The Word from the Street

As I noted in my last post, times are hard these days for the mainstream media. But it’s not all a matter of digital change, greedy owners and shrinking balance sheets. There’s also the fact that many in the MSM don’t seem to have a handle on what’s going on.

Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne has a recent column titled “Coming Soon: The 21st Century,” in which he starts off by noting:

Social and political epochs rarely end precisely on schedules provided by calendars. Many historians date the end of Europe’s 19th century to 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. What we call “The Sixties” in the United States, with its ethos of reform and protest, ended with Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 and the winding down of the Vietnam War.

In the same way, the outcome of this year’s election means that 2009 will, finally, mark the beginning of the 21st century.

This is all well and good, as far as it goes. However, he never presents any clues as to how things will be different in 2009. Instead, he just catalogs a variety of ways in which the Bush administration has dealt with current problems – like terrorists and the financial markets – from an outdated 20th century perspective.

Meanwhile Mr. Dionnes’ fellow Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson – in “Humbled By Our Ignorance” – pursues a pastime popular these days among conservatives: basking in ignorance. When confronted with the massive failures of their governance, conservatives fiercely proclaim that the source of such failures was totally unpredictable.

For them, no one could have foreseen 9/11 (except for those warning bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States). No one could have known there were no WMDs in Iraq (except for the UN inspectors who made that point). No one could have known the levees would fail (except for engineers familiar with their limitations). And no one could have predicted that people preoccupied with maximizing profits rather than acting responsibly could bring the economy to its knees (except for economists like Paul Krugman who warned of impending disaster).

Apparently, to conservatives the idea they couldn’t predict what happened absolves them from responsibility for the failures they provoked. I guess being conservative means never having to say you’re sorry.

Contrary to Mr. Dionne, I would argue (as I often do) that the 21st century has been with us for some time. If we want to point to a particular event that defines a break from the 20th century, I would point to the development of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990’s. Up until that time it might have been said we were in the Information Age, but that information was generally controlled by powerful gatekeepers like the mainstream media.

Contrary to Mr. Samuelson, I would say that paying attention to what’s happening now – and borrowing some ideas from the science that has shaped our hyper-linked world – can enlighten us about the workings of current events. Ignorance is not inevitable.

An example of the 21st Century in action is presented by the brief article “The Tools Of Citizen Journalism.” It’s about Demotix

…a London-based startup that allows users to upload pictures (and soon video) that are in turn sold to news outlets. The recent events around the Israel/Palestinian conflict were a perfect showcase of this type of user-generated content site (though, obviously, a tragic one).

This is just another example of how the source of information has changed. The mainstream media has limited space and time to devote to any of the many news topics today. But if you look for them, you’ll find all kinds of other sources that have emerged to give you an idea about what’s going on in places like Iraq and Wall Street .

There’s a great deal of concern these days about corporate control of the news media (for example, see here and here). This is indeed a serious problem – although some sound like prime candidates for the tinfoil hat brigade.

But compared to pre-web days, the mainstream media has much less control today over what we know about current events. And as long as the web is free to all the tide of content will continue to turn from a top-down model to one that is more bottom-up.

Ironically, the mainstream media will probably remain clueless about this shift for some time. Fortunately for them, Robert Samuelson can someday write a piece glorifying their ignorance.

******** POSTSCRIPT ********

Maybe not everyone in the MSM is clueless. Time has a piece by James Poniewozik – “An End, and a Beginning, for the Media” – that gets it right:

Like the car companies, individual media outlets will probably have to learn to be smaller. And they’ll need to see their new-media “problems” as part of the solution. Internet users don’t hate the media. In fact, when given the tools by something like Twitter or YouTube, they want to be the media. People want the vetted information the news media offer–and they want to riff on it, respond to it and even, as in Mumbai, add to it. Journalists should embrace that rather than futilely fight it.

This means offering users more ways of interacting, commenting and contributing. It means seeing new media not as the dumbing down of civilization but as a new way of telling stories and even finding stories. And it means recognizing that the audience is no longer passive–it wants and expects to participate, even as it wants help in making sense of the info deluge.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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