News as Public Service

Posted: March 5, 2010 in Debate, Economics, Media

I heard a blurb during one of NPR’s fundraising drives this morning that encapsulates something that frequently goes unnoticed in discussions about the slow-motion degradation and disappearance of traditional journalism. In short, responsible journalism (remember that?) performs a public service by gathering and disseminating useful information that enables civic participation by the citizenry. NPR is in a good position to be mindful of that mission, unlike other news organizations that are driven solely by market share, promulgating whatever junk attracts the most readers, listeners, and viewers. Information and news has always been a commodity, but journalism’s underlying economic nature has sometimes — not always — developed alongside an idealistic adherence to truth and service.

One of the memes of the day is that information always wants to be free (as though information has conscious wants at all). The truth is that people want information to be free. That information can be news, entertainment, art, intellectual property, or more generally, knowledge. No one really believes that acquiring or creating information is free. Much of time and effort goes into creative work, investigative journalism, and even developing one’s own mind by getting an education. But if there are shortcuts to how we consume information, especially entertainments, then we want them: free access to music, museums, movies, TV, books, news, etc. Some information sources are subsidized or piggybacked on advertizing, whereas others simply cost to produce. But if we can convince others to give it away for free, such as writing or contributing to a Wikipedia article, then so much the better. And if we can take it for free, even though it may be illegal, then what’s the big deal, right?

I was reminded of the Kevin Costner movie The Postman, where a wanderer in a post-apocalyptic landscape inadvertently stumbles into a job (or messianic calling, as it’s depicted in the film) delivering the mail after all communication have been severed for an apparently extended period of time. In the film, people primarily wanted to exchange news reporting survival or death of their loved ones. News of the fall of civilization or governments didn’t figure prominently — that action occurred offscreen before the start of the film. It was clear that information was a premium commodity when there was none to be had, and the willingness of the Kevin Costner character to traverse the dangerous wilderness to deliver the mail made him a popular hero.

Today, although we’re inundated with information, much of it is trivial, useless, misinformed, or simply aimed at conning us into buying stuff. Further, those institutions that used to perform public services as part of the Fourth Estate are all now dying. Late-stage capitalist economics no longer supports that sort of information gathering. Instead, as mentioned in the NPR blurb, we have given all our attention to news reshaped as entertainment where TV anchors (brands in and of themselves), shock jocks, glib repartee, and controversy rule the day. News can no longer afford to be sober, service oriented, and, well, newsworthy when it has to sell, sell, sell to survive. Why report on serious issues when there is always a sex scandal or love child to be revealed?

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