TV News in a Postmodern World

Trusting the Audience and the Readers

by Terry Heaton
One of the fundamental beliefs of the Judeo-Christian experience is the inherently sinful nature of humankind. Since I grew up in a Calvinist home, this was hammered into us around-the-clock. Calvinism is an extreme form of legalistic Christianity, where good behavior was the impossible goal of life, so we were forced into good behavior (and a constant state of guilt). At the same time, however, it justified all sorts of mischief, like when I got caught stealing from the collection plate. After all, what do you expect from a sinner?

Regardless of the extreme to which it is manifested, the belief that humankind is essentially bad and needs redemption has been with us for a very long time. It validates the need for war. It drives our institutions and our Modernist culture too, because systematic and rigid authority is in place to apprehend our runaway souls when they get out of line. All authority in our culture, from God on down to parents, exists to maintain civility in the face of our dreaded sinful nature.

In politics, contemporary conservatism is built solidly on this belief, while tolerant liberalism seems to see other possibilities for people. And in media, the current debate about the mainstream media versus the blogosphere is rooted here too. After all, the argument goes, the self-centered and chaotic masses cannot be trusted to get things right on their own.

This was an essential theme of Walter Lippmann's in the early 20th century. He's the father of professional — read: objective — journalism, but his real passion was social engineering. A member of America's ruling class, Lippmann was so obsessed with the need for an elite (professional) class to run things that he routinely slandered the masses.

In his 1955 essay "Walter Lippmann and Democracy," Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an "offended and frightened snob" to say such things as these:

"...there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence." Forgetting "the limitations of men" has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for "they are unable to imagine it" and they cannot manage a civilization, for "they are unable to understand it." To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is "the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation..."

...Popular opinion is and must be opposite to the public interest—this miraculous public interest contrived by Mr. Lippmann, though never really defined. But then Mr. Lippmann being of the elite, knows the public interest when he sees it, and the one thing he is sure of is that his public interest is as public as the rich Englishmen's public school that is to say, it is private. Mr. Lippmann has extended the myth of the classless state of his earlier writings to the myth of a classless public interest which is knowable only to a private, minute elite.

Remember, this is the man who fathered professional journalism. Is there any wonder the public is sick to death of it? The real threat to contemporary journalism from the blogosphere isn't amateur versus professional, ethics, reliability or any of that; it's the terrifying empowerment of the ignorant masses that is shaking our culture to the core. It's sinful humankind discovering that perhaps he isn't as bad — and therefore stupid — as he's been told.

If you believe, for example, that people will generally get things wrong, then your approach to informing them of "the news" is going to be hierarchical. Somebody "up there" has to determine what's important for those "down below." This argument is at the core of the gatekeeper concept of professional journalism.

If, however, you believe that people are capable of getting things right, then you'll include them in your journalism, because you believe they have something to add. Dan Gillmor, author of the landmark citizens media book, We the Media, made the observation long ago that "my audience knows more than I do." This is a shocking statement to mainstream media types, but it forms one of the foundational beliefs of the blogosphere. Gillmor even put chapters of his book online as he was writing it, because he wanted reader feedback before publishing.

Jeff Jarvis is one of the most outspoken evangelists for the idea of giving the masses a degree of trust, but he admits it's an ongoing learning experience. And it's that experience that is opening his eyes to a view of people that's considerably more tolerant than that of his mainstream critics. He recalls appearing on a CBS morning show in the 80s to talk about ratings, and the producer challenged him for defending the tastes of the viewing public. "That's no way for a big-media snob to act," she said. Jarvis responds, "But she was right: I was defending the taste of my fellow man."

I have come to realize that if you don't have trust in the intelligence, taste, and good will of your fellow man then you can't believe in democracy; if the people are an idiot, why would you allow them to elect their leaders? If you're not a populist, then you can't believe in the wisdom of the marketplace; you can't be a capitalist. If you're not a populist, for that matter, then you should throw reform religion out the window, for why would you think that man could have a direct relationship with God?

But if you do trust -- or better yet, enable the people -- then wonderful things can happen. The internet allows us to control not just the consumption but the creation of media and more. And once again, given half a chance, we the people can do amazing things...

...So both in terms of the good and the bad, the secret to success in world 2.0 is to hand control over to the people. If you mean that, if you really make that happen -- providing raw material, connections, infrastructure, promotion, a marketplace, support, trust -- then you can succeed.

