When I first entered college many years ago, I had dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter or editor. This was before I became really serious about photography. I had been the editor of my high school newspaper and thought of journalism as a noble pursuit—a worthy way to use my writing and editing skills for the greater good.
That may sound corny and old-fashioned, but ideas about journalism and the mass media were a bit different back then. Memories of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation were still fresh in people’s minds. Determined journalists, the seekers of truth, had exposed the corruption that brought those crimes to light. A few years before that, I watched as Walter Cronkite, displaying rare emotion, removed his eyeglasses, shook his head, and exclaimed, “Boy!” when the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon’s surface. A few years before that, he had also removed his eyeglasses, briefly breaking eye contact with his TV audience while informing the nation of the loss of its 35th President. He then paused for a moment of deafening silence, put his glasses back on, and continued broadcasting in his calm, dispassionate manner.
Back then, there was no Internet, no cable television, and only three major TV networks. Most folks got their news from the national networks, their local newspapers and radio broadcasts. Correctly or incorrectly, people tended to believe what was in the papers and on the broadcast news—it was assumed that the reporters, editors, photographers, filmmakers and producers were honest, objective professionals attempting to present the clearest, most accurate picture of current events.
These rigid notions of objectivity, balance and detachment on the part of news reporters were being challenged just as I was getting into my first reporting course at St. Cloud State University.
My professor in that course was an admirer and proponent of what was called “The New Journalism.” This was a more literary “author-involved” style of journalistic writing popularized by the works of such writers as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Hunter Thompson.
The techniques of New Journalism were diametrically opposed to the rules of “old” journalism. New journalism was often subjective rather than objective; the writer’s ideas and opinions often made their way into the story. The idea of the reporter’s detachment was also rejected—the reporter’s immersion in the story was in fact part of the story itself.In New Journalism, the writer’s involvement in the story coupled with his or her own ideas and opinions produced an emphasis of “truth over facts.”
These notions were anathema to my other journalism professor, a fellow right out of Central Casting. He was ex-military, ex-newspaper, and seemed to be a cross between television’s Lou Grant character and a Marine Corps drill sergeant. He had a booming voice, a flat-top haircut, and terrified most of his greenhorn students. He referred to himself as The Filter—if we wanted to become professional journalists, we would have to get through him.
His style of journalism was old-school all the way. Reporters and editors worked with facts, the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW information. They were supposed to use these facts to clearly and objectively explain things to the reader. Opinions were for the editorial page. Journalism’s highest duty was to provide the public with objective, balanced coverage of the known facts so that citizens could be informed about their world and form their own opinions and positions in a “marketplace of ideas.”
At my school, the traditional ideas won out. The professor who advocated for New Journalism was gone the next year and students were faced with getting through The Filter if they wanted become reporters.
About that time, I changed course, shifting from news/editorial to the advertising/public relations track within the mass communications department. Photography became more important to me than writing, and I figured that there was more creative freedom (and more money to be made) in the advertising photography business.
New Journalism didn’t succeed at my university, but it didn’t go away. You see its effects everywhere: The rise of “celebrity journalists,” the steady creep of subjectivity into news broadcasts, the increasing prevalence of “puff pieces” centered on participatory journalism, and feature stories replacing what used to be called “hard news.”
I keep hearing echos of what The Filter said about the need for an informed citizenry. To me, things have taken the path towards “more broadcasting—less information.”
And it’s getting worse.
Today, people have the ability to gather information as never before. Digital technology has made it possible to record audio, still and motion picture information at little or no cost, and devices such as today’s smartphones and tablets, coupled with internet connectivity, make it possible for anyone to be a sort of one-person news broadcaster.
We’ve seen the results. We’re inundated by Twitter feeds, thousands of blogs (like this one!) and innumerable YouTube videos. It’s sometimes mildly entertaining and at worst it’s usually just harmless junk.
Mostly, it’s cheap, and that can have very negative consequences.
