In a recent interview on The Colbert Report, British author Andrew Keen speaks about his new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture. Keen's argument is that professional newsgathering and reporting (alongside pro musicianship and fine arts) has been fatally undermined by the rise of the information free-for-all on the web. Bloggers are beholden to no one to fact-check or verify their sources, and much of their "news" is cherry-picked from established print or broadcast journalists. Objectivity on the web is dying, claims Keen, and its taking our culture with it.
While I've not yet read his book, I can follow Keen's reasoning here to a point. It is fairly obvious from the headlines of the last few years how disruptive the Internet revolution has been to the music industry, with the spread of mp3s leading to rampant copyright infringement and a salvo of desperate lawsuits (often filed against individual consumers). While it can be argued that the digital music age threatens to disenfranchise artists through the indiscriminate reproduction of their work, many musicians recognize the shifting trends as inevitable and have used them to an advantage. Myspace and YouTube now provide aspiring artists an incredible potential for "do-it-yourself" marketing and distribution a refreshing alternative to the previous game of pandering to corporate A&R men and label bosses. Keen's contention that these new avenues lead to a watering-down of culture also neglects the steady drift in recent times towards a forced homogeneity in popular music, whereby artists relinquish creativity to the vested interests of an intransigent entertainment empire.
In the world of journalism, a similar crisis is unfolding. Online giants like Yahoo! and Google have supplanted national papers as the preferred means of news delivery for a growing number of readers. Flagging sales have forced budget cutbacks in many prominent newsrooms, seriously compromising the integrity of these long-standing institutions. Ironically, the popular websites that have contributed to this detrimental shift are also completely dependent upon the newspapers for content, which they simply redeliver online.
From this angle, Keens commentary seems valid, but the battle against objective journalism rages on several fronts. In episode three of News War, a four-part series from PBSs flagship Frontline documentary program, the struggle between newsrooms and their papers corporate shareholders is eloquently played out in the story of the Los Angeles Times. Under orders to downsize his already dwindling staff, the Times' managing editor Dean Baquet staged a passionate standoff and was promptly fired. Baquets dramatic dismissal is a poignant example of the grave danger our society faces in the war between profitability and service to the public trust. When capitalist mores and intellectual integrity face off, the money inevitably triumphs. Considering the fact that national newspapers constitute the last reserves of well-funded investigative journalists in America, upon which the burgeoning blogosphere is critically dependent, it is clear that our cherished notion of a free and powerful press has reached a precarious impasse. Add to this the increasing role of the mainstream media as a mouthpiece of their political masters, and the situation looks downright scary.
In a recent blog article, I argue that the Internet has arrived at this crucial time to provide an alternative voice in an increasingly constricted media. While it is clear that the trend towards online news has led to diminishing returns for print publications, it is extremely shortsighted to ignore the death-grip that corporate and bureaucratic cronyism have over todays beleaguered journalists. To Keens contention that it is the Internet that is destroying our culture, I must disagree. When runaway capitalism and politics collude in our newsrooms, we can expect a fascist pamphleteering campaign waiting on our doorsteps each morning. The same oppressive forces beset our musicians and artists, whose opportunities for renown have until recently been strictly doled out by self-interested businessmen. Our greatest hope may be that the spirit of creativity and objective thought finds a new home online, where the halls of power shrink against the expansive web of a connected world.