Has citizen journalism transformed “truth” into a subjective term that relies simply upon the level of one’s belief; not substantiated by facts, but simply and powerfully by ideology? Are we “dumbing down?”
By T.L. Dayen
Google “great vampire squid” and you’ll find 8 of the top 9 of 229,000 results have nothing to do with the actual deep water vampire squid at all! If not a squid, what DOES Google infer from ‘great vampire squid’ in the search bar. Would you have guessed politics? If you’re not familiar with a 2009 Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi where he lambasted Wall Street tycoons for instigating the worst global financial meltdown since the Great Depression, then no, you wouldn’t have. In his article titled, “The Great American Bubble Machine,” Taibbi writes of banking and investment firm, Goldman Sachs; “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a ‘great vampire squid’ wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The article sparked a national dialogue that raised questions about the ethics and propriety of our financial institutions. While the article may not have caused, it certainly rallied, a national vexation that preceded the grassroots’ Occupy Wall Street movement; the Financial Reform Act and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
That the “great vampire squid” came to have a political inference in our pop culture, is indicative of politics itself becoming pop-culture; in education, from college tuition to public schools vs. charter; in energy, from foreign policy and national security to environmental concerns of climate change and extreme weather; constitutional issues of the 2nd amendment and gun safety; the 1st amendment and money is free speech and corporations are people; the voting rights act and voter I.D.; immigration laws and reform; gay marriage; the legalization of marijuana and overloaded prisons with mandatory minimum drug sentences; living wages and worker rights; unemployment and our growing poverty, homeless population and income inequality. It’s ALL politics my friends! In an information age when all things are political, there are political implications to all that information; and who’s giving it and where and how we are getting it, define our politics about it.
In the new information age, citizen journalism has become a seminal force behind the political decisions forming policy and shaping our destiny as Americans.
The Golden Age of Iconic Investigative Journalism
Perhaps the most iconic example of investigative journalism is what is historically known as Watergate. What began in 1972 as a story covering a break-in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the D.C. Watergate building would end four years later with criminal indictments and resignation of President Richard Nixon. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post received a Pulitzer Prize for their four year expose that brought down the leader of the free world. It came on the heels of a tumultuous time in America’s history. The mid twentieth century was a period Time Magazine coined as “the end of American innocence” (Reid). In the twenty years between 1960 and 1980, we witnessed the televised murder of our President John F. Kennedy; the assassination of iconic pacifist and civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King; the assassination of presidential hopeful and brother to President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy; the mysterious untimely death of America’s sweetheart, Marilyn Monroe; and the Vietnam war that aired in American living rooms in horrific color on the nightly news. By 1976, when the President of the United States was found to be implicated in petty theft, black mail and bribery, it must have seemed as if nothing was sacred and no one could be trusted. Even the validity of the American achievement of the 1969 and 1972 Moon landings were held suspect by many (Fuller).
After the turn of the mid twentieth century perhaps in an attempt to not get ‘cold caulked’ by another American heartbreak of scandal, death and corruption, Woodward and Bernstein had presaged investigative journalism as a means for the public to peel back the veil of the apparent virtues of the status quo and expose the dark underbelly of the establishment; “whether that was ‘to bring about positive change in existing laws or to expose wrongdoing;’ or to uncover something that was previously undisclosed; or ‘to discover the truth, and to identify lapses from it;’ or to enlighten the public to empower it. Investigative reporting proceeded from the a priori assumption that ‘the job of the investigative journalist is to find something wrong and expose it [and that] he or she is a positive force for change…’ (cited by Bromley, p.315).
However, the earnest desire to sincerely reveal truth as a means for positive change would not last long.
The Rise of Partisan Politics, Tabloids and Ratings Chasers
The privatization of the airwaves in the mid-1980’s through digital cable and the proliferation of television channels expanded the media landscape and heralded the 24/7 news cycle. The nation was experiencing changes right along with the way we were receiving information about those changes. The ‘Reagan revolution’ of the 1980’s followed by the Clinton Presidency of the 1990’s established the hyper partisan political environment that persists to this day. Both Presidencies’ presided over but bitterly fought to take credit for, the vast national economic growth that actually resulted from the information and technology boom of the late 20th century.
But the lessor natures of both consumers and producers of mass media swelled amidst the unparalleled scope of market potential created by economic prosperity, expanded air waves and real-time communication technology.
For consumers, iconic journalistic substance and significance waned in the wake of tabloid exposé sensationalism and voyeurism; “Where reporting in an investigatory style continued, it was accused of being without substance – journalism that amounted only to ‘digging up dirt;’ an ‘exposure journalism’ reliant on ‘stinging’ the rich and famous, or serving the political-economy and ideological interests of media owners (cited by Bromley, p.313). For producers of mass media, ratings potential trumped iconic journalistic onus and imagery trumped integrity; “investigative journalism was expected to contribute to ‘the rush for ratings;’ to initiate controversy, to generate publicity, and to be seen as glamorous. Investigative journalists were projected as ‘stars'” (cited by Bromley, p.314). We would soon wake up however, with a ‘tabloid hangover’ and find that perhaps we had invested our money and attention in all the wrong places.
