Is Journalism Still Capable of Protecting Democracy?
From the New Books Network's Book of the Day Podcast
“Few freedoms in the United States are as cherished as freedom of the press.” So begins Chapter One of Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society (Oxford University Press, 2020).
The book by Victor Pickard, Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the Annenberg School for Communication, makes it clear, however, that mainstream American news media are not really free at all, but have been pressed into service over more than a century to generate profits for a few rich owners bent on selling audiences to advertisers.
Dr. Pickard points out that this system of “toxic commercialism” is in crisis as advertisers flee to cheaper social media outfits like Facebook. In this NBN interview, he says the old TV news adage, “If it bleeds it leads,” has been supplemented by a new one, “If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious,” as internet platforms profit from misinformation and even outright lies that engage (and enrage) their readers and keep them coming back for more.
Democracy Without Journalism? argues that the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election is symptomatic of three core failures that are baked into the structure of American news media: the excessive commercialism that made giving billions of dollars of free publicity to Trump “damn good for CBS”; the tidal waves of misinformation circulating so profitably on social media, and the sharp decline in the number of working journalists. The book points out, for example, that in the last twenty years, print newsrooms have shed more than half of their workers and that local news “deserts” have spread into more and more American communities.
Victor Pickard argues that journalism is as essential to democracy as other social goods such as education, libraries, and national healthcare and should receive substantial public funding, just as it does in other western democracies. He contends that the current crisis in American journalism is an opportunity that “allows us to reimagine what journalism could be.”
Victor Pickard is Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center. He is the author of America’s Battle for Media Democracy and co-author of After Net Neutrality: A New Deal for the Digital Age.
Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor based in the Sackville, New Brunswick.
Laura Landon is a librarian at Mount Allison University.