Regular readers will know that Blawgconomics is a huge fan of The Financial Times and in particular the weekend edition. For anyone who was unable to read the Life & Arts section over this past weekend, we can provide a brief summary of an excellent and thought-provoking piece penned by John Lloyd regarding the state of the field of journalism in an operating environment where transparency and political partisanship have become more aggressive in nature, both in the name of the citizenry.
Lloyd starts from the premise that, until the past year or so, journalism had been on a steady decline for some time. Many would agree with that statement, particularly to the extent that by journalism, we mean more traditional sources. Lloyd continues by stating that 2010 brought a halt and even reversal to this trend by 1) the transformation of journalism into what he calls the 'competing high-decibel political dispute' and 2) the rise of 'total transparency.'
Lloyd argues that the combination of these factors, represented by the takeover of politics in America by media in the first case, and WikiLeaks and the Cable Leaks (the latter much more familiar to those with an interest in English politics) in the second, though they may have increased the power of journalism, have also added moral complexity to debates over both what the public interest is and how it is best served.
Those interested in Lloyd's full article can find it here. Since it is freely available online, aside from the brief synopsis above it isn't necessary to go much further into detail on Lloyd's points. However what would be a fitting tribute to the work itself would be the acknowledgement that, like much good writing, it was very thought-provoking. Therefore, following this paragraph are some general thoughts we had while reading Lloyd. While we will stay away from some of the moral complexities Lloyd addresses, we will then transition from the starting point of the list into some more basic and general ideas on the power of the rising media itself:
1) It is good for 'the people' to know about how the government representing it functions
2) It is also good for the people to understand what general direction their government is taking and why it is doing so
3) Part of the function of a good media is to report on, and in certain cases, analyze #2
4) However, government cannot function in complete transparency; it is nice to think that it could, but the real world offers numerous examples of why this just cannot be
5) It is a positive to have an unbiased media, but this is probably not possible in a world driven by ratings and with the viewership driving those ratings often contingent on partisanship
So, what to make of these thoughts? On the first issue, identified by Lloyd as 'total transparency' and pondered in points 1-4 directly above, it might simply be that the world is changing and will continue to do so. The availability of information and how it is presented have real world impacts on governments and how they function. It is difficult to make judgment calls on whether or not that is 'good' or 'bad,' but it is a reality, and therefore the paradigm we need to work with. However, and practically, some things need to function outside the public eye. Therefore, some level of discretion is required. On the second issue, of media driven politics (and similarly, though obviously differently, politically driven media), there needs to be recognition by people that what they are watching is never objective. People should also be aware that such outlets directly impact the political discourse.
How about solutions? Maybe none are required. Perhaps this is just the world we live in. However, to the extent that what is written above is true, that is, that some level of discretion is required even in the move toward transparency, prosecuting those who provide information illegally is a start, whether in a governmental or a corporate scenario. This is already happening in, for example, the WikiLeaks case. If someone really believes that information they have is so important that they are willing to face prison for it, maybe the system is working after all. As for the partisan media driven by partisan viewers driving the political agenda and vice versa, this may be fine for some, but others may wish to visit more than one cable news channel and/or website for news every day. People should at least be informed about what they believe they are being informed about, and there may be an improved discourse as a result.
Maybe these mini solutions are not entirely satisfactory, but in a world where journalism is changing both form and substance incredibly rapidly, they at least provide some protections until more data points are accumulated. For example, the WikiLeaks saga is almost so new that it is yet to be determined what pushback, if any, will bring 'total transparency' back to more of a long-term equilibrious state. And maybe media driven politics, though a phenomenon in a slightly more mature state than the new transparency movement, is simply in an early polarizing phase. Perhaps the next channel to lead the ratings wars will be the one with headlines and discussion only, eschewing the talking heads and nightly punditry. Or maybe not... What we do know is that 2010 was a year of profound change, and the state of affairs in a reemergent and reenergized media world, though it could normalize to the long-term trend somewhat, is likely to never be 'the same' again.