While America had been busy building Silicon Valley and inflated equity; amassing phenomenal capital gains and gorging on infotainment and voyeurism; reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century, integrity, morality and scrupulous care had been steadily backing out the front door.
Blinded by the shiny new and profitable technology of the 80’s and 90’s, American’s hadn’t noticed that greed, egocentrism and exploitation had already slipped in the back door and settled in by the time we rang in the new millennium.
As Chris Hayes states in his novel Twilight of Elites, in the first decade of the new millennium, “Americans watched in bafflement and rage as one institution after another – from Wall Street to Congress, the Catholic Church to corporate America – imploded under the weight of corruption and incompetence.” We were reeling from betrayal at the highest levels of what Hayes calls our “pillar institutions.” Corrupt corporate accounting practices brought down mega conglomerates like World Com and Enron. Wall Street spiraled and world financial markets buckled from gluttonous and extreme trading and investment. The Catholic Church was exposed as a pedophile haven. National security failed to prevent 9/11 and the lives of 3,000 Americans, and a massive government fabrication precipitated the ‘shock and awe’ deaths of many thousands more Americans in a desperate response. Finally, former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, revealed that our global energy infrastructure is on the brink of ending life on Earth as we know it. By the end of 2010, no one in America had been left unscathed; mentally, financially or emotionally. We were 300 million Chicken Little’s and our sky was falling! Where had been the Bernstein’s and Woodward’s of America to warn us of the ruin from our folly?
Citizen Journalism and Conspiracy Theory
In 2014, much like the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, Americans have defensively retreated into three camps of ideology; those who still believe in and want to restore the central authority of our ‘pillar institutions;’ those who want to scrap the entire system altogether; and those who frankly aren’t paying attention either way. The first two tirelessly sling arrows at one another from their crouched positions of pretension, while the third is ultimately swept to and fro as the unwitting spoils of the victor.
The Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that had kept us woefully pre-occupied, is now what keeps our opposing camps informed and in-check and those in middle, distracted.
Unfortunately, today “the ranks of professional journalists are thinner than ever” (Graber), but even if a Bernstein or Woodward were to step forward at this point, they would not be trusted; “Journalists are not trusted by the public and are equated in their ethical standards [just] above lawyers, elected officials, and corporate officials — all with self-serving interests” (De Tocqueville, p.175).
In the dark ages of the new millennium, we have become our own source of information;
“ICTs present [ordinary] citizens with many opportunities to produce as well as consume information” (Gulvady). We have seen the rise of citizen journalism (CJ), “defined as news content produced by ordinary citizens with no formal journalism training” (Johnson and Wiedenbeck).
Some Americans are effectively using CJ through ICT to affect “significant political action” as in the efforts that exposed the “horrors of Katrina in 2005” and spawned a national call to action to “help the victims” (Graber). But we are also witnessing the irrational fears and forebodings of other Americans being defined as ‘news.’ ICT has become a “megaphone for spreading dangerous falsehoods” and conspiracy (Graber) designed to spin our pillar institutions as not just untrustworthy but even wicked, and it appears to be having a deplorable effect. In 2013, thirty six percent of 2000 people polled believed or weren’t sure that “world bankers” were planning to enforce “world-wide slavery” through a global oligarch; and twenty four percent weren’t sure or believed that our government has allowed “aliens” and/or “shape shifting lizard people” to infiltrate and take over the planet in exchange for advanced technology (Conspiracy Theories). In the midst of ducking from ideological arrows, “how can intellectuals appeal to a public that processes information through a different epistemological model? Configured as a mass, conspiracy culture is presented as an obstruction to the rule of reason” (Birchall, pg.68).
Interpretative Misinformation vs. Investigative Journalism
It’s been said that we are all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts, but as we’ve discussed, “we are witnessing the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, fact and opinion, even fact and fiction” (Gulvady). How do we decipher which is which? A study posted in a 2010 “Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (JMCQ)” found that “those with the least trust in mainstream [professional] media, especially public affairs content, are ‘the largest user group of online news forms” but also that “those who consume news through professional news outlets – online and off – tended to score marginally higher in political knowledge than citizen journalism consumers.” (Kaufhold, Valenzuela, and de Zúñiga). So, there is evidence that those who follow ‘accredited’ news sources that are not ‘primarily’ online sources have more ‘factual’ knowledge of political issues. If you’re one of those concerned about the ‘dumbing down’ of America, this is disheartening when you consider that another JMCQ study posted in 2009 found that “trust in the credibility of all major news media has fallen” an average of over 25% since 1985.
