We all know word choice counts. So when Michael Schudson, a Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, said that the Internet was "dismembering" the public, sixty of the journalists gathered in the audience squirmed in their seats. I did too. Here I was, a fly on the wall at a lecture and discussion among professional flies-on-the-wall, and Schudson had just bloodily torn apart anyone's high-minded ideal of civic discussion like it was medieval torture. And considering we were in England, it just may have been.
Schudson's point—that by going to specific websites catered to specific interests, citizens aren't adequately equipped to engage in meaningful political discussions—was part of a larger discussion on the reconstruction of American journalism. It began with the typical eulogy we've all heard, as Schudson announced the total "devastation" within a "pulsing set" of 25 major metropolitan U.S. newspapers, and moved gradually from there to where we now sat—albeit rather uncomfortably—having just seen our beloved "public" hanged, drawn, and quartered by digital horses running off into cyberspace at the speed of light. Perhaps this was British-style punishment for an American crime, but that characterization seems too simple and metaphorically muddy. Instead, let's take the principle of contrast as a foundation and work from there. (It's reconstruction, after all.)
In the U.K., government support for the media is 15 times what it is in the States (a mere $400 million) and 75 times more per capita. And though some may argue that such funding automatically equals censorship—pointing their supportive-evidence fingers at North Korea—let us keep in mind that vibrant democracies certainly exist with both freedom of the press and government-funded media. Aside from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with its enormous British Broadcasting Corporation, these nations include Germany, Estonia, and Japan. And to those Americans who fear coercive government-funded media, do they shy away from PBS and NPR? In many cases, an often-enlightened, well-balanced, informed discussion begins with, "I heard on NPR this morning…" In short, these media do far more good than harm.
Yet this is to skip a few steps, namely from one of blaming selective internet-surfing for a less informed public—that is, informed in the true sense—to one of calling for wide government intervention in our media, and so I should qualify Schudson's "dismemberment" as only one threat to the well-being of American media and democracy. The other, and perhaps more important, is that as media sources increasingly recognize that opinion sells, it's becoming harder and harder to stick to objective neutrality in the world of news. And this is why some suggest intervention.
Realistically, however—and despite 2009's proposed "Newspaper Revitalization Act" in Congress—such bailouts to the media are not going to happen. And considering that the media is increasingly absent at state and local levels (these days, inside-the-beltway polarization seems entertainingly magnetic to all those outside), traditional metropolitan papers have an arguably greater responsibility to our public-on-life-support. Indeed, in stressing that city papers often break stories and set the national agenda, and that newspaper investigations which begin locally can open up national and even international issues, Schudson—standing in a room in Oxford, England—pointed to The Boston Globe's exposure of the Catholic church's sexual abuse cases.
In June I began working at the Globe (as part of my Lovejoy internship), and though I can't reasonably expect to break the big story or engage in any ultimate ideal of civic journalism, I can already sense the responsibility that comes with a tradition of accuracy, fairness, and balance on all issues. To do anything else would be to betray not just our role as journalists but also as citizens in a healthy democracy. It would call for being hung, drawn, and quartered.
It would be the highest treason.
Nick Cunkelman '11 is a ColbyCollege philosophy major who starting reporting as a sports columnist for The Colby Echo during his freshman year. He plans to pursue a journalism career and his dream job would be to write articles examining trends in politics, the environment, music, and sports for magazines across the globe.