13 September 2005

The Obsolescence of Mass-Media Journalism

If I were teaching a course on mass-media or journalism this semester or next, the entire course would be focused on the events surrounding the tragedy on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as a case study. (As it turns out, I may well be teaching my Applied McLuhanistics course in the winter semester, beginning January, 2006, so there may be a couple of explorations on this theme.) Anyone who is even partially following this story as it evolves cannot help but be caught up in the overwhelming amount of information, coverage, official and first-person accounts, videos, photographs, pleas, denials, accusations and self-congratulation. But recall that Marshall McLuhan said that information overload reverses into pattern recognition. So one question that arises is, what over-arching patterns are emerging relative to the various grounds that comprise the dominant societal and cultural environment of this disaster?

Jeff Rosen’s PressThink entry, From Deference to Outrage: Katrina and the Press is mandatory reading, for a thoughtful appraisal of what is occurring in the mainstream mass-media. The observation from the non-U.S. journalistic corps is that,
“Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina.The “timid and self-censoring journalistic culture” in the U.S. is normally “no match for the masterfully aggressive spin-surgeons of the Bush administration,” [BBC commentator, Matt] Wells wrote. “But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington.”
This observation, from my ground, represents a hope-against-hope that television news (and mainstream journalism itself) has not, in fact, been obsolesced. But I think it’s too late: Not only have the horses bolted, but the barn has burnt to the ground (after the doors were closed).

The figure of the contrast can be characterized in this excerpt from a New Orleans cameraman’s diary.
I’m only writing this because of what I watched on tv last night. It was the first chance I’ve had to see some of the coverage and what I watched was pathetic. I sensed it yesterday when, amongst the chaos of the unfolding disaster, you realized some of the differences between what is happening here compared to major calamities we’ve endured recently.

There are almost no news crews in the field trying to cover the story. Hundreds, if not thousands of media people are in the region - but I have driven back and forth through some of the worst neighborhoods in the city and you don’t see them. You don’t see the National Guard…..you don’t see ANYONE, except for the poor unfortunate souls wandering the streets looking for food or water. Many of them are on their last legs; they are literally not long for this world. It is surreal; it’s like a zombie scene from Dawn of the Dead. It’s disgraceful that in our times, we are seeing the complete disintegration of our ability to care for our own…

…I watched one of these news robots on the air last night standing at Camp and Canal Street - where it is safe - doing a national live shot saying that “everything is in place now” and “food is being distributed”, and “the National Guard is deployed in force….on the street” - it was pure fiction. This guy hasn’t left the safety of his air conditioned trailer complete with Subway sandwiches (from Baton Rouge) and Gatorade. It’s pathetic.
The evolving reportage from New Orleans, Biloxi, and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast demonstrate that the news-media no longer report the news, so much as make the news. Wherever the television camera is pointing, whoever is speaking into the microphone, whatever passes the editor’s oversight (and the editor’s overseer’s oversight) is the news. By definition. As most of America’s (and the rest of the world’s) press is locked out of New Orleans and environs by federally-controlled military and private contractors, the news is effectively made by CNN, Fox News and (to a lesser extent) MSNBC. And, given both the present and future value of Katrina Disaster Reporting in ratings-tied advertising revenues, none of these networks are about to do too many things in defiance of the administration’s power elite. And, if one were to watch any of these networks, the situation, while still desperate, is improving: progress is being made, families are being reunited, people are getting on with life… in short, the American spirit triumphs, and the underclass who have been front and centre throughout this debacle, once again disappear from the camera eye, and the collective consciousness.

Thankfully, the effects of emergent transparency – the ability to see through the hypnotic fog perpetrated by political power thanks to the emergence of patterns from a wide variety of massively-interconnected bits of information – are now dominant. The ‘net is filled with accounts that not only contradict the “serious-but-stable” prognosis fed by the conventional mass-media, but also provide direct evidence of the patrician attitudes that precipitated the disaster in the first place, and continue an ill-conceived response. The not-so-secret dirty-little-secrets of the United States of America are laid bare for all to see – systemic poverty, illiteracy, classism, racism, indifference to the point of negligence are available for the rest of the world to judge the self-appointed arbiter of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The mainstream mass-media is obsolete. This does not mean that it disappears – quite the opposite. But it no longer dominates in the ability to shape the public agenda. The sooner that political factions recognize this fact, and respond by embracing more appropriate forms of engagement, participation, and divesting itself of the mentality of command-and-control, the better off we all will be.
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Ligaya said...

Good day! I'd like to comment about this particular post.

Personally, I don't give a fucking ass about Hurricane Katrina. I find it downright pathetic that the Burning Bush thinks it is so tragic, just as he found the convoluted 9/11 plane hits a tragedy. You want REAL tragedy? Go to the countries affected by last year's tsunami in Asia! Or, go to my country, the Philippines, where cronyism and political turmoil exist vis-a-vis poverty on a daily basis!


Mark Federman said...

While there is tragedy in the hundreds (probably thousands) who have died, or will soon die as a result of the Hurricane and the flooding of New Orleans (which is no different in effect than the tragedy of the recent tsunami), what is being revealed here is the daily tragedy of the "discards" of North American (affluent) society - those of colour, those who are born into poverty and are "left behind" by the neo-liberal politics of the current U.S. administration, those who are invisible and untouchable in a society where economic disparity is a rarely told, and poorly told, story.

In Philippines, cronyism and political turmoil is relatively common knowledge, and often investigated by your Institute for Investigative Journalism (from whence the winner of the annual McLuhan Scholarship in Investigative Journalism comes to Canada to speak across the country, including the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.) In the United States, cronyism, political turmoil, corruption and pork-barrel politics are also practiced daily, that may ultimately lead to the economic demise of the U.S. From where I sit, what is happening in the U.S. in general appears like Enron-writ-large.