The continuing rise of activist media and the demise of the Fourth Estate

In a recent article, I pointed out that activist media, such as the posts, tweets, photos, and videos produced by the Occupy Wall Street activists, will become increasingly influential, while the establishment media, such as CNN or New York Times, will decline in influence.

The reason is that the business model for establishment media is under siege and that means cutbacks in resources. There are simply fewer journalists, editors, photographers, camera operators, and there will be even fewer in the future as cutbacks continue to decimate the ranks of media professionals.

But activist media needs no business model, it is staffed by volunteers. And those volunteers are armed with professional quality equipment such as high definition video cameras and editing software, professional publishing systems, and a sizeable distribution system through social networks.

In addition, establishment media is increasingly using activist media because it is good quality, and it is free — further amplifying the influence of activist media.

For example, CNN recently cut dozens of jobs, mostly photojournalists because it can get high quality “user-generated content.”

TV Newser published a memo from Jack Womack, senior VP at CNN. Here is an excerpt:

We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company.

The rise of activist media is good news in that it levels the playing field for all, and it’s great news if you happen to support a particular activist group, such as Occupy Wall Street. But what if it’s activist media from groups you don’t support? Say the Tea Party?

On the flip side of the coin is the fact that corporations are rushing to produce their version of activist media. And they are blurring the lines about how, and from where it is produced.

There’s a good example from the British newspaper, The Independent:

BBC “cheap programming” scandal exposed

The BBC has owned up to a “nominal fee” programming scandal in which viewers of 15 editorial programmes were hoodwinked by “serious” conflicts of interest of programme makers and a failure to declare that documentaries had outside sponsors.

The programmes were made for “low or nominal cost” but many were heavyweight documentaries on controversial environmental issues and the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, said today it was “deeply concerned” by the findings.

The Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee warned that documentary makers may have been unduly influenced by their financial backers.

How much of what we watch on US TV is financed by special interest groups without any disclosure?

For example, corporations routinely make available content for TV news programs for free. There are video “press releases” that masquerade as news items produced by impartial journalists. And many strapped media organizations are happy to have the content and not have to pay for it.

But there is a cost and it’s a serious one. As the establishment media continues to shrink, the services that it offered: Impartiality, professionalism, ethical conduct, balanced reporting — go out the window.

Some might cheer the diminishment of the “gate keepers” but professional journalists are essential to a healthy democracy. They are used to dealing with special interests and their agendas, and they strive to produce media that is fair, balanced, accurate, and trustworthy — most people don’t have the same training to see what’s what.

This struggle between establishment media and corporate interests has been going on for a long time. The media used to be referred to as the Fourth Estate, one of the four pillars of society.

What’s changed is that the Fourth Estate is shrinking rapidly because its business model is under attack. This means that its ability to act as a check and balance against the agendas of rich and powerful special interests is also under attack.

It means that important issues will increasingly be presented through media that is polluted by bias, and designed to serve the interests of corporate agendas rather than a common good.

While it is true that activist media of the Occupy Wall Street kind also gets a boost from a weaker establishment media, corporate media has money and that means access to mass media distribution channels — these are far more effective than relying on social networks.

So how will our society make important decisions about critical issues?

Media is how communities “think” about problems and issues, media is used to inform complex decisions. If we have high quality media we will make better decisions.

Yet we face a future where corporations are rapidly becoming media companies and are rushing to produce massively biased content that seeks to influence millions of people.

Here is an excerpt from a 2008 article written by veteran journalist Bill Moyers:

Democracy without honest information creates the illusion of popular consent at the same time that it enhances the power of the state and the privileged interests that the state protects. And nothing characterizes corporate media today more than its disdain toward the fragile nature of modern life and its indifference toward the complex social debate required of a free and self-governing people.

This is why the decline of establishment media is very bad news.

Free speech without the means to be heard is worthless — it cannot influence the democratic process. Welcome to our future.

Image: Mari Francille



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