A prime example of the harmful effects of interpretive investigative mis-information was the ‘take down’ of ACORN; the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now. In 2008, ACORN had up to 400,000 donors and 1000 workers in 38 states. They had a history of successfully lobbying for worker rights, minimum and living wages, and against subprime lending abuses. They also assisted in low income tax preparation and conducted nationwide voter registration campaigns (Atlas). ACORN had been on the ‘conservative radar’ for years, and after the organization was forced to terminate several voter registration employees for questionable registration documents during the 2008 Presidential election, a citizen journalist contributor to conservative blogs Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report, James O’Keefe, secretly taped ACORN workers in several state offices, posed undercover as pimp in need tax prep assistance (Atlas). It was later found that the tapes had been edited by O’Keefe to ‘spin’ ACORN workers in illegal practices. ACORN was never convicted of any criminal activity. But by the time the tapes had been sent to CNN and Fox who aired the tapes in an endless loop, the damage had been done (Atlas). Congress defunded the non-profit, donors fled, and in 2010 ACORN filed bankruptcy. O’Keefe was ordered in 2013 to pay $100,000 in restitution to one ACORN worker. Conservatives applauded the ‘sting operation’ but had no comment when ACORN was never formally charged with a crime (Ungar). America lost a solid organization dedicated to middle class struggles.
In the ‘other’ camp, is the Center for Investigative Reporting; a shining example of the potential for investigative journalism in the ‘new’ information age. Their mission: “Informing and empowering the public and holding the powerful accountable. We give a voice to the voiceless, critical information to those previously left in the dark and a wider, more visible arena to expose abuses of power” (Bergman).
They are an online, but ‘accredited’ organization of 49 reporters and editors who’s stories and research have appeared in over 300 professional television and print news outlets (including CNN, ABC, NBC and U.S. News and World Report) as well as Congressional [Bush Administration, 2013] hearings and Supreme Court [Roberts Court, 2013] proceedings. They’ve won nine awards in excellence in journalism since 2011 including two George Polk awards, the Edward R. Murrow award and two Pulitzer Prize nominations. While the impact of CIR’s work could fill another paper, they currently have forty two ongoing investigations on issues from politics to the environment to education to crime and justice to national security; to name a few (Bergman). It would be highly unlikely that those who follow professional news sources of information have not been exposed to the investigative reporting work of CIR.
Perhaps another distinction between professional and citizen journalism is the absence of ‘sensationalism’ that often accompanies non-professional reporting, as in the CJ O’Keefe ‘sting.’
The truth is the ICT boom of the ‘90’s and ‘00’s that may have precipitated the collapse of American ‘pillar institutions’ also occurred simultaneously with the ‘expired shelf life’ of many American ‘pillar social constructs and infrastructures.’ Like plumbing that needs to be replaced every 30 years due to leaky pipes, we are finding chasms in the once solid functionality of our educational systems, constitutional civil liberties, economic structures, labor forces, immigration, justice system, energy grids and resources, including the cumulative impact of the use of those resources on our planet’s bio-systems.
Ironically, at a time when Americans really need to come together to expose abuses, solve problems and find solutions, we are more “politically polarized” than any time since the civil war (Schmidt, Shelly II & Bardes).
Brian McNair ponders to what extent this “rapidly evolving [ICT] space could service ‘deliberative democracy’, by constituting ‘a healthy public sphere where citizens can exchange ideas, acquire knowledge and information, confront public problems, exercise public accountability, discuss policy options, challenge the powerful without fear of reprisals, and defend principles” (2002).
Political and social scientists remain hopeful about the potential of ICT; “As the Internet matures, [ICT] journalistic skills should play a key role. The onrush of raw data, including much garbage and misinformation, will require validate-rs, that is, trusted editors and other experts, to separate the wheat from the chaff” (De Tocqueville, p.178). There is no doubt in my own mind that credible investigative journalism in this new ICT age has a greater potential for a positive transformation in critical thinking than any time in history. And we are not lacking in credible “editors and other experts.” What we are lacking is the “trust” in those individuals who would be dedicated to forming a consensus in our mutual interests and in our mutual rationales – namely our shared humanity.
If one credible investigative journalist for Rolling Stone could transform the ‘great vampire squid’ into political pop-culture, what might a consensual national political discourse based on ‘sound reason’ achieve? Put that in your Google bar and search it!
Atlas, John. “ACORN Closes it’s Last Door; Filing for Bankruptcy.” . The Huffington Post, 3 Nov. 2010. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-atlas/acorn-closes-its-last-doo_b_778047.html>.
Bergman, Lowell. “About the Center for Investigative Reporting.”. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.<http://cironline.org/about/board
Birchall, Clare. Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip. New York: Berg, 2006. 34-68 Questia. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
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