Meanland—Too Much Free Press?

This was originally published on the Meanland blog, on April 30 2012

Speculating on the changes that the Digital Age will wreak on our culture seems to be an international pastime these days. Jonathan Franzen, celebrated novelist and American Writer du jour, keeps popping up in the news, loudly proclaiming the various deleterious effects that Twitter/Facebook/eBooks will have on Democracy/The Future/Our Children. (I wrote about some of his remarks earlier for Meanjin)

I find this kind of prognosticating extremely frustrating, grounded, as it usually is, in misunderstanding of the nature of new technologies on the part of white men too old to adapt to them. Franzen just doesn’t seem to get Facebook, or Twitter, and that’s okay. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get Facebook either, and he wrote a movie about it.

Annoying as I find this gainsaying, I am unable to stop myself from indulging in it as well. I am incapable of convincing myself of why I think Franzen is wrong, without also thinking about the various ways in which he and thinkers like him are maybe a little bit right. Lately I’ve been chewing on a particular idea of how our culture might be affected by the Digital Age. I’ve been thinking about how not just the nature of new publishing technologies, but the sheer number of new platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and all the various blogging websites, could impact on how the political discourse of our society is conducted.

We take it for granted that Western culture is grounded in the free spread of information. It’s not for nothing that the invention of movable type with the Gutenberg Press, and the consequent explosion in literacy levels, is credited with being a foundation stone in Western democracy. Our society is surely premised on the public being conscious and aware of the issues that affect their state, and is thus premised on the ability of the publishing industry, and publishing technology, to distribute that information. Hence the great rhetorical emphasis placed by politicians, pundits, and activists on freedom of the press.

But I wonder now whether the traditional operations of Western democracy are founded on there being an equilibrium in the levels of information being distributed. Or, in other words, is there such a thing as too much free press? Is it possible to have a citizenship overstimulated by information, saturated to excess by a panoply of voices, opinions, and publications of varying levels of respectability and value?

The newspaper industry is probably the most obvious face of this issue today. David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire and an ex-reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has suggested that the death of newspapers also means the death of a certain kind of reporting, a loss in the quality of publicly distributed information.. High-end reporting, as he puts it, is a profession requiring extensive time commitment and expertise on the part of well-trained practitioners; a kind of reporting, that is, which will be lost in the age of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news stories broken via Twitter or YouTube. As he says, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”

Huffington Post, the new titan of American news websites, is indeed the lightning rod for everything that is different, or wrong, about contemporary journalism. It is notable for two things. The first is that much of its content is generated not by experienced, well-paid journalists, but by unpaid citizen bloggers or celebrities. So instead of getting Bob Woodward on the issues of the day, you get Alec Baldwin. The second is that its profitability as a business is not tied to the quality of its journalism, but to its mastery of Search Engine Optimisation. By publishing huge amounts of pieces, often with trivial content but containing key words or issues, the Post ensures that it remains high on the list of Google’s search results, and therefore that its page views and corresponding ad revenue remain high as well.

In this respect the Huffington Post is emblematic of the worst fears about how the internet will change media and communication. Quantity of information over quality, and the value of information itself replaced by the value of content; trivial, empty, and useful only for its own self-perpetuation.

(Nevertheless, the Huffington Post does get kind of a bad rap. While newspapers are busy laying people off, the Post has been hiring hundreds of journalists on staff, and, in fact, has just won a Pulitzer Prize.)

The obvious political consequences of the changing distribution of information have already been seen worldwide, in the Arab Spring, Iran’s Green Revolution, and in the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements in the West. All of these protests are attributable, in some sense, to the way that new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have afforded new possibilities for the transmission of information between disparate groups, and the building of new social networks and connections. All these movements illustrate, in one way or another, that the proliferation of new publishing platforms can bring about a change in the character of political discourse within a society, and, in some cases, a change in the political makeup of the society itself.

It is the combination of these two factors, the change in the standard and character of information being distributed, and the change in the nature of the networks in which it is distributed, that interests me. Together, I wonder if they herald a fundamental shift in the way our society exists in discourse with itself.

Western commentators were often eager to proclaim that the Arab Spring was proof positive that freedom of press breeds an increase in democracy, but we may be overlooking the effect that these new freedoms are also inflicting on our own democracies. Take, for instance, the way that the Tea Party was able to thoroughly dominate the political discourse during the 2006 midterm elections in the US, and so contribute to the way that country’s political dialogue is veering inexorably to the right.

Western democracy, rightly or not, seems to exist on a binary system, with two major parties for left and right, and various subsidiary parties on either side. This is, to a certain extent, reinforced and perpetuated by the distribution of information through media publications, with newspapers and their parent corporations often characterised by their association with a particular side; think of Rupert Murdoch’s supposedly right-wing Newscorp, or The Huffington Post’s own left-wing slant.

On the one hand, more publishing platforms could mean more variety in political opinion, more voice for previously marginalised positions. But when this is combined with a new paradigm of information that prizes content and quantity over insight, I see a possibility for political deadlock: a society confusing itself, and in the process degrading the semblance of consensus upon which democratic action is founded, and letting specialised interests imbalance the discussion.

There may be nothing new about any of this. After all, publishing platforms have always been available to the determined; even if it was merely vanity press, or a locally distributed ‘zine or pamphlet. And its probably a fallacy to declare that the state of contemporary discourse is any more vacuous than it has ever been; hindsight tends to blind the eye. (It would certainly be a mistake to assume that newspaper reporting two-hundred years ago was in any way superior in expertise and intent than it is today.) But the internet could be the tool that metastasizes the situation, and exposes the fault-lines that have lain beneath our culture all along.