Sunday, September 20, 2009

Journalistic Autonomy: Is it Possible?

The media today is in a world of hurt. Quoting J.C. Merrill from his book The Imperative of Media, the media has become “passive ‘secretaries for the public’ who provide the various audiences only with what they want, what pleases them, what reinforces their prejudices, and what enhances their social position.” That sounds very similar to what is happening now with the media and their products. What was known as the marketplace for ideas is becoming the marketplace of copiers and limitations to what the media can and cannot say.
Nowadays, one can’t find autonomy in the media because it seems that egalitarianism has incorporated itself into journalism and now there’s no incentive for individual achievement or work done. Media people are just taking orders and trying not to get in trouble. That’s why a lot of media products across the spectrum (broadcast news stories, print articles, etc) seem to have no depth at all. No one is taking the time to dig deeper and find out what is “the best version of the truth”. In the words of Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Unfortunately, from Robert Schmuhl and Robert G. Picard’s The Marketplace of Ideas, “free speech is less of a concern than figuring out how to be heard above the din of rapidly circulating messages coming from every direction.” Media people in the end are just getting the assignment done and calling it finished. Along those lines, the media suffers without realizing the damage being done to themselves and the field.
Then is it possible to gain autonomy and bring the media back to a more journalistic and self-deterministic mindset? For one, the marketplace of ideas can’t be measured by size and technology. Another thought is that tastelessness and copies of other works don’t conduct ideas and information. If limited ideas and triviality contain any sufficient power, they drown out lesser voices and discourage thought. One needs to “divorce themselves” from their ideas and biases to see what the truth or best version of the truth is to get to the heart of the story and see it through the stakeholder’s eyes.
Not only do media people need to separate themselves but also to challenge the ideas that are presented in the marketplace. In other words, get people thinking again about what is going on and that will help cut the blandness out of media. If media people challenge what they are presented in an intellectual way, that can spark critical thinking and possibly keep bias out of the marketplace. In other words, how Walter Lippmann sees it, “the press should confront ideas with opposing ideas” so that people will get “true ideas” and if this isn’t done, freedom can’t be defended.
To conclude with Merrill, “as a journalist I must do what I think is responsible, not what some other journalist thinks is responsible. It is the only way that our journalism can retain autonomy.”

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