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Caryl Rivers Headshot

Tower of Babel?

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As the first internet president prepares to take office, it's time to ask whether the new media environment is a triumph of democracy or a Tower of Babel.

The answer is that it's a little of both. Thanks to the internet, voices and opinions not backed by wads of cash can actually make it into the media mainstream.

On the other hand, the fragmentation of the media into many niche markets can actually create a threat to democracy. When everybody is saying everything, too often it's the trivial, the sensational or simply misinformation that gets heard. When "the press" becomes all of us, who holds power accountable? As Juvenal asked, "Who shall guard the guardians?"

Are citizen journalists real journalists? They can be, but are volunteer journalists a substitute for a professional and well-funded press corps? At a recent panel at George Washington university on the internet, politics and the press, the point was made that there are plenty of jobs for young journalists out there on the internet--unless you need ephemera like a half-decent salary and benefits. There are jobs, but are there careers?

The disinterested journalist (not objective; objectivity doesn't exist outside the double blind study) with no axe to grind is essential to monitoring the powerful. But guardians don't come cheap, and fragmentation doesn't help the quality of journalism. Just look at what's happened to local TV news as the number of channels exploded; it's a shadow of its former self. Big city stations that once had full-time statehouse and city hall reporters as well as investigative units, now offer up murders, fires, car crashes, and lots and lots of weather.

Today, as we see our great newspapers in danger of crashing to the ground like the dinosaurs, we may be losing a resource vital to the republic that can't be easily replaced. What newspapers offer is a cadre of well trained and well paid professionals who not only offer shoe-leather reporting but context, history and institutional memory. You can't do this on the cheap. Newspapers also speak in a voice loud enough to be heard above the din. They can actually create change.

One good example: In the 1970s, the" inner belt", a second circumferential highway, was planned for Boston, backed by powerful interests. It would have ripped-up stable working-class neighborhoods, plowed under green space, destroyed wetlands and massively increased pollution. When my late husband, Alan Lupo, started covering protests against the highway, it was considered a lost cause. But he kept on writing about the road's harmful impact for the Boston Globe, and slowly, slowly, minds began to change. In the end, the governor killed the highway, an early environmental triumph. That would not have happened without the power of a newspaper.

Would the Watergate crimes have come to light without the relentless digging of Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post? Would the Pentagon papers have surfaced without the New York Times? Would the pedophilia in the Catholic Church have become a national story without the investigative team of the Boston Globe? Probably not.

We need a press powerful enough to rival other power centers, like government and the corporate state. We desperately need a new economic structure to save newspapers -- even if their news no longer appears on paper but goes to your I pod or eventually gets beamed directly into your brain. We can't just rely on bloggers or citizen journalists who are nearly always outgunned. At a recent Boston University panel on the future of the non- fiction book, authors bemoaned that fact that newspapers no longer give their reporters book leaves. Many of the best non fiction books came about when journalists built on years of reporting they had done for their newspapers to create widely read, award-winning books. Today, unless you already have a best seller under your belt or live on a trust fund, you simply can't afford in-depth reporting on your own.

At the BU panel, crack investigative reporter Ron Suskind noted the shrinking of the press corps, and said that politicians were feeling less afraid of the press, because fewer of the reporters who used to be there day in and day out were still around. The pols, he said, were happy to see them go. Fewer prying eyes, more power for them.

How we pay for serious journalism in the future is a critical question for the nation. We can't let our great newspapers disappear with a bang -- or even with a whimper.
We need them to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable with all the firepower they can muster, and in the steady, relentless -- and expensive -- style that few other media can achieve.

New media needs the Right Stuff that old media once delivered.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media scare Women." (University Press of New England.