Battle Over the Future of Journalism Becoming More Intense

November 11, 2013 Updated: November 11, 2013

I was among the many media wannabe reformers to attend the 10th anniversary party of Free Press (freepress.net), the mostly online organization and lobby that promotes itself as a movement to transform our media system, and save our democracy. 

I certainly support its policy goals like net neutrality and curbs on media consolidation, and also admire its staying power, even if its style is very upwardly mobile, and rather un-left like, starting with this trendy soiree in an ultra-modern upscale hotel lounge where drinks went for $15.00. 

Free Press has been very effective in raising large sums of money using top-down means of organizing support. (To be honest, as the editor of Mediachannel.org, a site that is barely holding on, I am a bit jealous of its evident skills as fundraiser and organization builder.) 

I would like to see it do more to encourage other progressive groups to do more than electoral politics, and take on media issues.

I had been troubled by a lack a follow-up at its earlier media reform conferences and online petition orientation, but I have to admit, at the same time, few other groups have taken on these issues so persistently, and can claim 165,000 supporters. 

What I have to also admire is the support it has attracted by the likes of Bill Moyers, who has spoken at, and even helped fund its events. Moyers is an eloquent and outspoken advocate for the importance of journalism as a guardian of democracy. (Disclosure: he praised my new book on Nelson Mandela, “Madiba A-Z,” as part of his speech at the event and even wrote a blurb for it.)

A Call to Alms

I haven’t seen any press reports about the Free Press celebration, other than the one I blogged. I also reported on its earnest and outspoken advocates I admire, folks like Media historian Robert McChesney, Nation editor John Nichols, and Free Press CEO Craig Aaron. Aaron’s speech was very critical of media.

This party didn’t form a Party. In fact, it rapidly turned from a call to arms, to a call for alms, with fundraising envelopes everywhere, and wealthy donors announcing impressive donations. 

Its message doesn’t get much bounce in the media that has more bottom line concerns to worry about. Most of the mainstream or “lame stream” media are loath to critique themselves or let others do it in their “space.” Try to get The New York Times to print a letter criticizing The New York Times, and you will see what I mean.

No one at the Free Press event mentioned the recent flawed Benghazi story on “60 Minutes” that the network was then defending until it suddenly caved on Friday, and announced it will apologize for it. 

It was another “scoop” by chief correspondent Lara Logan who never saw a U.S. military escalation she disapproved of. It was her story, but rather than admit her own culpability, she issued and delivered statements about how “WE”—that is, the CBS News Division— will correct it.

Tina Brown Down on Journalism

Even as Lara was deflecting criticism from herself, another prominent media maven, publisher Tina Brown, was in India denouncing journalism itself, after reportedly losing $60 million running Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

Speaking at the THiNK conference, in, of all places, a resort in Goa, the media executive who has generated more press for herself than any of her stories, has now decided—get this—journalism is over.

The Wrap, the new entertainment website reports: “Tina Brown, outgoing editor of the Daily Beast and former editor of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Newsweek, doesn’t even read magazines anymore—nor does she think too highly of journalism at all.

“Brown told the audience of a THiNK conference in Goa, India on Friday that she is basically done with journalism, which she said is currently having a ‘very, very pathetic moment’ and has turned to advertising in order to try to make a profit.”

Brown, once a fan of telling, seems now totally into selling, adding, “The digital explosion has been so explosive. There isn’t a single place where the digital thing is a profit thing. The disruption hasn’t brought a business model.”

She has also put down TV, where she flopped, on a show on CNBC. Her latest pronouncement: “TV is dead and now they are chasing a demographic they are never going to find.”

To her, television is now “an ugly piece of furniture.”

She will soon be putting the best face on her up-and-down career with a memoir called “Beast,” in which she will give her side on a number of earlier financial disasters including the ill-fated magazine Talk that she produced with film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Focus on Profit, Self-Censorship

Those of us of the Free Press persuasion look at the financial interests behind the media and try to expose them, while people in the media want to bring those financial interests into their bank accounts. 

The insiders are more consumed by the lifestyles and scandals of the rich and infamous mogul class, the gods and goddesses of consumerism and consciousness, who talk a lot about providing content but offer little in the way of context.

Outsiders denounce the profit focus of the media as at odds with the press’s role as beacon of truth. Insiders denounce it now because it isn’t profitable enough.

Moyers, a hero of public media has just about had it with public television as has the incisive reporter Ray Suarez, who labored at NPR and on the PBS “News Hour “for what seemed like decades before becoming too disgusted to persevere. 

He is now going to Al-Jazeera America (AJAM).

And Free Press? The day after the night before, CEO and former journalist Craig Aaron, emboldened by the enthusiasm at the event, sent out an email pledging a continuing campaign:

“We’re eager to share our vision to build the bigger and bolder movement we need to win. Free Press is ready to lead that movement and to fight for your rights to connect and communicate.

“The path we choose now will decide whether we have an open and uncensored Internet; whether we restore privacy; whether we support serious journalism; whether we still have a say in our democracy.”

That’s all to the good, but it’s not just the government or the FCC or the NSA that threatens a free press. 

The huge media companies are not only complicit, but continue to self-censor, and sanitize news often deliberately, refusing to report truthfully. 

Yes, we have to fight to be able to “connect and communicate”—but also to work for a media system that strengthens our democracy. That will require a willingness to press the press.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and blogs daily at newsdissector.net. His latest book is “Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela.” (Seven Stories Press) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.