For journalism nerds, the news was like a high-profile sports trade. Glenn Greenwald, the man who reported on Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding the National Security Agency, investigative journalist extraordinaire and one of the few people in this country consistently willing to tell the truth in age of corporate-sponsored media lies, had left his longtime position at Britain’s The Guardian.
It wasn’t initially clear where Greenwald was going, other than his statement: “I was presented with a once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity that no journalist could possibly decline.” It would later turn out that Greenwald had signed on to a new media venture, still nameless at the time of this writing and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. This announcement, along with other recent examples of internet entrepreneurs financing news organizations, has prompted people like The New York Times’ David Carr to squeal in delight over the increasingly high-profile merger of journalism and technology. Unfortunately, Carr’s rose-colored vision of the future of the news is misleading at best, and the glorious technological capitalism he espouses probably isn’t going to solve any problems.
It can’t be denied that the traditional news model is dying in the modern economy. The decline of newspapers as being fundamentally unprofitable is a fact of life, along with the journalistic failings of the cable news networks and the general disinterest of the American public in anything resembling current events. With this in mind, the investments made into the news industry recently by people like Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder who bought The Washington Post) Laurene Jobs (widow of Steve Jobs, invested in Ozy Media) and Omidyar will certainly make a difference, both in terms of drawing a wider audience and in terms of increased revenue. As Carr dramatically wrote in his New York Times blog, The Media Equation, “Just when it looked as if all were lost, an unlikely cavalry has come roaring over the hill with serious money, fresh ideas and no small amount of enthusiasm.”
It’s entirely possible that some, or even all, of these ventures will wind up not only keeping the news business alive, but dramatically improving it. In particular, Greenwald’s involvement with Omidyar and apparent excitement about the project offers some hope that these entrepreneurs might be interested in providing better content, not just a better revenue stream. Maybe they will bring a real commitment to the idea of actually informing and educating people back to the news industry, and maybe their admittedly brilliant minds will hit upon a variety of creative ways to (a) get people to pay attention to the news, and (b) teach them something relevant as a reward for doing so.
However, at the risk of being overly cynical, that doesn’t seem likely. Yes, it’s possible that Jeff Bezos will turn The Washington Post into a hallmark of respectable journalism. It’s also possible that Bezos will do whatever it takes to turn a profit on his investment without regard to questions of sensationalism, objectivity or journalistic ethics. We’ve already seen what happens to the news when it exists primarily to make money for the people who own it. Is that going to change just because the owners are now the richest people in Silicon Valley?
The fact is, Carr and the other pundits hailing these moves as the new beginning for journalism are really only focused on the money, regardless of their weak suppositions about “the investment of intellectual capital.” Carr is optimistic that the news can become more lucrative, that the success of Bezos and Omidyar in their respective ventures can translate to making news consumption a massive online activity on the level of internet shopping. The quality of the news doesn’t interest him; he seems to believe that any kind of news is good enough, that the only discussion to be had is one of potential earnings and audience numbers. The content doesn’t matter to Carr; what matters is the profit.
“For all their differences,” Carr concludes, “the news and technology businesses share a kind of utopianism, an idealistic belief that the work of human hands can make life better for other humans.” With this assertion, offensive to anyone who is actually an idealist, Carr hijacks the word itself and turns it into just another plea to give the elites a chance. In the end, he has nothing to say that other deluded fools haven’t said before him: all our problems will be solved if we just let private capital take over. All those pesky issues of “resource depletion” and “overpopulation” and “limited growth as dictated by the fundamental laws of physics” will be overcome by advanced technology that we can’t even describe yet because it’s just so advanced. With the unbeatable combination of technological innovation and a mountain of money, we will reform the news, eliminate government corruption, feed the hungry, heal the sick, destroy greed, abolish suffering and conquer the universe. And everyone will get a pony.
Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://jackcentral.com/opinion/2013/10/opinion-meet-the-new-news-boss-same-as-the-old-news-boss/)