Submitted by Andrea Perrault
The story of how we, the public, get our news has never been more important. In 2008, Barack Obama broke new ground with his campaign’s ability to communicate over social media. The campaign built a stunningly effective strategy to mobilize the youth vote. Yet, how quickly the bright light of that effort dimmed. In 2012, many younger people felt disillusioned because change had not come fast enough.
Obama was paralyzed by a mean and punishing Republican-led Congress. His inability to be a vocal enough champion of race issues frustrated many young people as well as some vocal and articulate academic leaders, like Cornell West. Then in 2016, the unlikeliest of candidates to many, Donald Trump, swept into ascendancy with his use of a new form of social media, the “Twitosphere”. As his presidency unfolds, his contempt for mainstream media is evident. His Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, and his advisor Kellyanne Conway have stunned the public with their “alternative facts” and accusations of “fake news.”
So, as many of us struggle to fathom the ability of such preposterous sources of information to dominate the media, we might look back to consider the sources of such change. I recall the days when Al Gore championed the Internet as an essential tool that would bring information to our fingertips in seconds, making us instant purveyors of the world’s knowledge to everyone’s benefit. And the Internet is a valuable tool which many of us surely could not do without. Email allowed us to communicate so much more quickly; the U.S. postal service could not compete with such efficiency. Now email is going out of vogue and is replaced by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and countless other media tools. Messages of 140 characters surely cannot convey any depth of knowledge — is this where the world is headed?
Hard news was formerly communicated by time-honored and venerated organs like The New York Times, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, and the leading news dailies in all major cities. As communication strategies changed drastically, these sources came under the gun. Advertisers vanished, mergers occurred, newspapers had to reduce their coverage, and many went out of business.
Television changed, too. Many more stations appeared through channels that proliferated as entertainment. News now was less available, as the public increasingly opted for sports, game shows and “reality” TV, including Mr. Trump — the “You’re fired!” capitalist guru of “The Apprentice”.
Radio changed as well. I recall the days of transistor radios when young people were plugged into rock and roll; but even then, news (brief though it was) usually was broadcast on the hour. At least they heard headlines. Today, young people are less likely to tune in traditional broadcast radio stations because they prefer to stream their music — without news interruptions — on personal devices like cell phones.
Even National Public Radio has changed: broadcasts are repeated, stories are heard on multiple programs, reporters aggressively cut off their interviews, and telethons are proliferating; I call it the Trump effect, although it was happening before Trump appeared on the scene. The listener is often left unsatisfied with the experience. One of my friends has switched to audiobooks.
Maybe I’m just cranky and old, and I need to be more hopeful that better days will come, and that media matters will not seem so dire. I still subscribe to “The Atlantic” and “The Nation”, both 100-year-old magazines. They and a few others give me confidence that the power of the written word is not lost.