On Independent Press

It is interesting seeing different opinions on flaws of today’s journalism and its lack of objectivity or even ability to simply “connect the dots”. Professor Noam Chomsky in interview for National Observer recognizes that “the advertising-profit model for media has just undermined journalism”. On the other hand The Economist reports that “today, as ad revenues leak away to search engines and social networks, newspapers have come to rely more on paying readers.”

These two contrary points of view don’t neccessarily exclude each other. By massaging their readers’ egos, magazines and newspapers maintain their profiles and keep advertisers. It isn’t surprising that ads published in The Financial Times are different than in Red Tops, British tabloids with red mastheads. This naturally leans publishers towards certain viewpoints, narrows scope of publications and eventually leads to reporters’ self-censorship.

It’s no secret that capital quickly leaves print press in favor of tracking target audience in digital world, but this doesn’t improve the situation of journals at all. There’s no true freedom if one has to rely on someone else’s money as agendas of people who own it always stay afloat. Professor Chomsky reminds that in its early days United States “subsidized things like free postal rates, which were devices to try to create an independent press”, which raises a question why don’t we have similar programmes today. Bad news is that when state starts throwing public money at press or any other media, it creates yet another gear in its propaganda machine and it ultimately works against society. But subsidizing delivery networks or libraries in even small towns where one could go and read for free what’s currently available is another pair of boots.

It seems that unless publishers stockpile money, their true independence is impossible. But what if that’s good? Maybe some self-censorship works for the higher quality of journalism? After all, if journalists had no moral breaks and could say whatever they want, we would probably end up with another Twitter clone.

But perhaps we’re seeking Plato’s shadows on the wall and journalism was never free nor objective. It is possible that it doesn’t have to be. The problem might lie deeper, in miserable state of today’s public debate. Even partisan journalism adds value if it can be compared with points of opposing party and true objectivity can be only achieved when readers are able to easily analyze different opinions. We don’t have platforms to do that. Classical media offer only a single perspective on most topics, without even mentioning any others. The internet technically allows that but news aggregators and social media, two most popular platforms, are in fact filters which censor any dissent. Search engines are no better: destroyed by search engine optimization techniques, you’re more likely to find a t-shirt opposing (or approving) current affairs than read different takes on them. This might be small exaggeration, but not far from the truth. For most consumers it just tightens their information bubble.

Language of today journalism also poses a problem. It’s hard to have any discussion at all when we stop evaluating things on their merits and start categorizing them, typically as left- and right-wing. This polarizes society, journals and advertisers. It’s classical example of divide and conquer tactics in which newspapers got trapped with no easy way out, at least without losing some of their readers and advertisers. Which they won’t do because in times of print press recession it would be as good as suicide.

We need high quality journalism more than ever and we need it now. One which can be trusted and depended on. This is the key point with which Professor Chomsky and The Economist agree. How to achieve it and can we afford it? These are the open questions.