Another new media hero is Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, the consumer-generated online classifieds juggernaut. Craigslist has helped devastate classifieds revenue of the print media industry, but Newmark doesn't see himself as a business mogul, choosing instead the title of "customer service representative." He spends his time speaking with the users of Craigslist and working out problems on their behalf. "We have seen a genuine wisdom-of-crowds effect at work at times on our website," he says.

His advice in the new media world is to get out of the way, which assumes a significant level of trust in people. When confronted with any problem, he simply says, "We'll figure it out." Where does this trust come from? "It's plain and simple," he says, "a great deal of actual, real-life experience."

People are very consistently very trustworthy, and very much okay. There are a few bad guys out there, a very tiny percentage, and people are generally aware of them. Give people the ability to deal with the bad stuff, and they deal with it. In our case, it's mostly our flagging for removal mechanism, though sometimes people email us in special circumstances.

Also, most of everything on our site is based on community feedback; we're dealing with that now regarding charging apartment brokers for rental listings in NY.

Normally, groups of people are smart about dealing with the bad guys, but some are very smart about inciting mob behavior, that's a problem, and we're still learning how to deal with that. We have that problem at craigslist, and the Wikipedia folks have a similar problem. We'll figure it out.

Newmark has announced his intentions to get involved in the journalism business, and it will be interesting to see what his belief system produces.

Google is another company that regularly invests its reputation and products in the people who use them. The company launches most new ventures in "beta" form and relies on the feedback of users to tweak them and make them better. As logical as this seems, it's a significant departure from the status quo in terms of new business development. Testing in our hierarchical culture is done behind closed doors, where mistakes can be hidden from the eyes of potential customers, but Google doesn't seem to care. The essential issue here is marketing. In a mass marketing culture, business needs to always put their best foot forward. In a culture of personal media, transparency is paramount, so Google says, "Here it is. What do you think?"

I work with a group that publishes an online magazine. We've been discussing the merits of blogging and blogging software, which has generated a bit of concern from the professional journalism defenders. One of my colleagues wrote that order (that hierarchical dream state) is evident in the magazine format and that it "adheres to the deepest ethics of journalism." He's afraid that without the editorial process "clear thought would disappear," because "thought requires care." The inference is that an orderly hierarchy is the only path to clear thought, and that assumes much.

Order is the god of the elites, because the thought of chaos is simply too much to bear. Despite the real life experiences of a growing number of intelligent people who are building an infrastructure through chaos, some of us cling to the fear that it will all crumble in an instant, and this view is only possible with a belief in the inherent sinful nature of humankind. It is a wall that separates in an age of disappearing walls.

One of the most common expressions heard in the blogosphere is that it is self-correcting. If you have experience with this phenomenon, you'll understand it, but it's undecipherable to mainstream media traditionalists. That's because the concept flows from a counterintuitive belief about humankind — our ability to fix some broken things without the assistance of a hierarchical order.

What most Modernist thinkers fail to realize in our increasingly Postmodern culture is that there is definitely something new under the sun today — silos of knowledge are being torn down and freely distributed to everybody, and this has profound consequences for the future. People such as Walter Lippmann looked down their noses at the concept of government of the people, by the people and for the people, because they viewed the masses as ignorant and incapable. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that his belief may have been true a hundred years ago, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's true today. This is what's really changing in our world, and the old hierarchies of protected knowledge are being dismantled by what used to be the bottom.

Of course, this has not gone entirely unnoticed by the status quo, which has a great deal to lose in the new paradigm. Doc Searls paints a chilling picture of the future in a call to action essay entitled "Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes."

Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are you ready to see the Net's free and open marketplace sucked into a pit of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?

Do you believe a free and open market should be "Your choice of walled garden" or "Your choice of silo"? That's what the big carrier and content companies believe. That's why they're getting ready to fence off the frontiers.

We are facing a war for the very soul of our culture, and the side on which you fall depends, in large part, on your view of humankind. It is the most unreported story of our time. If you trust people to generally get it right, then you've no fear of handing over to them the power that comes with knowledge. If, however, you trust that people will generally get it wrong, then you'll see value in protecting such knowledge and continuing the path of hierarchical order. This is a considerable challenge for each of us.

Of all of the revelations I've had since I was a boy, none has contributed to my sense of well-being like the knowledge that I'm not, nor do I have to be, perfect. In taking such a position, I've discovered that nobody else is perfect either, and that includes those further up the hierarchical food chain. The greatest myth of the Modernist culture is that the elite are closer to perfection than the rest of us, and as more people discover that this isn't true, our democracy will only get stronger.

Get ready for a bumpy ride.