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Juergen Habermas and Al Gore: Profit Driven Media Endangers Democracy

Juergen Habermas, Germany's most prominent philosopher, criticizes excessive market influence on Germany's newspapers in Die Sueddeutsche. Sign and Sight posted a full translation. Andrew Hammel comments in German Joys:
In the United States -- once the home of aggressive investigative reporting -- troubling signs have emerged at some of the nation's top newspapers. The Los Angeles Times has been ruthlessly re-organized, and the Boston Globe has closed all of its overseas bureaus. At a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars. Habermas, whose 1962 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is considered a classic of modern sociology, warns of a similar process on the horizon in Germany. News and information, he warns, cannot be treated as consumer products. I note that Habermas does not mention blogs or other online information sources even once during the entire piece. Yes, blogs are still in their infancy and, and their influence is often exaggerated by fans. Still, Habermas' lack of curiosity about this looming transformation is disappointing. That caveat aside, Habermas, as usual, makes interesintg points.
Habermas is 77 and may be 'excused' for ignoring the blogosphere, which even much younger German academics ignore or underestimate. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, "Jürgen Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world. Bridging continental and Anglo-American traditions of thought, he has engaged in debates with thinkers as diverse as Gadamer and Putnam, Foucault and Rawls, Derrida and Brandom."

Andrew Hammel
writes in another post that Al Gore new book "The Assault on Reason" comes with a similar message. Quote from that book:
It is too easy—and too partisan—to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us? Why has America's public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? (...)
American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas. It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. (...) While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories [stories about celebrities and missing women, ed.], our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness.

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Pat Patterson on :

In the good old days of journalism when the Chandlers, the Hearsts, the Grahams, the Pulitzers, the Medills, etc., ran newspapers strictly for the common good. Nonsense, these families were no less interested in making a profit then the corporations today. In fact even more so considering that they were rarely diversified and often sold not via subscription but single copy sales on the streets. Its simply amazing that a sociologist would make such an argument when the peril facing many newspapers is not a dilution of the quality or coverage but rather that traditional advertisers have fled and closed their urban anchor stores and have moved to the suburbs and taken their advertising dollars with them. Habermas bemoans the supposed decline of investigative reporting while completely ignoring two things; first, that reporters and their papers are lusting after these big exposes today just as in the past but are unhappy that the public doesn't seem as appreciative. Trust in journalism these days runs very close to that of used car salesmen and congress. Second, in that in many suburban areas these big issue investigative reports are seen as coming at the expense of local issues and an example of the arrogance of the city vs. the suburb. For example, the Los Angeles Times used to have fairly well done and well read suburban issues or sections in the paper. But over the years concentrated its staff more and more in LA and then seemed surprised that it lost readership and advetising dollars to local or regional papers. These "papers of record" lose more readers and influence by cutting coverage in local high school sports than any editorial or investigative report ever caused. But what editor or publisher who lusts after a Pulitzer is going to admit that sending a reporter out to cover the fighting in Iraq is not going to bring any more readers than sending a reporter to Sacramento to report on the state high school track championships will.

Reid of America on :

Excellent analysis Pat. I agree with all your points. Another problem is that Big Old Media is biased towards the political left. Big Old Media that has a rightwing bias is generally doing well. Fox and The Wall Street Journal are growing while NY Times is in freefall. The US has been moving to the right for 40 years yet journalists are 90% leftwing and their bias is palpable. When the NY Times stops being "Pravda" of the Democratic party and starts reporting in a centrist manner their fortunes will improve.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

