A French journalist I'm married to has spent the last four months looking for someone, anyone, who finds it even mildly troubling that Hollywood routinely allows the U.S. military to review and red-pen screenplays, in exchange for use of cheap and authentic weaponry.
Op-ed columnists, movie reviewers, alternative weekly types -- no outrage. "Look," laughed one prominent film critic, "we're a corrupt country."
It was a joke, but it's not so funny in the post-AOL/Time Warner
universe. Fact is, shady Pentagon editorial influence is just one of a
zillion moral flagrancies that would have been challenged vigorously 15
years ago, but are only shrugged at today. At the height of the Reagan
Era, during the "Decade of Greed" (funny now, ain't it?), most good North
American journalists would have resigned or at least raised public hell
had they encountered such now-routine phenomena as front-page newspaper ads, digital alteration of live news footage, product placement in movies, workplace urine testing (anywhere, let alone in a newsroom),
above-the-fold Jennifer Lopez coverage, the deliberate skewing of news
toward the rich, and even the re-naming of sports facilities after unlovely-sounding
corporations like "Network Associates."
All of this crap, I must emphasize, became mainstream before any living reporter had written a single ominous word about "the Drudgification of Journalism Values." Most of it happened before Viacom bought CBS, before the FCC let five corporate robots buy up the U.S. radio dial, and certainly before anyone outside the pizza industry gave a pig's teat about some marshmallow-faced suburbanite called Steve Case.
Acquiescence is the essential and little-discussed backdrop to the New Era of journalism. For 15 ugly years we have watched reporters and editors sell their backbones for the illusion of job security, and then mumble off-the-record into their Chardonnay glasses about "corporate culture" ruining the news business. Even the dramatic turnaround of the labor market and the wondrous evolution of the Internet weren't enough to lift their doldrums; the disease was too advanced, the patient too tired.
So when we ponder how Convergence will affect journalism, we need to ask: how well did most journalists resist the last two decades of encroachments on what they are alleged to hold dear? Well, truth is, they folded like cheap card tables. They let their newsrooms, as Pulitzer-prize winning Sydney "Killing Fields" Schanberg told me, "look and sound and feel like insurance companies." They stopped resigning in protest (as Schanberg did) when publishers spiked a column or fired a whistle-blower. Even those nervy enough to make the jump online signed up in alarming numbers for such journalistically challenged employers as Charles Schwab, Microsoft and C. Everett Koop.
Based on this track record, we can expect our grumbling
colleagues to eventually conform to, if not defend, whatever cultures
Steve Case and Sumner Redstone create. So a look under the hood of these
new Internet/media/entertainment mega-whatevers should give us a decent
idea of what "official" journalism will look like in the near future.
Well, it's not pretty.
As we speak, the eight huge media companies and the 20 pretenders nipping their heels are pouring massive resources into figuring out how to leverage the Internet to promote and distribute their copyrighted content, while maximizing revenue from their customer bases. Effective methods, they have discovered, include bribing non-professionals to hype products "organically," collecting and selling personal information about customers without permission, and selecting editorial content based on what their users can and will buy. AOL is particularly proficient at each of these unseemly tactics.
The 21st century media moguls are deliberately debauching basic human interaction for profit. One does not need to be an anti-capitalist zealot, or even a pessimist about media consolidation, to find this troubling. We are witnessing a slow siege against our thresholds of decency, and journalists are letting themselves be used as human shields.
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