Friday's at the Mic: A Break for Deep Thought
Events of the last month (again, sorry for the delay in this blog) warrant a look, so I am taking a one week break from audio fiction to touch upon a few things.
We have just completed a presidential election in the United States in which a very unpopular candidate won. The election results have caused a lot of anger among the populace and a lot of soul searching in the media. Some journalists take these election results as a personal failure, the logic being that if those in the media had done their jobs better, someone considered so unqualified would not have been elected president. There is also a fairly robust conversation about what is being called 'fake news', stories made to look like regular news content but with no journalistic intent. Instead, fake news is propaganda which uses false statistics and non-existent facts to favor one candidate or point of view. It's existence on your Facebook wall – fake news and the Washington Post sitting side-by-side – is being cited as the problem. I, however, am not so sure that the fault lies with Facebook.
First, I should point out that I feel I owe a debt to the creators of the Internet so I may not be impartial. My art form, audio fiction, had been left for dead by radio decades ago and it was only with the coming of digital that producers like me were able to create stories. With the coming of the Internet we could distribute those stories, and with social media, we could promote them. Still, I approached my work aware that even though I had access to an international distribution system, I was still not in the same class as the old school media outlets like CBS and NBC. They measured their audience in the tens-of-millions, me in the thousands. So even though I feel a debt to the creators of the Internet, I didn't really think they provided me with a REAL global stage. That privilege is reserved for the Big Boys like the aforementioned TV networks. But the results of this election made me wonder: how big is that difference in 2016? How much power does big media really have? They are certainly blamed for a lot of woes, and if this last election is any indication, they are willing to shoulder that blame. But I can't help but wonder if this is a calculated move on the part of Big Media. After all, it would be better to be blamed for an election of a president than to be exposed as irrelevant.
Television viewership is down. This is not a secret. The networks are well aware that today's ratings do not compare to those of 30 years ago. Every year, tens of thousands of young people move out of their college dorms and into their first apartments with a big screen TV that has never known a cable hookup or an antennae. Television's style - a steady stream of content delivered either via cable or the air - is losing out to systems that deliver content on-demand. And as viewership changes, older styles of journalism start to look threadbare and hokey. Younger viewers notice more readily that live coverage like that offered at the recent election is very repetitive. Wolf Blitzer and his ilk attempt to keep the viewer's attention with 'new' information that, in reality, has already been reported four times.
Meanwhile, the vast, impossible to control Internet continues to grow. What does this mean? Will a new service, perhaps created by Google, eclipse the old TV networks? Will we be lost in a sea of misinformation, pining for the days when Walter Cronkite spoke with god-like credibility? As attractive as that might be, it's impossible. Television, radio and cable networks were built by men looking to turn a profit. As such, the networks were designed to be controlled. The Internet, on the other hand, was designed by academics aiming for infinite expansion and access. It might be possible to put some controls on the Internet, which could conceivably lead to editorial control of what the system can and cannot show, but totalitarian governments have tried that with mixed results. What I think it all means is this: the age of accountability is upon us. We greet this dawn with childish whining and adolescent sulking, wishing 'someone' would just take care of media for us. Or more to the point, take care of our neighbor's media so he didn't have so many crazy opinions. We don't know what to watch because there is so much to choose from. We don't know who to believe because we lack the critical thinking skills to discern, skills we can only require when we shift our focus away from our immediate desires and which ideological pacifier would best satisfy them.
But these critical thinking skills can be gained. It will take practice and we will not be particularly good at it at first. But we need to gain these skills because, in truth, we don't have a choice. The world changed and the fact we didn't want it too is irrelevant. It happened. The future belongs not to those who pine for the past, but to those who can understand the present. If you want peace of mind, you must begin to cultivate the delicate balance between skepticism and cynicism.
Journalism did not fail in 2016. The times simply changed, and we didn't recognize that. The future belongs to the smart and the wise. Reacting emotionally will make you feel worse and worse until just living day to day will seem impossible. Let the crazies on the fringes binge on their simplistic, binary ideology. They have the right to do so in a free society. But you don't have a responsibility to follow them. Journalism did not fail in 2016. We were not yet wise enough for the new journalism.