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On the decline of Journalism and other words of wisdom from Chris Hedges

April 24, 2009

chris-hedges-at-ole-miss
This has been a great week for me as a professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. It was even a greater week for our students and faculty. It was the 25th annual Journalism Week, something that I started as Magazine Week when I joined the faculty here in 1984. Many speakers came to campus and interacted with our students on “all things journalism.” I will be sharing some of their insights here and all of their insights on the J-Department web site here.

Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, gave the Stuart Bullion Memorial Lecture in Journalism. His speech “The Death of News and the Rise of the Entertainment Culture” touched on the major factors facing journalism in general, and newspapers in particular, today. Here are some excerpts:

The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.

The Internet will not save newspapers. Although all most newspapers have Web sites, and have had for a while, newspaper Web sites make up less than 10 percent of newspaper ad revenue. Advertisers have not gravitated to newspaper sites, either unsure of how to use the Internet or suspicious that it can’t match the viewer attention of older media. And the decline of revenues means an assault on the very heart of the news – the ability to gather and produce news. No internet site will ever bring in the kind of revenue that allows a large newspaper, such as The Los Angeles Times, to field a newsroom staff – a staff which even with all its lay offs — still employs 700 people.

Those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs. The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting. Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn’t care what you think. Reporting challenges, countermands or destabilizes established beliefs. Reporting, which is time-consuming and often expensive, begins from the premise that there are things we need to know and understand, even if these things make us uncomfortable. If we lose this ethic we are left with pandering, packaging and partisanship. We are left awash in a sea of competing propaganda. Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors. They cannot get fired. Facts, for many bloggers, are interchangeable with opinions. Take a look at The Drudge Report. This may be the new face of what we call news.

We live in an age of moral nihilism. We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered. And this assault has been a body blow to a free press, which is, like the humanities, designed to promote intellectual and moral questioning. The confusion of bread and circus with news means that social critics, those who do not shout clichés on cable news shows, but who challenge and question the assumptions and structures of the corporate state itself are left without a voice.

We are cleverly entertained during our descent. We have our own version of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses with our ubiquitous and elaborate spectacles, sporting events, celebrity gossip and television reality shows. Societies in decline, as the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, see their emotional and political passions subsumed by the excitement and emotional life of the arena.

Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, who make millions a year give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism. If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike journalists – and they should. Ask Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh, Walter Pincus, Robert Scheer or David Cay Johnston.

You can watch the entire lecture here and I welcome your comments on the future of news, journalism and the rest of the issues raised by Mr. Hedges.

Photo by Robert Jordan

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11 comments

  1. When has news NOT had an ideological lens? The 30s? 50s? 60s? Hardly.

    What we saw then was a press that was just as complicit in the ideological struggles and intrigues of the day. Who stood up while Hollywood directors were blacklisted in the 40s? Who stood up during McCarthyism?

    Where was our ‘self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions’ nature then?

    This is nostalgic whitewashing in the vein of Andy Rooney — angry gesticulations about our ‘moral nihilism’ and lamententations for a golden age that simply did not exist.

    Journalism has never been vestal. It has in large part always been cozy with politicians and celebrities. Or did JFKs many affairs simply go unnoticed?

    By the way…Cicero’s head and hands were cut off. Shall we return to those ebullient times too?

    @copywryter


  2. The press is not a perfect machine, but it is, at least in theory, accountable to it’s established codes and normes of behaviour. Journalism strives to report and provide context. The new media is just a chance for everyone to have their own 15 minutes of fame and following. Facts are awash in a sea of blogging. Journalists will obviously be threatened and offended by the decline in respect for credibility that is so rampant in our society. Things may have never been perfect, but they have never been more of a farce.


  3. As always, you can make up your own mind about this piece by Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. I completely disagree with most of what he said. Perhaps he and Samir were drinking from the same Kool-aid dispenser just before the lecture. I do wish I had been in the audience to ask a few simple and logical questions.

    I don’t believe that the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist “gets it”, and I will bet he doesn’t have a twitter page or a blog. The end of printed newspapers is not the end of civilization as we know it. It is not the end of “civic and public responsibility”. Quite the contrary. The World Wide Web is filled with serious writers, an amazing knowledge base, and on- the-scene, real-time reporters. Sure some of it is junk or slanted or partisan. So what? So are many printed papers. Yellow journalism, which still exists, was invented in print, not the web.

    Mr. Hedges comments about you, my digital readers, is also nothing but fanciful fear mongering. Perhaps to sell his books? I wonder if his book is sold on Amazon? Is there a Kindle version? His statement that you are “the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world” is at best insulting. Do you feel post literate? Do you think your children are post literate. I do not. The current generation is just as capable as any other and perhaps more so. The tools that we all have available are staggering and being put to good use on a minute-by-minute basis.

    There was vibrant, intelligent life before newspapers, and there will be life after the death of print newspapers. Knowledge is a very powerful elixir, and it is more available to a wider range of the public than ever before.

    The notion that only the “print Journalists” have the moral right, the authority, or the wisdom to be the sole proprietors of knowledge and its distribution is absurd.


