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Listening to the news media parrot politicians’ posturing over the AIG bonuses made me see some disturbing parallels. It seems that the search for A story consistently gets in the way of the search for THE story. Way too many reporters and their editors seem more concerned with getting something on the front page today than on zeroing in on what, in the long run, really matters.
The parallels are with the economic system and politicians. We’ve nearly been done in by CEOs who’ve been more concerned with this quarter’s financial results than with long term stability, growth and profitability. And it seems almost impossible for anyone in congress to think beyond their rant of the moment.
I (though I’m probably not the first) call this tendency to be enthusiastically distracted by the short term du-jour-ism. It has caused collective blindness about the value of long term investments in education, infrastructure and institutions. Where’s the concern about the number of engineers we’ll be producing in 2020? Why aren’t we putting our best minds to work on redesigning financial institutions and regulation (and focusing our spotlights on the importance thereof)? Why does the media allow various players (on both right and left) get away with falling back on their old hobbyhorses (e.g., “It’ll be socialism!!!”) rather than asking hard questions (e.g., “Our education system is not up to the tasks of the 21st century — what are we going to do about it?”)? Where are the reporters saying “Well, yes, but economists have shown that X is irrelevant.”?
It’ll take some brave and strong voices (and intellects) to break out of the cycle of du-jour-ism. Some commentators over the last few days have made some arguments along these lines about AIG, but so far their voices have been largely drowned out by hysteria and posturing.
Why is this about information? Du-jour-ism represents a style of thinking and communicating — one that characterizes informal chit chat, gossip, and mobs of various kinds. It is a style of information behavior that is characterized by a focus on trees rather than forests, inconsequence rather than consequence, personality rather than substance, emotion rather than fact. It is information handling that is driven by delivering what recipients want and expect, what they already think, what is easy to receive and digest rather than what they may find surprising or disturbing or that may require re-evaluating assumptions.
An information order dominated by this sort of information behavior becomes top-heavy with convenient fictions and invites an eventual clobbering by inconvenient facts.
In recent weeks we’ve read of the demise of several major newspapers. Most of the analytical conversation about these events suggests that newspapers are getting throttled by new technology. The internet is changing their operating environment and the newspaper companies have not succeeded at changing their business model to succeed in the new environment. There have been shifts in the world out there and so media institutions need to adjust.
But I wonder if this obvious explanation doesn’t obscure things a bit. By keeping the focus on technology, we avoid asking hard questions about the product and practice of journalism. Could it be that the changes that the environment is “calling for” include new ways of producing information as well as new ways of delivering information produced using conventional practices?
I put this out there because I’ve noticed that the two most obvious “initiatives” carried out by media organizations are (1) delivering the same old stuff over new media and (2) spicing up delivery to make it more entertaining. I have not, though, noticed any fundamental changes in the production of information. Have journalists taken up any new analytical tools? Do we see a move toward journalists developing new levels of substantive expertise?
In the wake of the financial crisis there’s been lots of “why didn’t anyone see this coming?” hand wringing. Of course, if you look closely, you’ll see that there WERE lots of pieces out there giving us a warning. But a big piece of our after-the-fact-wisdom is that things were just too complex for observers to decipher. So, is there any chance that this experience will provide an incentive for higher degrees of expertise among journalists? Or will we stick with the “find a source who will tell you what to write” approach (often enough balanced by some other expert who is willing to claim something to the contrary)?
James Surowiecki has a piece in the current New Yorker “News You Can Lose” (22 December) about the increasingly common disappearance of local newspapers. He notes that a common explanation for the problems faced by newspapers is that, like the railroads last century, they have failed to recognize what business they are in. If “newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.”
True enough perhaps, Surowiecki writes. But something else interesting is going on: “The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular.” We blog about what’s in the paper; we forward articles millions of times a day. I do it; you do it. What most of us don’t do, is pay for online subscriptions.
Why don’t I, as an avid consumer of news, opinion, and commentary, and as one of those bloggers who spread the renown of NYT content, have more online media subscriptions? Simple reason: they all require me to pay up front before I know whether and how much I will actually look at them in practice. Sure enough, that’s the same commercial relationship I have with them on the newstand or when I sign up for home delivery (not exactly — I usually don’t have to sign up for, say, a year at a time).
Why don’t they agree to at least split the risk with me? I sign up today and if I end up using them everyday, my annual subscription is X. If I only visit on average once a week, then I’ll pay, say, X/30. If I check them out only a few times and then never come back, they get a small token payment and we part ways. Notice that this is not “per use” pricing — that’s not attractive — it won’t work for either of us if I have to make new purchase decisions every time. But any media outlet confident enough to say “we think we’re good enough that if you start looking at our pages, you’ll be back regularly” would stand a pretty good chance of signing me up. And, if it turns out I really did like them and use them regularly, they’d get a year’s worth of subscription fee from me. I’d likely try out numerous publications under such a plan, knowing that in the end, I can stay within my media budget because I only have so much time to read. The one’s who keep me coming back get the bigger slice of my media spending (and their advertisers get my eyeballs and maybe even my clicks).
This post is not my usual brand of sociology of information. It’s true that the topics I’m including under that title DO veer off in the direction of media and journalism and related public discourse realms, but since there are already well established and well defined fields that study that stuff, I’ve felt there’s no reason for the sociology of information to be intellectually imperialist in its aspirations.
But just the same….
My local radio station is fund-raising this week. During one of the pledge breaks the hosts were talking about a lefty show that had an episode on voter suppression (meaning republicans are trying to prevent folks from voting democratic). They bantered back and forth to the effect of “We know there was lots of voter suppression in the 2004 election and it’s still going on, you know….” My politics being more or less the same as theirs, my main reaction was a simple “yup” between spoonfuls of cereal. The next thing they said was that there would be a local show about the presidential debate next week. Both sort of tripped over words trying to express something like “because we’re different [from the national crowd] here in the (San Francisco) Bay Area.”
First, I’m sure that if I played with my radio dial or sat down at my computer I could really fast find a right wing radio show that was all up in arms about “voter fraud” (meaning some people who shouldn’t be allowed to vote voted democratic). So what? Seems so symptomatic of the state of our public discourse : preaching to the choir on both sides; demonization and fear mongering. “Our” side is probably right, but I just found myself wondering what we hope to accomplish with this kind of “journalism.” Does it fan the flames of my indignation? Burn in more deeply my conviction? Or does it just make it less and less likely that we’ll ever manage to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with us and less likely that either will budge if we did?
For the second thing, back to the radio hosts’ comment about the Bay Area being different. Again, I suspect there are lots of radio hosts around the country saying more or less the same thing this morning. And each of them is comparing local sensibilities to an idealized version of some “outsider” them. We Texans are a might bit different from those New Yorkers! We Floridians are not like the rest of the south. We south Floridians are not like the rest of Florida. And on and on. If we (whoever we are) really want to win this election, you’d think one of the most important things would be to listen to people who are not like us, listen good, and learn how to talk with them too.
It is interesting that we could live in an “information age” and yet maybe have lost the ability to talk.
Perhaps of Interest
Diana C. Mutz Hearing the Other Side. Cambridge University Press