this imagined politicization would not become a clear reality should new media be truly defined by ideological media wars.