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Technology And The Death Of American Journalism

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American journalism started out weak in 1690 when the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was shut down by the British government just 4 days after its first publication.

But American journalism persevered and became foundational to our fledgling democracy. So important was journalism that its protection was written into the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson summed up the importance of journalism by writing, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

American journalism flourished for a bit then got cancer as it became increasingly commercialized. That cancer of commercialization grew and metastasized as various network news stations, newspapers, and media outlets were subsumed by increasingly larger corporate conglomerates.

In 1983, 90 percent of U.S. media was controlled by 50 companies. By 2012, 90 percent was owned by 6 companies. Today, 90 percent is controlled by just 4 companies with AT&T at the top.

American journalism is in a downward spiral, but the solution is not more technology and the replacement of journalists with AI systems.

The problem with consolidation of media ownership was summed up well by Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley: “With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics.”

In addition to corporate consolidation, American journalism was imperiled by the emergence of new technologies. The rise of the Internet and the advent of the World Wide Web as a cheap publisher of information fundamentally changed how information was created and disseminated.

Information wants to be free, but media organizations—and the corporations they are a part of—want to get paid, generate profits, and produce “shareholder value”.

When a new technology is introduced to culture, it does not simply just change this or that—it changes everything.

News organizations, especially print news, struggled to adapt. Some faltered. Some went out of business. Others survived. But most were merged into larger news organizations that were, in turn, acquired by large corporations.

For example, CNN (Cable News Network) was launched by Turner Broadcasting System in 1980 as the world’s first 24-hour cable news channel. Today, Turner is a subsidiary of WarnerMedia, which owns CNN Worldwide. WarnerMedia is owned by AT&T, which today is the world’s largest media company based on revenue.

In 2009, in response to a question about the decline of American newspapers and the tenuous state of journalism, then-president Barack Obama replied: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”

A little more than a decade later and here we are shouting across the void at each other. And things are probably going to get worse—perhaps a lot worse—before they have a chance of getting any better.

Last month, Microsoft announced that it was laying off dozens of in-house journalists and editors from Microsoft News and replacing them with AI (artificial intelligence) bots.

Launched just two years ago, Microsoft News stated that it “represents the ways we keep people informed across the web, phone and PC, using our long-tested approach of curating news via publishing partnerships, human editors, and AI.”

I’m skeptical that outsourcing journalism to AI will make things better. It likely will make things a lot worse.

Unlike humans, AI systems are 100 percent loyal to the corporations that own them. They cannot think for themselves (not yet anyway). They do not have a conscience or morals. They will not question authority. AI systems run algorithms and do exactly what they are programmed to do.

AI algorithms are increasingly shaping our perception of the world, telling us what to think about, what to believe. We program the algorithms then they program us.

Imagine a world in which AI systems are gathering, editing, and disseminating the news. If you think that CNN or Fox News are biased in their news coverage with thousands of employees world-wide who have varying political leanings and diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, wait until you’re getting your news from a finely-tuned, homogeneous, and algorithmically-driven AI system that utilizes sophisticated machine-learning to improve. An AI news system like this will edit video clips, write headlines, and package news stories targeted at its audience in a way far superior to the respective cybernetic hive-minds of CNN and Fox News.

And that would be just the beginning. Once optimized, an AI news system could (and likely would) become an extremely effective propaganda machine with the capability to manufacture whatever reality it was programmed to generate at which point journalism, as a means of providing the public with the information it needs to make informed decisions and be self-governing, would be stone-cold dead as would be the democracy that depends on it.

American journalism is in a downward spiral, but the solution is not more technology and the replacement of journalists with AI systems. Nor is it more of the same corporate-owned commercial journalism that got us to where we are today.

“Journalism must be understood as a public good,” write Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism. “It is something of value to society that the market once produced...But the circumstances that made possible that production no longer exist and the market is ceasing to nurture or sustain substantial journalism.”

McChesney and Nichols advocate that what is needed to revive American journalism is substantially more publicly owned journalism: “Americans have to face the hard and cold truth: journalism is a public good that is no longer commercially viable. If we want journalism, it will require subsidies and enlightened policies.”

“Without a civic counterbalance to the vagaries of the market,” they warn, “it is entirely within the realm of possibility that journalism could wither and die. Its replacement would be not a void but the sophisticated propaganda of a modern age in which it is possible to tell people much of what they need to know to consume products and support spurious wars but nothing that they need to know to be voters and citizens.”

As our country heads into another tumultuous presidential election year, I fear that we’ve gone from “shouting at each other across the void” to shouting into the void of our variously technologically constructed and media controlled echo chambers where the possibility of any mutual understanding is non-existent.

The solutions to our problems are not more technology nor further commercialization and homogenization of American media. The solutions to our problems are to be found where they’ve always been found. I hope you and I are up to the challenge.