    • My dear Bob
      A box of the Kool-Aid that Chris and I drank from is on its way to you. All the best.
      Samir


    • OMG, Bob! LMAO, R U serious? :) Many bloggers consider themselves “journalists” or “reporters”, but are more “commentators” than anything else. Journalism is a profession, bound by a code of ethics and requires a certain mindset and a lot of skill (like every other profession, it surely does have its bad apples). Frankly, I am a little tired of your unequivocal support and idolization of everything that the web brings. Yes, it did and does provide a lot of opportunities, but at the same time it undermines the income source of journalists. Finding the story and exposing different sides of it are not something that everyone can do. The Web does indeed have many examples of serious and dedicated writing and reporting (although most of it is on the sites of established media channels) but it is far surpassed by the amount of junk our there. But that’s another debate.

      Journalists are professionals (they are getting paid to do this), regardless of what your opinion of the quality of their pieces is. The blogosphere is great for sharing ideas, but most of it is fueled by the exhibitionistic and voyeuristic nature of humanity (nothing bad there, that’s what keeps both traditional and nontraditional media in business). The piece that’s missing is long-term focus and dedication. Consistent reporting requires dedication, which, to be sustainable, most of the time requires some kind of an incentive, that’s a bit more than the desire to be seen and heard (a good income would be a start). The Web fails to provide the necessary income for the vast majority of bloggers to sustain their long-term interest in reporting. There are so many blogs out there that are left only after a few entries.

      Media is indeed one of the most important guards of democracy. And a demise of professional media would usher in an informational anarchy, not democracy! (FYI, I DO embrace the internet and see it as having a huge potential and opportunity for our media business)

      As far as your RIP on newspapers is concerned – I agree that these are challenging times for the media industry (and for almost everyone else for that matter), but professional news outlets will and should continue one way or another.

      Oh, BTW, YouTube didn’t kill TV! It made it even more popular!


  4. Newspapers may have large newsrooms but it doesn’t stop them presenting the same articles with partisan slants, and ignoring many areas that are newsworthy, or presenting them in a shallow way. They have an appalling herd instinct.

    The web allows minority groups to have a proper news services such as that we deliver on HotelDesigns. Much as we would love to have a team of investigative reporters we don’t make enough money to do so, but we do write critically and originally for a special interest group. Too much of the print press simply presents the pr and leaves intellect out. I find more of intellectual stimulation on the web than I do in most Newspapers.

    Having said that the specialist nature of most web writing (or its second hand nature through aggregation sites) leaves me a fan of the ‘Times’ (NY and London)with their breadth, op-ed pieces and comment.

    Truth is the web is a visual media first, literary second. Newspapers are the reverse of this, and are making a mistake in trying to compete with imagery rather than improving both their investigative reporting (and our politicians and businesses need more and harder scrutiny as the current crisis shows)and focussing on the strength of their newsrooms.


  5. To Naiden:
    I think you meant that in theory “Journalism is a profession, bound by a code of ethics and requires a certain mindset and a lot of skill” If that was your comment..well I agree. There is a range of professionalism in print and on the web. Both have their high points and their low points. Neither can take completely the high ground.

    As to your comment that I “have unequivocal support and idolization of everything that the web brings” is a total misunderstanding. What I believe is that the predominant way that people will read in the future is going to be digital. Does that make me a digital zealot or in fact a realist?

    Will books or print go away completely? No, and I have never said that they would. They are fine and they have a comfort level in older generations that will not be easily replaced for them. But times and technology are changing and so are the next generation of readers. I’m not sure if you are denying that or not. Either way your denial will not change the facts. We are already at the tipping point.

    And lastly the pay/revenue/money/profit issue. This is happening now. Sure it is a transition, and sure the web is only up to 13 billion dollars. I remember when that number was in the millions. The web profit generation machine is ramping up and real journalists will go to where the masses, the readers and the dollars are. The masses and the profits will be on the web. The advertising community will/are demanding analytics that dead trees can’t provide.

    It is happening right before your eyes… open them.


    • I have my eyes completely open, believe me, Bob. And that’s why I am so excited about everything that’s happening in our industry these days. Are these tough times we live in? Sure, but revolution has never been easy. We are shaping the future of communications. I can see and absolutely appreciate that. That’s why our publishing company is so committed to both print as well as digital media channels.

      My argument with you is not that the digital model doesn’t have a future. It’s just that I don’t think that it will necessarily be at the expense of newspapers. If all newspapers all of a sudden stop publishing their stories online for free (currently competition prevents this from happening), I wonder where we will all be getting local information from.

      On the revenue question – sure the Internet revenue stream has increased over the years. But so have the number of web sites. Since the revenue is now spread among a much larger number of outlets, very few of these outlets make merely enough to pay the cost of their servers, let alone their writers or to make a profit.

      The current situation with newspapers and media reminds me of the music sharing debate in the 90’s. I actually, like you, thought that the traditional model is gone and that the music industry will never be able to get back to being profitable and viable… that music will be done by well-spirited online musicians. Yet, musicians have to eat too. Kudos to the music industry for finding solutions relatively quickly – from fighting online downloads to producing more live concerts to charging by the song. What the music industry went through is what we in the media industry are going through right now! It’s up to us where it goes from here.


  6. [...] Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, in his speech  “The Death of News and the Rise of the Entertainment Culture”  stated  “The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.” (Read the article here) [...]



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