Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Criticizing journalism, one cartoon panel at a time

Eight or nine years ago, Brooke Gladstone interviewed me for her National Public Radio show, "On the Media."

Back then, the Post Register was one of a handful of daily newspapers in the U.S. charging for access to its online content, and this was her topic. I must have been boring or lacked insight, because the segment never aired, so far as I know. It’s moot, of course, because nowadays most small newspapers charge in one way or another for online access to their news.

Gladstone has written a new book, “The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media,” (W.W. Norton, $23.95) and it’s getting a lot of buzz. Well, “written” is too strong a word. It’s essentially a comic book, or “graphic” book, consisting mostly of pages of cartoons by Josh Neufeld and cartoon bubbles with commentary by Gladstone. Presumably she did this to attract a broader audience – people who don’t like to read, in other words.

This is an important segment of our population, so Gladstone gets kudos there. However, the book is neither profound nor important on a larger scale. That said, she makes some relevant points – not that I agree with all of them.

For example, she suggests that objective journalism is an impossible goal and should be thrown over in favor of transparency and disclosure. 

“The question isn’t whether (journalists) hold opinions, but whether they suppress those opinions – to the extent they can – when they do their work,” she writes in one particularly eloquent cartoon bubble.

Here, of course, she states the obvious. No one believes that journalists are automatons devoid of opinion or life experience that colors their world view. But just because pure objectivity can’t be achieved doesn’t mean that we should dump it as the ideal. Truth is, we should strive to be objective AND be utterly transparent in our process.
The ideal of objectivity came about as a business decision, not an ethical one, as Gladstone points out. Early in our country’s history, newspapers openly supported one agenda or another. Eventually, however, publishers learned they could sell more papers by providing a product that appealed to the broadest possible audience. It was well into the 20th century before this became an ethical ideal.

Gladstone uses up a good share of her cartoon panels trying to make the point that “media” is a plural noun and that there can be no monolithic “mainstream media” that wields powerful, coordinated influence. This would seem to be slap-yourself-on-the-forehead obvious, but perhaps it takes seeing it in graphical form to drive home the point.

If you have some time between dinner and bed time one evening and hate the idea of tracking footnotes, grab up the book and give it a read. Meanwhile, I’m going to drop her an email to suggest that I’m available to revisit the paid content issue.

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