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Neorenaissance: The future of real news?

By forcing news organizations to compete in the marketplace with entertainment, we force them to use tools of entertainment. But a better model is emerging.

A major part of the American public’s weakening grip on reality is caused by the pernicious myth of the “marketplace of ideas.” I go into this in greater detail in my book but suffice it to say that as a Hollywood screenwriter, I can tell you there is no “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a marketplace of emotions.

This is something those of us who study and write drama have known for millenia. The “four horsemen” of entertainment — sex, violence, drama and comedy — have been used by dramatic writers for ages because they grab your guts with the visceral hooks of story. By forcing news organizations to compete in the marketplace with entertainment, we are forcing them to use the tools of entertainment, and thus we see outrage and comedy becoming the most successful packaging vehicles for the news (witness Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart, for example) and we see sex and violence dominating much of its delivery and content.

The problem that is driving this is complex, but much of it derives from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s abolishing a standard called the Fairness Doctrine in August of 1987. The Fairness Doctrine required stations that used the public airwaves to present controversial material, and to do it in a way that was fair, in the opinion of the FCC.

In the years following its abolition, we saw the nascent career of Rush Limbaugh explode as he and others like him took advantage of the new opportunity this provided and began to drive ratings by peddling outrage clothed in intellectual talk argument. Rush was — and is — particularly talented at it.  It was entertainment but in increasingly came to be taken as news.

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As it turns out, Americans tend to believe what they hear on the radio and TV with little critical examination, and when entertainment is presented as news, they believe it as if it was. This is why the 1938 broadcast of the War of the Worlds could cause a nation-wide panic that Martians were attacking in an otherwise sane people. It’s why, as Hitler’s armaments chief Albert Speer testified at Nuremberg, “through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.” The dangers of deregulated media to capture the mind of the public with propaganda have been known since the 1920s, when the precurser to the Fairness Doctrine — the Radio Act of 1927 — was first adopted. They are especially dangerous in a democracy, where, as Speer later put it, people can become the “uncritical recipient of orders,” not unlike today’s dittoheads, voting passionately but with uncritical alliegiance, and against their own interests.

Because of this danger, Congress has made several attempts to restore the Fairness Doctrine in law, but they have been vetoed by presidents or, in the case of President Obama, simply discouraged in favor of the incorrect, unexamined myth of the “marketplace of ideas.”

This is why a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts is so important.  The study tracks the rise of a new sort of media since 2004 — independently funded nonprofit online news sites, like MinnPost.com.  These sites tend to fall into three categories: first are biased, issue-driven or ideologically-driven sites on either the left or right, such as these:

Watchdog.org sites
Family of sites sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which was launched in part by a libertarian group called the Sam Adams Alliance.

Their stories tend to lean more conservative:

American Independent News Network
Family of sites published by the American Independent News Network, which itself is funded by a variety of individuals and foundations, including the Open Society Foundations founded and chaired by George Soros.

Their stories tend to lean more liberal:

Second are sites that operate independently but tend to share content, and are typically funded by conservative groups, like these:

Statehouse news sites
Sites share content but operate independently

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Receive funding from the Franklin Center and other think tanks

The above two categories of sites stood out because while they may have been forthcoming about who their funders were, often the funders themselves were much less clear about their own sources of income. This effectively made the first level of transparency incomplete and shielded the actual financing behind the news site — and thus causing the entire site and its motives to become suspect as a propaganda vehicle instead of a legitimate news site. The chief funders listed for nearly two-thirds of the sites studied-28 in all-did not disclose where their money came from. This is unacceptable.

Third are sites that are far more transparent about their funding, and thus far more responsible to their readers and to the principles of the fourth estate in a democracy. These sites tend to receive funding from multiple foundations and a wide swath of individual donors:

Individual multi-funders
Receive funding from many organizations, often from private foundations

Independently operated

This last set of five sites represent what may be the future of journalism. Their independent, non-profit, lower-budget, transparent, and widely distributed funding base makes their operation very challenging, but they appear to be successfully following, in many cases, a member-supported public-radio-like model. 

This approach may shield them from some of the competitive pressures of the marketplace of emotions, becasue they do not have to retun a 20 percent net profit every year to be considered viable, and so don’t have to resort to sensationalism to the same degree as for-profit sources. It also helps ensure (but does not guarantee) that they will avoid the kind of political pandering that has become commonplace in metropolitan commercial newspapers as they vie for support in increasingly partisan markets.

In a world that is increasingly dominated by complex science, seemingly immovable gridlock and unfathomable policy issues, we desperately need news media that are going to call a spade and spade, investigate, establish reality, and present real facts regardless of whether a story appears to be politically balanced. If Bob says two plus two equals four and Mary says it equals six, we need reporters who will report that the preponderance of the evidence shows that Mary is simply wrong, not that the controversy rages. Our best hope may be member-supported independent nonprofit online news.