What Is Left of the Future of News?
Let’s admit that news, as we recognized it for two centuries, is dying. It has lost most of its purpose for the majority of the middle class, and its value as a commodity has evaporated. But if news is almost dead, how can journalism — and thereby democracy — survive?
The biggest challenge for journalism is how to stay relevant to a democratic society even while its primary form — news — is disintegrating and while being buffeted by the twin forces of entertainment and propaganda. It is a grim picture and an extremely challenging task, but two recent trends offer some hope: the rise of podcasts and digital video.
Radio, and podcasts in particular, is a hybrid medium. It is still largely word-based and therefore capable of empowering rational arguments and elevating serious conversations, but it can also convey depth of emotion. Using Neil Postman’s dichotomy, it is somewhere between the textual, “typographic” form of books and the visual, “photographic” form of TV as a medium for intellectual engagement, and perhaps this explains why serious, in-depth podcasts and audiobooks are growing in popularity.
Digital video is also gaining momentum. The combination of serious investigative reporting, opinion, and dramatic structure is a promising sign for the future of journalism. Video can both conduct and cultivate passionate public conversations about important policy issues, and for a much wider audience than academic nonfiction books. Ironically, both are reincarnations of existing forms of radio and documentary cinema.
The wider context, however, is bleak. Human civilization seems to be entering a new phase we could call the “post-Enlightenment,” where the central pillars of rationality and the written word are being structurally replaced by images and emotions. Faith is replacing facts; like buttons kill links. Television is making a comeback, dominating every aspect of our lives and reducing it all to entertainment, as Neil Postman warned in 1985 in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The steady growth of inequality and the collapse of the welfare states have led to a decline of public education and public media around the world. This has only helped our departure from the principles of the Enlightenment, in which knowledge and education were used to overcome prejudice and ignorance.
We should pity journalism. It is not only seeing the news at its very heart taken out, but at a time when democracy is outsmarted by entertainment, it is losing its entire purpose. Carey had a line for this, too: “Without the institutions of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.”
“The Founding Fathers were historians enough to know that democracies or republics have a life expectancy of about 200 years before decaying into tyranny. They underscored that democratic institutions are fragile, the moments of their existence fleeting in historical time. The great imperative of journalism is to prevent us from unconsciously lurching back into domination, however benign and friendly its face.” — James W. Carey
Carey’s warning has never sounded more true. He not only assumes that democracy needs journalism; he also believes that journalism and democracy are, in fact, names for the same thing — in essence, they are both forms of a public conversation. “What we mean by democracy depends on the forms of communication by which we conduct politics. What we mean by communication depends on the central impulses and aspirations of democratic politics. What we mean by public opinion depends on both.”
Media scholar Jay Rosen has his own interpretation of Carey’s account of democracy: “Journalists earn their credentials as democrats not by supplying information or monitoring the state — although both may be necessary. As energetic supporters of public talk, they should be helping us cultivate certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, decide the alternative purposes that might be pursued.”
If, as Carey suggests, democracy is the same thing as journalism, it should not surprise us to see both in deep trouble these days. We can only save democracy by saving journalism — or vice versa.