Text of Laura Flanders originally published in The Next System.
A personal introduction
In the interest of full transparency, this essay is personal. When it comes to journalism, I’ve been on a career-long search for an effective, sustainable alternative to corporate mono-speak. In all that time, regular people have never had more communications capacity than we have right now. But the goal of a functional, public media sphere remains as distant, if not more distant than ever, and the power gap separating poor from wealthy media grows more dangerous by the day.
I first thought of myself as a journalist on the day I saw a policeman shoot and kill an unarmed man in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in my early twenties. I had no credentials, no contract, no formal relationship to any media outlet, but I knew I was witnessing something important—and I was familiar with a community radio station in New York City that broadcast stories from non-professionals like myself. Indeed, listener-supported, bottom-up reporting, mostly by volunteers, was the business-model of Pacifica station, WBAI. Hours later (from a payphone), I called them up and filed my report.
Three decades on, a young woman in a war zone doesn’t need a radio station. She’s likely to have a high definition camera in her cellphone and the ability to record breaking news and distribute it, live, to people all around the world, via the internet. Powerful communications tools are no longer the private possession of a handful of mostly affluent white men and the corporations who like them. Rebellious music can go viral, rebellious citizens can throw off dictators, and hashtags can become movements. But that doesn’t mean we’re not in a crisis.
Concentrating power and corroding democracy
The same explosion of innovation that made it easier for independents to reach an audience destroyed the old gatekeepers and their gates. Into the new, networked world gushed a flood of content, some of which was revolutionary, but most of it was commercial—and lots of it toxic. In a few short decades, the world wide web that had promised diversity, democracy, and decentralization had actually concentrated power, accelerated abuse, and left journalism struggling for breath in a no-conscience contest for clicks and cash.
It should come as no surprise. The business of US journalism is subject to the same policy choices on which it (sometimes) reports. For example, deregulation. As federal limits on the number of TV, radio, and print outlets a single company can own have been dismantled, we went from several hundred owners of major media outlets in the US to just a couple of dozen in the last two decades of the 20th Century. By the 2000s, the media businesses that remained were larger, more embedded in the global economy, and more committed to squeezing higher profits from their operations (in keeping with the get-richer-quicker ethos which they used their airwaves to promote.) New owners, especially those who came into the networks in the 80s and 90s—Disney (ABC), Westinghouse (CBS), and General Electric (NBC)—demanded for the first time that even their news operations made money. Today, the idea that a major corporation would see television as a civic responsibility rather than just more revenue generating “content” seems almost unthinkable.
As a result of this shift, it’s often now said that news has become more like entertainment. It certainly has become less like news. The big three networks cut back on resourcing journalism to the point that most of the world, not to mention most US state capitols, were barely covered. At the same time, advertising proliferated to the point that those who tuned in for half an hour of nightly news saw at least ten minutes of ads. As TV audiences, and ad dollars started fleeing, costly, actually reported news stories were replaced by in-studio punditry, cheaper both financially and otherwise. Newspaper newsrooms, meanwhile, were already decimated before the 2008 recession—and went on to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs during it. Today fewer than half as many reporters and editors work in any sort of news media as worked there when I started out.
While newsrooms were contracting, the internet was exploding, especially as a site of commerce. If corporations could market directly to consumers, they didn’t need to attach their ads to newspaper articles or broadcast shows. With accelerating speed, advertising dollars flowed away from journalism, migrating not just online, but specifically into social media and search engines. Corporations could get closer to customers (and get more information about them) by placing their ads on pages served up by Google than on the website of The Guardian or Truthout.
In a world without regulation or oversight, executives at Google, Facebook, and Amazon have accrued unparalleled power astonishingly fast. As Jonathan Taplin, Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, reports, between 2004 and 2016, Google’s share of the search engine market went from 35 percent to 88 percent in the USA (and more elsewhere). Amazon’s net sales soared from $6.9 billion to $107 billion, accounting for 65 percent of all book sales.
Consumers feel that what they are enjoying is abundance, even if it isn’t. A few originally-reported news stories and features are recycled, usually with no kick-back to the originators, gobbling up clicks all over the web. Talk about an extractive industry: Taplin reckons that for most of the last decade revenues flooded at a rate of some $50 billion a year from the creators of media (reporters, writers, artists, film makers, musicians) to the owners of media platforms. (From the workers, you might say, to landlords.) While corporate media outlets have often been owned by extractive industries, the new media are themselves extractive, making their profits off human data and creativity, and giving the public nothing—or worse than nothing—back. (The new corporations’ business model involves charging “consumers” for access to their own content, photographs, blogposts, music, contacts.)
> Read the full text in The Next System.