Armies of volunteer “citizen journalists” wielding cameraphones can “cover” the news at a much lower cost than professionals. This has attracted the attention of large, traditional publishing and broadcasting companies looking to get more material on the air or online while saving money.
Recording Is Not Reporting
But not everyone recording video with their iPhone is a journalist. Here’s a case in point:
I recently watched a perplexing news story streamed from the internet to my television set via my Roku media player. It was about a demonstration in London by professional taxicab drivers. They had created a massive traffic jam in the city to protest the introduction of the Uber smartphone app to the United Kingdom.
The news segment was mostly silent, just video shots of snarled traffic and backed-up cars. Then, a couple of “interviews,” soundbites of angry cabbies expressing their desire to keep Uber out of London, followed by a couple of sentences from an Uber spokesperson promoting their business. No narration, no reporter on camera. That was it.
Confused? I was, not knowing what the heck Uber was supposed to be. Further investigation revealed that Uber is a car-hailing smartphone application that allow users to request what are essentially private taxicabs. Metering is done by the app on the user’s phone, not by a traditional taxicab meter, and the payment is made via the app using the customer’s credit card information with no tipping unless the rider decides to tip the driver with cash. No wonder the London cabbies were steamed.
That’s why the video segment failed as journalism. It failed most of the criteria that my old college professor had set as the standard for news reporting. It presented visuals without explanation, didn’t identify the underlying conflict and its primary players, and failed to explain to the audience WHO Uber was, WHAT it did, and exactly WHY the cabbies were angry. In the end, it was more or less “found video,” with some people talking about some unrevealed concern. The audience, unless they’re already up to speed on Uber and its activities, learns nothing and understands nothing.
Now this wasn’t someone’s blog, YouTube video or podcast. This was NBC’s news channel on Roku.
NBC. The one with the peacock. Brinkley and Huntley, remember? This is one of the biggest of the big guys, and they’re running quite a bit of stuff like this these days.
It’s The “New” New Journalism, or, to me, a sort of cut-rate “non-journalism.” My old professor would be quick to point out (emphatically) that recording is not reporting, and that material presented without explanation or context is little more than noise, which is already depressingly abundant in our world of 24-hour news channels and countless “pseudo news” outlets on the Internet.
But I’d guess that it’s less expensive than real journalism, which is why we’re seeing more and more of it. That’s a shame, because all we’ll end up with is more video, more pictures, less explanation, less understanding.
A less-informed citizenry.
I hope that real journalism can survive this “cheaper must be better” mentality that’s so prevalent these days. People need real news, stories worked on by trained reporters, checked and edited by skilled editors and producers to create real understanding of the events of the day. People should demand it. If not, perhaps one day the New York Times will change its motto from “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to “You Figure it Out.”
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Tags: balanced reporting, citizen journalism, ethics, found video, internet, journalism, London taxi protest, NBC News, New Journalism, objectivity, reporting, taxicabs, Uber
The biggest legal battle in the history of broadcast television is about to take place, and almost nobody knows anything about it.
Later this month, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear a case that could have a profound impact on the television broadcasting industry and the type of access customers have to televised content. The ramifications of the case could see the biggest changes in television delivery since significant over-the-air TV broadcasting started in 1947.
On one side of this lawsuit are the four big television networks: CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. On the other side is a two-year-old internet video-streaming company called Aereo. Aereo sells subscriptions to users for the ability to stream network television broadcasting directly to their computer, mobile device, or internet-equipped TV set.
At first glance, this seem pretty innocuous. Streaming TV content over the internet is common nowadays. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others provide television programming to millions of customers every day on all sorts of internet-enabled devices. A year ago, I wrote about how I ditched cable TV to go “internet-only” with my TV viewing, and it’s working just fine.
What Aereo is doing is different. Unlike the satellite and cable TV companies, Aereo sends network broadcast content to subscribers without paying rebroadcasting fees to the networks. They accomplish this by building server farms filled with thousands of tiny television antennas, each about the size of a dime. Each antenna is assigned to an individual Aereo subscriber; broadcast content is picked up by the antenna and streamed to the user. For this, the subscriber pays a monthly fee of between $8 and $12, depending on the market location.
