Citizen Journalists: Confronting Fears and Fables

These days Congress has plenty in common with the Sumo ring – called a dohyo – where large, powerful men rely on leverage, size, and power to push opponents out of the dohyo.

Such is the case in our Senate particularly, where a new majority of 54 Republicans, including several senators hoping to become president – the Sumo yokozuna – have begun to crouch, ready to charge at the discretionary spending of entitlement programs critically important to millions of people.

There are a number of rituals that Sumo wrestlers – like our Senators – engage in both before and during their bouts. One example, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) pledging to return to the legislative etiquette of using the committee process and membership debate rather than negotiating behind closed doors.

If the GOP’s new tactical battle plan is to cast the president as the obstructionist, his veto pen would be the most public. Otherwise, it’s a tune that has been sung before and once they’ve run the XL Pipeline up the flag pole along with a few other projects, strategy may again change – time will tell us more.

As these legislative wrestlers squat, facing each other and metaphorically spread their hands wide to show that they are unarmed, mainstream media practitioners ignoring the public interest have taken on the role of partisan cheerleaders rather than mechanisms of accountability. This is a personal observation, not necessarily a critique – or even new.

No Longer Contented to Passively Accept Information

Rather than rely on purported objective reporting from regional publications, digital audiences are no longer contented to passively accept the information handed to them.

Historically, journalists in democracies have been expected to function as mechanisms of accountability and while this sometimes happens, digital audiences seem to prefer reporting slanted to their political preferences.

Nowadays, audiences are more inclined to search out their own information, produce additional information themselves, interact and consult with other participants in the process – it’s called participatory or citizen journalism. Two-way technologies have enabled this increasingly important stage of the journalistic process, but it may be the indifference of our political system that’s keeping fuel in the tank.

Politics that Undermine Our Economy

One example is permitting Wall Street to resume the predatory practices that undermined our entire economy in 2007. Politicians, using the language of Citibank lobbyists, have once again allowed risky bets with taxpayer’s money. It was part of the recently passed omnibus spending bill – a bipartisan financial reward for the near half a billion dollars pumped into the midterm elections.

What should be abundantly clear is that neither party is particularly concerned about fallout from the corporate-owned media nor about what’s best for the American people – they’re celebrating because they actually got something done.

Doesn’t anyone remember Sen. Elizabeth Warren saying enough is enough? This is an issue that should be at the forefront of public debate – there’s plenty of serious reporting to be done on these conflicting political interests. Bipartisanship doesn’t make this collective breach of fiduciary duty any less of a potential disaster. Unfortunately, today’s political accountability is driven solely by mouse-clicks.

There was a period in America – during my lifetime – when people felt they could do something; that they could find allies in the system to help make it work for them and that journalists’ were part of making that a reality for them. While some people may still be holding onto that belief, others have taken to the streets in protest and are energetically – if not angrily – filling the comment threads of public debate.

Performers on the Stage After the Applause

Some editors have sought to benefit from attentive audiences by taking-in those interpretations to define the edges of the issues they report. More often the case, is that editors have become mere pulse-takers, chasing clicks, unwilling or financially unable, to drill into important issues.

A recent example is how a third-year law student blogger, Lamar White Jr. exposed the association between former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and Rep. Steve Scalise, the third highest ranking Republican in the House. Wasn’t there even one legacy publication worth its salt that could have exposed the gloss of his willful-blindness alibi? The truth was a matter of public record!

Increasingly important to our journalistic processes, are the performers on the stage after the applause – those like Lamar White, who contribute to the feedback.

The Common Denominators

While corporate media continues to enjoy their gatekeeper function, there is also a financial fear factor operating in newsrooms that largely undermines the democratic role of journalism in our democracy.

“Look at us now,” Columbia professor Steve Fraser recently told Bill Moyer. “The dominant form of employment in our economy today is contingent, casual, precarious labor, without any protections. No security at the job. No fringe benefits. You’re at the mercy of your employer…Pensions have been stripped away. The social safety net has been shredded.”

It’s a reality from which newsroom professionals haven’t been immune. Also, it’s not solely the function of the new digital landscape that’s forcing these changes in media business models as many suggest – it’s about how much revenue they keep, not just how much they generate.

“When you’re faced with that kind of situation, naturally you have to think twice about whether you’re going to fight back,” said Prof. Fraser, commenting about employees being increasingly put upon and accepting less and less employment security.

The common denominators here are fear and extreme fantasy. The fantasy being that if we choose, we can escape this highly impermanent, unstable economy by reinventing ourselves into an economic success, get another degree or just suck it up for a while.

The problem – aided and abetted by the media in all of its various forms – is our image of the country which we are all supposed to respect, admire and strive for which is at odds with our underlying social and economic reality.

It’s Preached from the Pulpit Then Deified

The greatest failing of corporate media is their collective unwillingness to expose the fable of democratic capitalism or envision the attenuating of any alternatives. “Democratic capitalism, has moved into the realm of sacred belief ,” according to Dr. W.K. Mott, associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “I think that the capitalist system is so pervasive that it truly scrubs just about every bit of dissent out of its citizens through its mythology and its creation of celebrity and other ideas,” says Dr. Mott. “It’s preached from pulpit and it’s deified.”

On those rare occasions that an alternative vision of society germinates in an online comment thread, discussions are quickly marginalized as being unpatriotic and a view shared only by the malcontents of an American system that is actually working for them.

In his recent interview with Bill Moyers, Prof. Fraser reminded us that capitalism in 1945 or 1950 didn’t have a particularly positive reputation and that it’s only since the 1980s that it has become axiomatic in our political culture. Now days, when people say freedom, they often mean capitalism – they’re not the same.

Writers Who Can Remember Freedom

Author Ursula K. Le Guin while being honored at the National Book Awards, told the audience, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives. It is writers, she believes, that will help us to see through our fear-stricken society.”

Importantly, “We will need writers who can remember freedom,” said Le Guin. The inference here is that freedom doesn’t actually exist and presumably, the writers called upon, include citizen journalists – particularly those who might have become adults before 1980.

Interestingly – and like Prof. Fraser – Le Guin also referenced our fear-stricken society. She continued by saying that, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable.”

Importantly, “So did the divine right of kings,” the audience was reminded as Le Guin concludes by saying that, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Fear Robs Us of the Armature

Many Americans will continue to cling to their descending lifestyles and the misconception that freedom means capitalism. “Fear robs them of the armature to fight back,” explained Prof. Fraser. “I think we underestimate the degree to which politics of fear operates in our society. Enabling this surrender to political fear are our delusional fables of freedom which journalists have a duty to confront.”

At the heart of our status quo, is the absence of a discussion about a different reality – one that may well mutate into another form of capitalism, but certainly one that distinguishes freedom from the tyranny of financial capitalism. Whatever that new reality become, it’s not likely to evolve from the voices of our corporate media and surely not from within the political dohyo we call Congress.

As our government returns to work this week, we might begin to look around and remind ourselves that there are no political saviors – the political will to change the financial capitalism that controls our government does not exist within dohyo of Congress.

What seems paramount in this evolving era of participatory journalism is that the public can no longer be seen as a mere abstraction in the newsroom – it is the active presence of citizen journalists who hold real power. The power to disrupt. The power to purchase. The power to vote. The power to change.