@ Pat "Nonsense, these families were no less interested in making a profit then the corporations today." But they wrote more about serious news and less about celebrities, right? Think Progress: "Steve Benen notes, during Friday’s broadcast of Couric’s CBS Evening News, “the Paris Hilton ‘news’ got more coverage on CBS than a roadside bomb killing a U.S. soldier, the immigration legislation, and passage of the stem-cell bill combined — times two.” " [url]http://thinkprogress.org/2007/06/09/couric-accosts-america-with-paris-fluff/[/url] Why? Some Americans accuse Europe of not taking today's threats seriously, but it seems to me that America is not really at war either. How else to explain the obsession with Paris Hilton? Or do Americans need Paris Hilton to cope with the war in Iraq? Is it that bad? Newsweek: "There's little question that America changed after September 11, 2001. The world, with all its inequities and anger, was suddenly much closer, and we no longer had the luxury of ignoring it. News became more serious and more global, and it seemed for a time that shift would become permanent. Yet paradoxically, the past six years have also seen an explosion in superficial celebrity coverage, as if Lindsay Lohan were a morning-after pill for Iraq. " [url]http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19263097/site/newsweek/page/2/[/url] How long did this shift after 9/11 last? Two years, three years? What does "morning-after pill for Iraq" mean exactly?

Pat Patterson on :

Just going back to the Hearst papers in the 1890's and the wall-to-wall coverage of the lurid murder trial of Harry Thaw who killed his wife's wealthy and socially conncected lover, Stanford White(The Girl on the Swing). During the World's Fair in 1893 the discovery of the serial murderer, H.H. Holmes, drove all mention of the new Ferris Wheel and the Depression off the front pages of the McCormick owned Chicago Tribune. The LA Times and the old Los Angeles Tribune put out special editions for the death of Rudolph Valentino(the LAT still prints a first page article on the actor every year on the anniversary of his death, on the front page usually with a phot showing the over one million people who lined Hollywood Blvd). All during the 20's and 30's the LA Times constantly ran boldfaced headlines recounting the exploits and law problems of Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and others. The Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and my personal favorite The Woo Woo Kid(a minor youth that was caught running away with several women old enough to be his mother).All were front page news for days if not weeks in both the yellow papers and the serious ones. All of these events were prominently displayed on the serious papers with just as much slavering hysteria as necessary to sell newspapers. Newspapers in the US were mass popular entertainments from the very beginning(the most popular and widely read periodical of the early Republic was The Farmer's almanac and the most popular newspaper was the old New York Observer which featured Bible quotations, weather reports and wedding announcements on the front page. It has only been scholars, J-schools and internet users that are convinced of the serious nature of the press. Randolph Hearst told an interviewer once that the front page with all the murders and celebrities was for the citizens and the editorial pages were for his wife's friends.

David on :

"The US has been moving to the right for 40 years yet journalists are 90% leftwing and their bias is palpable." Then it's funny how the Democrats won the last election by 11 million votes. What planet are you living on?

Reid of America on :

The Democrats won by moving to the right. The so-called Blue Dogs won big but the leftwing of the Democratic party didn't do well. All 19 of DailyKos leftist focus candidates lost. Most notably Ned Lamont losing to Joe Lieberman. One election does not negate a generational shift. The new Democratic controlled Congress has the lowest approval polling in history. Far lower than President Bush's approval numbers. But you won't see that in the NY Times.

David on :

Hate to break it to you Reid, but 3 out of 4 Americans hate Bush and hate his war - according to every poll. True, Bush still has a strong base in the former slave states, where kids are taught that he was "appointed by Jeebus" and Adam and Eve frolicked with dinosaurs. Last years election was just a small taste of what you'll see in 2008: a Democratic landslide.

Don S on :

3 out of 4 - perhaps. But the question is whether that is enough to turn them into enduring Democrats - voters who will continue to vote for Democratic candidates once the war is over and/or Bush leaves office? Judging by the opinion polls about Congress, where the new Democratic congress is equalling if not exceeding the unpopularity marks set by the old Congress - the Democrats may be fumbling their opportunity. And despite a wide preference for a generic Democrat over a generic republican in Presidential polling, races between actual candidate (i.e. Clinton vs Guliani) are mostly even or lean GOP to date. It's not hard to work out why, I think. HRC is the only first-rank Democrat who I can visualise as President. Obama is too inexperienced and Mr. $400 haircut is not a credible Solon for the downtrodden. A lot of people hate HRC but at least I can visualise her in the job. Gore? Don't make me laugh! I can think of a few second-rankers who might be OK - notably Biden and Richardson. But how likely are they to be nominated? The GOP's three leaders all look and sound the part, as does the foremost non-candidate (Thompson). I have my doubts about Thompsom more than the others, but still.

