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Truth and consequences

by William Bowles • Thursday, 5 April, 2007

Gutenberg Press & a MacIn the space of around 25 years, the combination of the computer and the global telephone network have transformed communications. From its early days at the beginning of the 1980s, when, aside from a handful of transnational media corporations, computer-based communications existed only in defence-related academia (eg ARPANET) or the weird world of the ‘hackers’, (which is how I came across the medium, not that I qualified as a ‘hacker’ but I had a $200 Commodore computer and a modem, the rest is history).

Until the Website came along though, making information available electronically, was an ‘arcane art’, not to mention expensive in time and money as well as not being reliable. The Web of course, changed all that, and eventually led to ‘turnkey’ publishing applications, doing for the Web what desktop publishing had done for print.

But whatever else the Web is ‘responsible’ for, it has released a flood of creative writing, the likes of which have probably not been seen since the introduction of the printing press.

Predictably, the initial reactions of the ‘professionals’ was to ignore this outpouring of independent voices. One need only read what the journos were saying about ‘Blogs’ (oh how I hate the word!) and their fury that ‘amateurs’ were intruding on ‘their’ domain!

This was followed by a period of patronising and condescending putdowns, focusing largely on bad syntax, or not following the ‘rules’, such as they are (and as defined by the MSM), none of which is exactly rocket science. Indeed, I never cease to be amazed at the total ignorance of many of the university ‘educated’, professional journalists, especially of history, let alone world affairs, but then I had a broad, commie upbringing, and was thankfully spared a university mis-education (instead, I got to hang-out at art school for five years).

Of course there’s bad writing on the Web, but then much of mainstream journalism is also pure crap and not worthy of the tag journalism either.

Then begrudgingly, there came a kind of acceptance, especially when Web-based, independent writers started showing up their corporate ‘betters’ by breaking stories and showing that ‘dead tree’ journalism was totally out of it (‘Google? What’s that?’). For the most part however, mainstream journalists used us as (free) sources of information they were either too ignorant or just too lazy to source for themselves, not that much of it actually got used in the MSM, at least in any kind of recognizable form.

Hey, ‘but all information is free, right?’ Wrong. I’ve just received a letter from lawyers for the Gannett media conglomerate, requesting that I cease and desist from making available articles published in six editions of ‘GI Special’ that appear to contain copyrighted material owned by Gannett (‘Fair use? What’s that?’).

But having finally realised that there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about the explosion of Web-based journalism, their corporate masters decided to join the fray and of course, given the vast resources at their disposal, it wasn’t long before every MSM publication had its own ‘blog’.

But to differentiate it from ‘real’ journalism, we saw the tag ‘citizen journalism’ make its appearance with the resultant downgrading of the content’s viability, the implication being that, ‘okay, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the ‘freedom’ to say whatever they like, but don’t confuse it with ‘real’ journalism, leave THAT to the pros’.

And even within the domain of so-called citizen journalism, we find that for the most part it’s what you’d expect to find on any ‘comments’ section of a website, it doesn’t compare with the kind of independent journalism I’m talking about, in fact it can be argued that all it does is add to the total amount of ‘noise’ there is on the Web.

But aside from the view that we had no business intruding on ‘their’ territory, underlying their reactions was the simple fact that much of the explosion of Web-based writing was from the ‘left’ or at least questioning the daily outpourings of slush from the MSM and what really pissed them off was that we were breaking important stories well before they were and in the process, literally transforming the nature of traditional journalism, dominated as it is by corporate/state needs.

But whatever one’s opinions on the quality of the writing found on the Web, the fundamental reason for the opposition from the MSM is ideological in nature. They have only two objectives: preserve advertising revenue and the status quo.

There are also other, fundamental problems confronting Web-based news and information sources that are, in part anyway, the product of the nature of the Web itself. Firstly, the sheer volume is itself a barrier, for it means that unlike corporate news that has penetration through cross-exposure, independent news sources even if collectively large, are fragmented across many thousands of outlets. It’s akin to a local newspaper trying to reach a national audience.

In addition, corporate news presents a consistent interpretation regardless of the media or even the source, so that, allowing for stylistic differences and the target audience, the same message is transmitted, reinforcing the myth of ‘received opinion’.

Secondly, the nature of the Web lends itself to monopoly simply because Web-based, corporate news outlets are just one arm of a range of media; print, tv and radio, with each having access to the other media outlets through cross-marketing and advertising. Thus, just as with traditional media, the major brands dominate; BBC, MSNBC, ABC or whatever by virtue of the blanket exposure they can achieve.

The other danger is the attempt to price independent news out of the Web environment by charging for ‘throughput’, or the amount of bandwidth consumed. In other words privatising access through price, again because a handful of corporations own or control Internet access (indeed the bulk of broadband access is owned or controlled by one corporation!).

Thus I think it’s true to say that although we reach a global audience, because it’s fragmented and inconsistent, it can never rival the corporate media.

So what’s the solution? A major component of our outreach must surely be to wean people off corporate news as a source of news and information. But does this mean delivering a uniform message? In some senses, yes it does. But who is the ‘we’? Ah, there’s the rub.

What it does illuminate is the fundamental problem that we face, namely that without an coherent political base that informs independent news and information, we will remain fragmented and marginalised.

Independent, progressive journalism has to be rooted in action, for unlike the MSM which seeks to preserve the status quo, ours is rooted in changing it, thus comparisons between the two are all but useless. This might sound obvious, but a public reared on the illusion that the ‘news’ is objective and conforms to some fictitious impartial view of events, this difference is crucial. So much so, that it forms the basis for virtually all the criticism leveled at independent media by the MSM.

These two aspects are the core of the situation that confronts us, for how does one distinguish between truth and fiction?

To a great degree this should inform the way we present news and information but in turn it raises another critical factor, for unlike the traditional media, independent, Web-based journalism requires the active participation of the reader. To read us requires an active, seeking out of an alternative interpretation of reality. In a sense this imposes an additional responsibility on independent journalism, one the MSM neither seeks nor desires.

But is it enough to merely expose and if not how does one best connect information to actions?

The fact is, that most independent journalism originates with writers NOT connected to any kind of political structure (pointing once again to the failure of the left to organise, damn it!).

And unfortunately one can go further and say that by and large, independent journalism that does originate with left organisations consists largely of exhortations and very little in the way of creative thinking (the Zapatistas are one exception to this and worthwhile checking out.[1] See also ‘Of Marxism and Magic’).

It is also more than a little ironic that when we finally do possess the tools and the skills to challenge the status quo on its own ground, we lack the means to translate ideas into action.

This view is borne out by the number of mailings I get from frustrated readers who feel impotent when confronted with the reality, who really do want to do something but search in vain for a solution to that which ails us.

To put a positive ‘spin’ on the situation, one can say that at least we are collectively building a basis for some future transformation. Making the change is up to you dear reader.


1. A couple of Zapatista resources

Chiapas Media Project

Frente Zapatista de Liberación National


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