The diminishing power of sources

who really runs the press?The Great Horizontal is Jay Rosen’s new term for the era-shifting communications disruption that J. D. Lasica first termed the “Personal Media Revolution.” I like it. It’s the ability of everyday people to use the tools heretofore reserved only for deep pockets, whereby they can communicate back “up” to media and, of course, with themselves. So low are the costs for entry today that you’ve heard me say “everybody is a media company.”

This has, of course, brought out the worst in the journalism profession, because it is their ox that’s being gored by all of this. I’ve written many times about the arrogant presumption that “real” journalism is done only by the pros, and that this amateur “movement” is simply unreliable poppycock. The ultimate demonstration of this for me came at a gathering of media thinkers in Chicago a few years ago during which a video by NBC News anchor Brian Williams was played. He “welcomed” the group by warning of the dangers of the Great Horizontal, and he did so by referring to a blog about nasal hair. There was widespread chuckling in the room as Williams mocked the content of the blog, comparing it to the “real” stuff produced by professional journalists. I was embarrassed for Williams, although he thought he was making a valid comparison.

While journalists kick and scream, there’s something incredibly significant taking place as the hegemony of the industry is disrupted. Those who really run the news — the sources — are finding it increasingly difficult to realize the results of their manipulation. This can only be good for journalism, those who practice it, and especially for the culture itself. For too long, outsiders who know the rules have applied them to their best interests, and the result is a convoluted and confused system of ethics that serves not the industry but those who use the industry to get their way. All of that is changing — and will continue to change — as the Great Horizontal marches forward.

Whether it’s the ease of social media or the more complex local blogs, those who are getting into the game have a sense of mission-simplicity that is refreshing, passionate and oftentimes very raw. These people — like the rest of the people formerly known as the audience — view with transparency attempts to control, in any fashion, the way they think and present their thoughts.

In 1990, I was news director at KGMB-TV in Honolulu. I got a magazine (The Animals’ Agenda) in the mail from an animal rights organization that contained a section called “Activist Agenda.” This particular month’s was penned by Richard Krawiec (“a nationally-published freelance writer and author of the novel Time Sharing”). It was called “Dealing With The Media: Advice From A Journalist.” This article is a veritable “how to” of media manipulation, using the rules of objectivity and common sense. It’s smart.

Try to cultivate reporters who will take a real interest in your issues. Read local publications regularly and identify writers who cover animal topics. Keep those writers informed of your activities.

Think local. Why picket a traveling circus if there’s a terrible zoo in town?

Be visible. Cook vegetarian dinners for the homeless. Do street theater. A person dressed in a costume is inherently more interesting to the media than someone sitting at a booth. But don’t overdo the tactic to the point of looking like clowns.

Most of all, be realistic. Don’t expect the writer to produce a public relations release. Criticism is all right as long as it’s offered because you’re taken seriously.

Taken seriously. That’s the mission: to be moved from Hellin’s sphere of deviancy to the sphere of legitimate debate. It happens every day in the world of professional journalism, because people with an agenda know how the game is played. This may be what professional journalism prefers, but it’s not what journalism is really all about.

Wade Roush published an interesting article this week about the end of the embargo, another manufactured “rule” of professional journalism by which those with connections, those in the know can get the most bang for the buck out of their news releases. Embargoes come from “sources,” and Roush has never been a fan.

Frustration…has led a few organizations to attack the system. In 2008, notably, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared “Death to the Embargo” and said that henceforth his publication would work to undermine the system by agreeing to embargoes, then breaking them at random. They’ve done this with gusto, and Arrington’s campaign has worked. Embargo promises, at least in the business and technology space I cover, are now tissue-thin. If TechCrunch—now a division of AOL—doesn’t break the embargo on a given story, someone else emboldened by its example often will.

Ah, tech media, those scruffy newcomers to the game who don’t always (rarely?) play by traditional media’s rules. They, too, are a part of the Great Horizontal, for many — if not most — of them wouldn’t have launched had it not been for the low barriers to entry offered by technology today. After all, they invented the blog as a way to communicate online, and it runs circles around the portal method preferred by traditional media.

And blogs will continue to disrupt. The Nieman Journalism Lab offered another illustration of what’s happening with an article this week appropriately titled: A place for Homicide Watch: Can a local blog fill some of the gaps in Washington, D.C.’s crime coverage? Of course they can, and I believe that local blogs will be springing up like weeds over the next ten years as the Great Horizontal continues to move forward.

And one of the neat things about blogs and bloggers is that they don’t always play by the nice-n-neat rules of the professionals. They go straight to the street without the checks and balances that we take for granted and that we rationalize are necessary for a professional press. We’re learning that a lot of that is crap, and while I’ll admit that the chaos we face is a little disconcerting, maybe we need a little chaos to rid ourselves of a world where corporations and those with money can buy influence from the press (oh yeah) and those with smarts can manipulate their way in.

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  1. This web page doesn’t render properly on my droid — you may wanna try and repair that

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