Pat Patterson on :

Considering that there were 26.5 million fewer votes cast in 2006 then in 2004 makes the 11 million vote margin for the Democrats last year inconclusive in proving or disproving the existence of any trend. The drop off in the comparable years for Pres. Clinton was even worse, 42 million less voters in 1998 vs. 1996. The only trend I see is that less people vote each year and the turnout for the mid-term elections is uniformly awful.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"The only trend I see is that less people vote each year" Why is that so? I am tempted to make some snarky comment about US politicians exporting democracy abroad, while Americans care less and less about it domestically. I am, however, genuinely interested why voter turnout is so much lower in the US than in Europe. The US being the oldest democracy, where everybody (with fundraising skills) can run for sheriff, school board president, judge, senator, president, etc. Many more opportunities than in Europe, I believe. The voter turnout trend in Europe is negative as well, but it will take a few decades till we reach US levels, I believe.

Don s on :

Why do so few people vote in the US? One reason is proximity. It's the same reason I have not been to see my doctor in 6 months. I work 100 miles from where I *live* - and voting day is always on a Tuesday - a workday. I often worked a long way from where I was registered to vote. Sometimes a long commute (40 or 50 miles). Sometimes much further than that - 500 or 1000 miles. When on a long commute it's possible to miss voting day. Either miss it or vote early or late. The more important the election the more likely I'll vote. But if I'm registered in North Carolina but working in Missouri or New Jersey on voting day - fuhgeddabout it! In France voting day is Sunday and in many other countries it is a public holiday. I think the latter is a sensible adjustment to the reality of long-distance commutes; there are a lot of people working in London with incredibly long commutes. Make voting day a public holiday and you would see participation rise a lot.

Pat Patterson on :

The popular image in the US is that indeed voters distrust their politicians which would seem indicate more participation not less. But because we are a republican form of democracy the system of checks and balances also applies to the relationship between citizens and politicians. Whereas in parliamentary democracies the citizens have much less ability to change the type and use of power of politicians thus it becomes more critical to control who can exercise that power. In the US powers that are exercised, local or national, are merely on loan and can be taken back, albeit with some difficulty via initiative or disavowal through referendum at the local level and amendment at the national. For example in California via initiative much of the state budget is mandated by percentage of revenue; schools, parks, police and fire, etc. Just recently an initiative was passed that required that gasonline taxes which had been traditionally used for freeway building and maintinence to be dedicated to that purpose again. Over the years the state had siphoned off that money into the general fund. I think cynically it could be said that politicians in the US are seen as interchangeable but unchanging. And when there is some catastrophic mistake then the option is there to simply take that power away from them as well as the more noted method of "Throwing the rascals out."

Don S on :

Given the disintegrating finances of most of the self-designated 'quality' press I would say that Messeurs Gore and Habermas have their arguments backward. The problem is not a lack of what these gentlemen think of as 'quality' but rather a lack of demand compared with 20 or 30 years ago. How this came to happen is the more interesting question. Ten years ago I was a regular reader of the Washington Post and before that the NY Times; I am no longer. Five years ago I usually purchased BOTH the Times and the Daily Telegraph plus occaisonal copies of the Independent or the Guardian (as topics piqued my interest). Now I may purchase 3 newspapers a week in total. What changed? Two things I think: The first is that I learned how the news business is run. Similarly to the trade of sausagemaker - journalism is NOT improved by intimate knowledge of the details. The simple faith of my youth of the probity (if not the balance) of the 'quality press' took a mortal blow and has not recovered. The second blow was that the internet broke the monopoly of the quality press upon acquiring news. I now can read news & commentary on the internet for free whereas I used to have to buy a newspaper or pay a cable company for access to CNN. The change in my habits is a result of both reasons above. I could access the NY Times for a fairly paltry sum - but reason #1 leads me to doubt it's output is worth the price. There are many substitutes which cost me nothing. I miss Thomas Freidman and one or two other Times columnists but substitutes are readily found on Realpolitics or at the Washington Post (which is free). I came to prefer the POst over the Times for it's more democratic manner - and still prefer it today. as for Freidman - I only need exercise a little patience and wait for periodic books of essays to be published....

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