Friday, August 29, 2008

WaPo's TMI Editorial, Part 2

Yesterday's post only got us halfway through this recent editorial in the Washington Post (a news source I'm having increasing trouble taking seriously, even though it's my hometown paper), so let's continue with this little gem:

The opportunity to educate millions of citizens, so essential to significant movements of the past, has dwindled. In the early New Deal era, the Roman Catholic "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin promoted ideas for economic reform to a weekly audience estimated at 40 million, which helped pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and other programs. Today's top talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, reaches only about 14 million people per week.

This comes after some more extensive comment on media fragmentation. I mention the context because one might well be moved to wonder how, in an age of information ubiquity, the opportunity for education has dwindled at all. But what Horwitt is really talking about is claiming and holding people's attention. Librarians are familiar with this problem, to be sure. On the other hand, here as elsewhere Horwitt's real complaint seems to be that journalists no longer have a monopoly on sharing, interpreting, and explicating current events.

Speaking as an information professional, I have two things to say on that: 1) it's not clear that journalists ever did have such a monopoly, and 2) get over it.

And Father Charles Coughlin? Really? Horwitt's idea of a good supporting example is a notorious anti-Semite who's better known for being against the New Deal than for it? Horwitt isn't a journalist, but if this is his idea of journalism, maybe that's a good thing.

It is true that Coughlin was one of the first to harness the power of radio for political ends. He certainly wasn't the last, though. And if Limbaugh only reaches 14 million people per week, I have trouble seeing that as a bad thing. That's a qualitative judgment on my part, but in a way, that's my point, and the biggest problem I have with Horwitt's argument: he's making a case for a situation that disallows and silences heterogeneous points of view. It's hard to see how such a situation can possibly further the cause of a democratic society.

Moving on:

Without broad media coverage, the civil rights movement might never have succeeded. In 1965, front-page newspaper coverage of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., helped push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, write journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Race Beat." Even the Fairbanks Alaska News-Miner carried the story on the front page for 10 straight days.

Fair enough. In fact, journalism today could draw a lesson or two here, and arguably has, if the State of the News Media report's content analysis of newspaper coverage in 2007 is anything to go by. Newspapers seem to have figured out that their reports aren't first on the scene anymore; where they continue to excel is in in-depth analysis.

But if Horwitt is arguing that such coverage no longer exists, that doesn't follow from his previous points. He goes on to say that in the wake of declining newspaper coverage, "other news outlets aren't picking up the slack", and for evidence cites the declining audiences of major television news--as though no other news outlets exist. Considering his earlier statements about radio, one wonders why he doesn't mention this news outlet that he clearly values. Could it be because listenership is largely holding steady, which appears to counter his argument?

He's right that TV news audiences have been on the decline for years, though. On the other hand, one wishes that he'd looked at which online news sites overall (instead of just blogs) get the most traffic. CNN and MSNBC may not have figured out how to make money with their online channels, but that doesn't mean they aren't attracting large audiences.

Anyway, while the editorial thus far is vague as to its point, weakly argued, and cites poor examples (it'd make a great example of what not to do in an information literacy workshop), the foregoing is as nothing compared to what Horwitt recommends to ameliorate this state of affairs. To wit:

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread. It could be done via a progressive energy tax designed to keep energy prices at a consistently high level (while providing assistance to lower- and middle-income Americans).

At this point, what capacity for commentary I possess fails me. Horwitt is actually arguing that the best way to preserve democracy is to reduce access to information.


I found myself wanting to look behind the curtain, to see if perhaps Horwitt was making a play for Jonathan Swift-style satire. He writes social commentary disguised as country music and impersonates Bill Clinton; this suggests he has some sort of sense of humor, however unrefined.

Others elsewhere have pointed out why Horwitt's comparison to the cost of shipping (which is still, despite the skyrocketing cost of fuel, a relatively small portion of the overall cost of manufacture, delivery, and retail) isn't really germane, and his quote about computers being "the most energy-intensive of home devices" comes from a paper on the energy intensity of computer manufacturing, leads one to conclude that he's advocating reducing the information glut by taxing computer makers.

At this point, I'd like to know whether Horwitt drives a car manufactured in the past decade, uses a bank or credit union, or shops in a grocery store. For someone who claims to specialize in studying energy consumption, he doesn't appear to understand the implications of what he's advocating.

Or maybe he does. After all, he argues that "an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information" (emphasis added). How on Earth could this be achieved, without also driving up the costs of banking, store supply management, and automotive onboard electronics, unless you're taxing energy use based on the use being made of that energy?

Horwitt is starting to sound like those people who advocate closing all the libraries and replacing them with a personal computer for every family, people who have clearly never observed neophytes in public libraries attempting to use the Internet. And as the new media landscape evolves, it's also starting to look like he's complaining about a nonexistent problem. Consider the introduction to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report, particularly this quote:

Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.

By Horwitt's definition, it appears that democracy is safe. By my own, I'm reminded of a song by The Who. The one that goes, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Yeah. That one.

I was going to end there, but I can't resist poking a little more, at this:

A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

If Horwitt cared to look, he might see that this is already happening. In my own community, a diverse area encompassing multiple neighborhoods, languages, cultures of origin, and socio-economic conditions, we have a news resource that concentrates on news within the community. It's already been credited with helping to solve several burglaries, to bring traffic to new businesses, and has been cited by citywide media on issues of interest.

It also just happens to be a blog.

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