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The Whole World is Surfing
Media analyst Todd Gitlin scolds the press but hopes it can survive.

To hear Todd Gitlin tell it, the pride that the mainstream press takes in its watchdog role is more than a little misplaced – but that doesn’t mean the ideal is any less important.


And with media fragmentation in the age of the Internet, people more than ever need institutions of some kind that will “connect the dots” of day-to-day events and create a coherent, truthful picture of the world, says Gitlin, the 1960s New Left leader turned media scholar.


Whether they’ll get that is another story. Visiting Milwaukee this week, Gitlin offered an assessment that was often dour, though lightly leavened with hope.


“I plead for journalism to rise above a badly smudged history,” he told a packed room at the Marquette University student union Tuesday afternoon, where he delivered the MU journalism school’s annual Niemen Lecture. “We need light badly, wherever it may be found.”


Gitlin bemoaned the distracted and frivolous nature of much popular media, but found promise in the rise of serious, nonprofit ventures and the emergence of dissident groups and individuals lifting the veil from government secrets – the result, he said, of “a sort of para-jourrnalism in symbiosis with the mainstream media.”


He warned, though, that the proliferation of voices has not necessarily produced a shared understanding of the truth by which people can take part in their own self-government – but, instead, a cacophony in which people can easily limit their own media consumption to their personal pleasures and prejudices.


 “To speak of the glut of information sources living in cloud cuckoo land as a democratic improvement is rather too much,” he said. But when a questioner asked what could be done to change what he called the “self-confirming bubble,” he admitted, “I don’t think that’s reversible.”


Gitlin comes to the job of academic media analyst
by way of social-change activist: organizing for nuclear disarmament as an undergrad at Harvard (where he majored in math), serving as president of Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s, and later organizing demonstrations against the Vietnam War and against American corporations supporting the government of South Africa (then under white rule that enforced racial separation). His dissertation for his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley examined the media and the New Left and evolved into his book, The Whole World Is Watching.


He now heads the Ph.D. in Communications program at Columbia University and is a professor of Journalism and Sociology at the Graduate School of Journalism there. Gitlin has published prolifically, with poetry and fiction in his portfolio along with a long list of books on social movements, the media, and related topics. In 2012 he published an e-book, Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, reported and written over about a two-month period.


The American press, Gitlin told his Marquette audience, has more often than not fallen well short of the ideals to which its practitioners and admirers aspire. That goes back to the nation’s earliest newspapers:  By turns scurrilous, sensationalist, and partisan, he said, “The press whose freedom was guaranteed by the first amendment was an unbridled affair.”


He pointed to the presidential campaign pitting John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in 1828. Newspapers, which blatantly took sides for one or the other contender as they trumpeted personal scandals, real and invented, about the candidates. “The consequence of this election was momentous" Gitlin observed – especially, he added, “for the Native Americans of the Southeast, whom Jackson proceeded to drive over the Mississippi River.” Yet as an issue, the press all but ignored what it referred to  as “Indian Removal.”

There were moments of glory
, he allowed. Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s on-air editorial condemning Joe McCarthy on TV, and the televised hearings that exposed the Wisconsin senator as “a dangerous demagogue,” helped to bring McCarthy down. Coverage of the Civil Rights movement helped catapult the plight of African Americans in a deeply segregated society into the national consciousness.


Yet from its treatment of U.S. sponsored coups in the early 1950s in Iran and Guatemala to coverage of the Vietnam war so deferential that it read “like sheaves of Pentagon press releases,” Gitlin saw a far less positive track record for the American press. “With respect to large matters of state,” he said, “it was more common for journalistic watchdogs to lick the hands of the perpetrators than not.”


He dissected briefly two contemporary cases of press failure. The first was the absence of all but the most superficial coverage of the financial deregulation that unfolded during the late 1990s and early 2000s  and which would trigger the economic implosion of 2007-08.


A big reason for that, Gitlin said, will be explored in a forthcoming book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: the Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. The book expands on themes that Starkman has explored in articles for Columbia Journalism Review and Mother Jones.


Gitlin sums the problem up as the seduction of “access journalism.” In return for the opportunity to regularly mix with those at the center of power, journalists too often surrender their critical thinking and skepticism toward the powerful. As a result, they asked hardly any tough questions about deregulation or the financial dealings that flourished under it, from growth of subprime mortgages to complicated instruments like collateralized debt obligations.


 “In so many ways, journalism was complicit in the predation and corruption that brought down world financial markets and wrecked the lives of many millions of people,” Gitlin said. “Obsessed with shallow scoops, giddy from the laughing gas of access, financial journalists abjectly failed to connect dots and left abusive, reckless and criminal corporations free to drag the global economy into the abyss unnoticed.”


The second failure has been running for much longer: the press’s neglect, until recently, to pay serious attention to global climate change and its human cause – something so close to a scientific certainty that Gitlin equated the attention paid to industry-funded global-warming deniers with those who claim the earth is flat.


While news organizations have finally begun to increase their coverage of climate change, he said, “it’s rarely linked as it ought to be to endemic draught and starvation and other forms of extreme earthly phenomenon.”


Still, Gitlin sought to strike a more optimistic note. He praised the growth of the nonprofit press, exemplified by the national investigative journalism organization ProPublica and assorted new local news outlets. And he takes solace in growing collaboration in the mainstream media, even with – especially with – emerging and controversial “para-journalists” such as Wikileaks. Databases are among the tools that journalism can make use of as it seeks to find its way in this new era, he said.


But he also acknowledged that today it may be more challenging than ever to penetrate the determined lack of interest in huge swaths of the media-consuming public.


“The question for the world of fragmented media, where you can choose not only what to know but what not to know, is whether the casual reader or ‘scroller’ or surfer will be permitted to slide by happily without even having to survey the larger world,” Gitlin said. If  so, he continued, “the gulf between the attuned reader and the know nothings will also likely grow.”


Some footnotes:
Speaking to a handful of grad students later Tuesday afternoon, Gitlin urged would-be journalists to never settle for the easy get. He fondly recalled, as a young, newly published writer, being interviewed by the late Studs Terkel in Chicago – and how Terkel had filled the review copy of the book with his own notes, circling passages, underlining them, and shaping questions directly from his reading of the work. “Do your homework,” he admonished them.


By email I asked Gitlin about the seeming paradox in his two “failure” examples – the complaint that there was too little skepticism toward financial deregulation, and yet too much skepticism toward the scientific consensus about human-caused global climate change.


Gitlin replied by email: “Climate change is a no-brainer because the relevant experts almost completely agree. The deniers are nothing but well-funded cranks...”


On the issue of financial deregulation, he wrote: “I agree with Starkman that access journalism vis-a-vis the bankers was a giddy distraction. Moreover, for that & other reasons business journalists ignored deep questions which SOME economists could have broached to them about over-financialization of the economy, risks of deregulation, opacity of derivatives, etc. Here, what they should have done was to host a serious debate among relevant experts, skeptics vs. no skeptics.

“In other words, one crucial function of journalists is to know their subject well enough to consider an array of informed views, match them up against each other, and let readers know that there’s at least an important debate to consider.”


Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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(Murrow and Terkel photos from pbs.org and the University of Chicago)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the year that Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams faced each other in a presidential campaign.

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Erik Posted: 9/27/2013 5:57:36 PM
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CORRECTION: The Adams-Jackson election referred to was in 1828, not 1824 -- my error. We'll get it fixed in the copy when we can.
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