LONDON, MAY 8: The brilliant novelist and media- maker Afshin Rattansi opens his provocative London novel, “The Dream of the Decade,” with this quote from the Italian dissident Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
His last section tells a fictionalized story of his experience working for “The Corporation” in a place called Television Centre, a sprawling labyrinth of a headquarters “for which there is no map.”
He writes, “another producer who had been getting lost a lot joked to his editor that if, somehow, everyone at the corporation died, they would have to send explorers into the building to map the place out in the manner of Vasco Da Gamma or Columbus.”
This is a metaphoric reference to the BBC’s production emporium in London’s White City where I spent a day last week discussing the ways Big Media lost its way, and is struggling hard to map out a new strategy to regain public trust. That occasion was the pricey “We Media” conference, co-sponsored by Reuters, in association with a U.S. think tank called The Media Center. It discussed how the media system has to adopt new technologies and ways of working or die.
Mapping out the contours of the emerging media system is now on the agenda of consumers and creators in consciousness industries all over the world. Suddenly, many major media combines-perhaps still more outside America than in-have put aside their institutional arrogance and realized that their traditional approach is no longer selling. Some also recognize that they are driving viewers away with sleazy infotainment and a decontextualized emphasis on breaking or “rolling” news.
Leading executives are now interested in moving beyond broadcasting into broadband, integrating so-called user-generated content like citizens journalism including blogs, podcasts, videos and photos. They are opening their doors to “the people” while insisting, at they same time, they will not “lower standards” of accuracy, impartiality, balance and other boilerplate blah-blah.
The headline on the BBC’s internal newspaper Ariel shouts “Reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” a play on Mark Twain’s dicta about a premature obituary he once read about himself. The Corporation’s chief Mark Thompson has promulgated a gutsy new policy with technologies that give the audience new ways to “find, play and share” programming when they want to enjoy it. Global News chief Richard Sambrook admits that the world’s most popular news organization BBC with 16 million internet users worldwide, despite its flaws wants more public input and not just as filler. Don’t be passive-participate–is the new mantra.
Finally, some of the mighty voices of media authority and their know-it all gatekeepers of content are realizing they don’t have all the answers and that maybe, just maybe, their viewers and listeners have a right to be heard and have something to say beyond sending in eyewitness video or catchy camera-phone pix.
My own voyage of exploration in this media shift has taken me in just a few months to what seems like a non-stop global talkathon of endless conferences, forums, workshops, panels and debates in places like Slovenia and Copenhagen, from one side of London to another and the wild east of Kazakhstan, with a pit stop in Newark New Jersey. In all of these locales, I have been doing some speaking but more listening.
As the frequent flyer miles pile up undermined by the jet lag, I find myself engaged in this same search, asking what can we who want a better and more democratic media system do differently to keep up with fast moving trends of change. How can we attract audiences and build a movement for change?
The discourse is not academic or contrived. Necessity remains the mother of invention. Wherever I go, I carry my critique on what’s wrong with modern journalism in the form of books and videos in my luggage but some of it already feels tired or obsolete as if we are already in a post-journalism age where millions want to hear the sound of their own voices much more than my own or those of other “professional” practitioners and pundits.
In every location, the business buzz bristles with innovative ideas, new software and reluctant acknowledgements that the media system is being changing radically and that a new generation doesn’t want what many of the media companies have been offering.
New satellite channels-the subject of a conference backed by UNESCO that I later attended at Copenhagen’s Business School-are fragmenting the audience even more into special interest slivers. Most are offering more of the same but the Arabic news channels and others targeted to ethnic minorities and diasporic communities are offering impactful programming with different outlooks and programming,
As they say, “the cheese is moving” with the big companies plunging into the digital future with hopes of dominating it as totally as they have the analog world. The Telecom giants are subverting “net neutrality.” Rupert Murdoch has bought Myspace.com. Big advertising agencies are using sites like You Tube and Rocket Boom to plant hype for products with cool new videos that don’t look like conventional ads. They want to control what they call the internet “space” and make it their own. These private interests are shrinking the public space and subverting commitments to public interest and service.
Unfortunately, many are using bottom-up content to help them keep top down control. For them it’s a way to “enhance” their commercial products and infuse them with the aura of populism. They have realized they can add bottom-up creativity and diverse points of view without diluting their corporate narrative which usually denies (and conceals) that it has any point of view. They don’t care what you say as long as they can get it to pay.
On the positive side, Reuters has made a deal to distribute Global Voices online, a valuable aggregator of blogs from around the world while BBC is encouraging citizen engagement.
Did you know that blogs are proliferating like a proverbial prairie fire with as many 51 million now in existence in just five years? A new one is said to come online every second. This is the most rapid adoption of a new media platform in history, perhaps since the original Tower of Babble in ancient Iraq. There are so many blogs in Iran that many young people refer to their country as “blogostan.”
The old slogan “be the media” has turned into “We the Media.” Clearly people, in every country and every continent want to communicate with each other and often the world. Many younger people seek authenticity in media, truth in news, honesty in expression and outspoken anti-establishment attitudes. Hence, the appeal of the Comedy Channel as a source of news.
They are using instant messenging and SMS text technologies as never before. New interactive games are all the rage worldwide. Much of its content is entertainment but some new forms of political expression are being heard.
News is also going mobile along with our phones. The online world is 24/7, and there when you want it. which may be one reason that the governments and big companies are trying so hard to control it. Most want to keep us as passive consumers, not empowered citizens.
Media watchers and analysts have a new challenge too. Scrutinizing the New York Times and the elite press or monitoring the main TV channels only touches on a small part of a new pervasive information flow. We need to broaden our approach. Television is not “over.” Far from it! TV News, with all its censored and self-censored versions of reality, is still the main platform for news dissemination but hardly the media leader it once was. I was once proud of working in network TV. I wouldn’t be today.
There is still a need a continuing need to challenge the media beast, to track TV News and combat media concentration. New Media today supplements Old Media but it has not yet offered a real alternative in the sense of a widely accepted mainstream, credible and competitive news and information system. We have more Internet sites than ever but not the well marketed and “branded” independent outlets we need for truly mass consumption.
Driven by an army of strategists, Old Media entities are investing large sums of money to co-opt new media’s spirit while undercutting its independence and capacity to make change.
Gramsci was unfortunately prescient in saying “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Well, at least, not without a fight. Remember, he also believed in “pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will.”
It is this crisis that gives our emerging media and democracy movement, including organizations such as ours, Free Press, FAIR, Media Matters et.al. more than enough work to do.
We at Mediachannel are fighting to stay in this fight by finding new ways to update and transform our site with more visual material and interactive tools that can energize our base and network. Unlike some others, we see media reform as a global movement and are seeking partnerships and relations with media organizations worldwide.
We cannot stand still any more than the outlets we cover.
Just as major media is turning to citizen input, we need to find ways to activate citizens who recognize than having one’s say is not enough-that we have to transform journalism, make media institutions more accountable and transparent and engage in the search for truth. Media is still the best way to learn about the world, and one way to change it.
Technology alone is not a solution. More of a commitment to democracy by the media could be. And that means you!
New Dissector Danny Schechter is “blogger in chief” at Mediachannel. Org and author of “The Death of the Media and the Fight to Save Democracy” News. See Newsdisssector.org/store.htm. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org