Saturday, April 18, 2009

Questioning a Question

“If newspapers die, can democracy survive?”

That was the question the City of Portland put to three journalists on a panel at the club forum Friday. The Governor Hotel ballroom was packed with those eager to hear the answer.

The question was utterly bogus — a blatant tease.

Newspapers as we know them are dying, no “if” about it.

The good news is that journalism is more alive than ever. It’s just taking a different form. You just have to search around a bit to find reporting you can trust.

And sometimes, it results from your own legwork.

If you have the time and desire, you can search for information and report for yourself. It's kind of fun. Let ten million journalists bloom! In the Internet age, Reporting 101 (in academia it’s called “information literacy”) should be required for all high school seniors.

As for the survival of democracy, it was struggling in this country long before Craig’s List and the Internet pulled the financial rug out from under traditional newspapers.

If democracy is so dependent on newspapers, why have newspapers done such a miserable job of exposing the flaws in our democratic system? Everything from big money influence, to our archaic Electoral College, to inane political commercials, to politicized election officials, to hanging chads, to rigged computers, to sound-bite campaigns.

That said, the strongest newspapers will thrive as journalistic institutions on-line. They will be even greater influences than they are in ink on paper. More people will read them on-line. They will still drive the “public awareness” agenda. And the public will enter the discussion and contribute to the reporting.

And as The Oregonian’s Executive Editor Peter Bhatia pointed out Friday, once on-line, the on-line remnants of lesser newspapers will focus on the local and the hyper-local, i.e. Neighborhoods. Once again, calling all citizen reporters!

Finally, the financial structure of the newspaper industry (and American media in general) has always been suspect. Have you ever wondered why the real estate and auto sections of The Oregonian are produced by the advertising department? Or had you noticed?

Once upon a time, independent journalists actually wrote unvarnished critical stories about houses and cars. They happen to be the two most expensive purchases you will make.

No longer. Why? Take a look at the pipers calling the tunes. (Significantly, product reviews are everywhere on the web.)

Why did it take so long for government and the media to catch on to the financial mess we were in? Ever see any credit card ads in the newspaper? Corollary: Do banks contribute to political campaigns?

Why does the Lehrer News Hour not go after the oil industry? Look who sponsors the program.

No, it’s time to push the pause button on the media and take a long, hard look at them and how they are paid for. Study up. Read about press barons and media conglomerates. Check out the role of advertising in our mediated Culture of Debt and Consumption.

“If newspapers die, can democracy survive?”

We might as well ask, “If cows fly, will we invade Sweden?”

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Working on "A"

After we break our hour’s silence, our small circle of worshipping Quakers often speak of “joys and concerns.”

In these hard times, we share mostly concerns.

Last Sunday, one woman’s comment seemed particularly urgent. “If anyone can tell me how to get from A to B, I’d appreciate it,” she said in frustration.

I wondered about how she had framed the problem: Getting from A to B.

She felt the need to reach a goal (at least it wasn’t “Z”), but she was stuck in the misery of her present.

This is going to sound a lot like Eckhart Tolle, but could it be that progress is all about ridding ourselves of “B”? If there is a “B” out there, by the time you reach it, it will be the new “A.”

Life is a river of “A”s. “B” is always around the bend.

The trick is navigating “A," being in and managing The Now, as Tolle has written,

“A” is all we have — ever.

Afterwards, I shared my thoughts with the woman. “Work on A,” I encouraged her. I think she understood.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Agony and Ecstasy of Media Fasting

Recently I assigned my community college students to put themselves through a one-day media fast.

No TV, no Internet, no cell phones, no iPods etc.

As I’ve discovered when I’ve done this before, the fast is either life-affirming, stimulating and eye-opening — or it is boring, isolating and even agonizing. One student this year worried that the fast was driving her crazy.

Almost all the students reacted to the fast in extremes.

I always ask whether the fast makes them feel more, or less, “in touch.”

Only a few say the fast puts them in touch — with themselves. Those who complain that the fast has made them “lose touch with the world” don’t explore what being “in touch with the world” means. They assume that media images and messages portray the world as it is.

Some are so traumatized by not having access to media that all they can think of is napping. If they aren’t working, they are consuming media, or sleeping. Cut out media in their off-work hours and their only conceivable choice is sleeping.

For a couple, cleaning their apartments was an option, but simply to “pass the time.”

It would seem that millions of young people have their lives defined by media. They no longer know who we are in relationship to the non-mediated world, nor do they care. They have truly "lost touch."

They believe that media involvement constitutes awareness.

And each year, more and more media distractions consume the lives of my students. This year’s group reported yearning for their iPods, cell phones and video games.


Here are two representative reactions (I’ve changed the names of the authors):

(During the fast) you learn more about yourself instead of about everyone else in the world. It was definitely good “me time.” I wrote down a lot of thoughts as well. I felt spiritual, yet out of touch. “Media avoidance day” definitely had its ups and downs, but overall I know it was good for me.

I wrote a lot and I love to write. … There wasn’t always someone in my ear brain-washing me, or informing me of every little thing. I was very in touch with myself, and out of touch with society. I really liked this assignment and would definitely do it again.


Without paying attention to the media we lose contact with our society, its most current thoughts or trends. It becomes harder to relate to more people and, while many of us feel isolated watching TV at home alone, we are really stitching ourselves closer to this society — a society of media and technology.


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