Deconstructing professional journalism

Eric Alterman has written an excellent piece for The New Yorker that gives me a chance to remind people of the core of my philosophy: that the real disruption that’s taking place in our world today is the empowerment of people through technology. This is so profound that it will impact every institution of “modern” humankind, and first up is how we communicate with each other, a.k.a. “the media.”

Called “Out of Print, The death and life of the American newspaper,” Alterman brilliantly goes back to the source of “professional” journalism and the social engineering of my old pal, Walter Lippmann. Here’s a sample:

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”

…Lippmann’s preferred solution was, in essence, to junk democracy entirely. He justified this by arguing that the results were what mattered. Even “if there were a prospect” that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, “it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered.”

…in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

Alterman brings into play John Dewey, who made it his calling to “debate” Lippmann’s positions. Dewey would love today’s blogosphere.

Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding journalism’s flaws or the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. But Dewey thought that Lippmann’s cure was worse than the disease. While Lippmann viewed public opinion as little more than the sum of the views of each individual, much like a poll, Dewey saw it more like a focus group. The foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation.

…Dewey also criticized Lippmann’s trust in knowledge-based élites. “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge,” he argued. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.”

As I have been writing for years, Lippmann is the “father of professional journalism,” and the apple never falls very far from the tree. And so we’ve had decades of an elitist press getting all comfy with the power brokers of the culture — in fact, becoming the NEW power brokers — and it is against this that the people of the culture are objecting.

I mean who wants to be treated like a herd of dumb cattle, à la Lippmann? And worse, Lippmann’s élite gets its status, in part, from money earned by the relentless carpet bombing of the herd with unwanted ad messages. Does anybody really have a problem understanding the revolt? This is the energy that drives J. D. Lasica’s “personal media revolution.”

Contemporary journalism MUST honestly deal with this issue or face certain extinction.


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