It is early June 1971. Analyst Daniel Ellsberg has leaked the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the history of United States-Vietnam relations to a war-weary nation. As reported in the Air Force Magazine, a furious Nixon Administration sought an injunction to order newspapers to not publish the papers. The issue was eventually settled in the supreme court. The press won.
The Pentagon Papers incident is a clear example of the power and merits of the press. Journalists backed by powerful news organizations had the power to challenge the U.S. government, in pursuit of spreading the truth. Journalism has brought down empires, wreaked, and inevitably shared the societal fabric in which we clothe ourselves today. However, its former days of glory have diminished.
Jump to 2019. Across the U.S. and Canada, thousands of local newspapers are being shut down due to lackluster profitability. The traditional titans of the news industry such as the New York Times and Washington Post have been acquired by billionaires with varying motives. Shouts of “fake news,” “propaganda,” and “dishonest media” are resoundingly chanted by people of all political backgrounds, ages, and professions. In contrast to their stated goals of reporting the new, media outlets have often become the story. Even this very paper has found itself in an unusual spat with the UTMSU just a few months back. What prompted this change?
In the age of social media, the traditional gatekeepers no longer hold the keys to the kingdom. The internet is a forum in which anyone can publish anything without having to be wary of the editor’s pen. Blogs, YouTube, and Twitter are prime examples of people participating in a global interchange of ideas, news, and opinions. Since the establishment of the printing press, news people were the middlemen for all information shared to the people. However, the new middleman has increasingly become Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and bots. With their short attention span, members of generations X and Z find no use to traditional television with its avalanche of mind-numbing commercials.
A new narrative, whether right or wrong, has begun to form. People now see the accountability offered by the media as grounded in partisan nature, or worse—untruths. Of course, many proponents of journalism will say that they are adapting to such changes. Much like a phoenix is reborn from the ashes after its death, they believe that traditional journalism will reemerge from the dark clouds of uncertainty that shadow it.
These proponents point to the introduction of online newspapers, twitter journalists, subscription-based services, fact checkers, and innovative advertising. However, I disagree. These measures are simply the last gasping breath before the fall. In fact, conventional journalism is already a living zombie that has yet to realize that it is dead. Just like democracy dies in darkness, journalism dies in destitution. Signs have already begun to emerge.
According to the Huffington Post, layoffs will occur or have already occurred in the Guardian, USA Today, Washington Post, and New York Daily. If we are seeing such events during an “economic boom,” what will happen during a recession? Inevitably, many people will cut their subscriptions to save money and advertisers will look for more effective ways to get bang out of their buck. I do not write what I say in order to demean the value of journalists but to point out that times are changing.
The decline of traditional media has broad implications. In the post traditional media world, people will begin to have radically different perceptions about basic truths. The U.S. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway alluded to this phenomenon with her iconic phrase “alternative facts.” Already, we see that people have radically different perceptions of real-world events depending on their source of news. The recent Ukraine scandal with President Trump has democrats convinced that he colluded with foreign entitles in order to influence the election whereas Republicans are convinced that he is legitimately seeking out corruption. In some ways, opinions have become facts and facts have become opinions.
In this world of turbulent change, nothing remains permanent. We do not know the future, but we can cherish the past. Let us mourn the death of journalism.