The networks are livid about this. To them, Aereo is illegally rebroadcasting their copyrighted content without paying the proper fees. They say its a business plan based on theft.
Aereo argues that they are not, in fact, rebroadcasting anything and that their system works in a legal manner that dates back to the beginning of television.
Years ago, before cable and satellite TV became common, gaining access to television broadcasting content was a simple affair. You purchased a TV set. The set often had its own built-in antenna, the “rabbit ears” many of us remember. If you lived far away from a TV broadcasting location, you purchased a separate antenna and attached it to the roof of your house or atop a tower in your yard. You connected the antenna to your TV set with a wire and voila!, you got free television content grabbed out of thin air. At that point, until you decided to upgrade your TV set, you were essentially done paying for stuff. Sure, the antenna and the TV set needed periodic maintenance and repair, but the content itself was as free as the wind.
Aereo’s position is that they are essentially leasing an antenna to each of its subscribers and that it’s completely legal. The antenna is tiny and lives in a server farm, the wire is the internet, but the “free TV over the airwaves” model is the same as it ever was. Since each subscriber has a single antenna, the sending of video content to their device constitutes what is known as a “private performance” in copyright legalese. Rebroadcasting, which is what the cable and satellite companies do, is considered a “public performance,” and requires the permission of the copyright holder.
So far, Aereo’s legal argument has prevailed, forcing the networks to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The networks are considering the possibility of losing their final appeal, so now they’re raising the stakes.
The networks are now saying that if they lose to Aereo in the Supreme Court they will stop broadcasting their popular programs over the airwaves. In essence, this would render Aereo’s victory meaningless, as their business model would collapse just as it would if the networks prevailed in the case. It’s unclear which programs would be pulled from the air and what might remain, but the gist is that Aereo would have nothing of value to sell.
Is this threat for real or is it a high-stakes bluff? If the threat is real, Aereo is out of business whether they win or lose. If the networks are bluffing and Aereo wins, they will expand to more major metropolitan markets and continue their successful growth (the service has proven hugely popular). For the networks, this has two dangerous consequences. First, more folks will dump their cable or satellite TV providers if they feel that Aereo, along with other internet TV sources, can replace them. This would threaten the billions in rebroadcasting fees the networks now enjoy. Second, it’s entirely plausible that the satellite and cable companies would consider adopting Aereo’s strategy to avoid paying the fees anyway.
My thought is that these threats are a last-minute attempt to get Aereo to negotiate some sort of licensing fee with the networks. For the networks, this would be the next best thing to an outright court victory—if they can’t destroy Aereo, at least they can make money off of them. My guess is that the network marketers and accountants are furiously crunching the numbers to see if they can actually afford to follow through on this threat.
If Aereo refuses to negotiate, wins the case, and the networks actually pull their over-the-air programming, the effect will be far more significant than the demise of an internet service company. It would be the end of television broadcasting itself, if you go by the traditional definition of the term.
People like me would hardly notice. I’ve been a cable user for most of my adult life and get everything from Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes these days. My colleagues are tech-savvy people who likewise can get the television they want on their chosen device, usually by paying either a monthly fee to a streaming service or by purchasing individual television programs. For us, this is no big deal.
There are others, however, who would be profoundly affected. There are people who live in places where there is no cable TV and no reliable high-speed internet. There are viewers who are resistant to change or simply don’t want to pay to watch TV. For them, their old antenna works just fine, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And there are folks, largely ignored by the digerati and tech press, that just don’t have the money to subscribe to cable or satellite TV. For them, if TV over the airwaves stops, their screens will show nothing.
It would be the end of free television, something we’ve taken for granted for almost 70 years. Something that’s always been there for the one-time price of a TV set and antenna. It would be the beginning of what I can only describe as a “pay as you go, for everything, forever” paradigm. I suppose folks aren’t particularly bothered by this—as long as they’ve got the money to spend. I recall a friend of mine saying years ago that some day all the televised sporting events that fans enjoy would become pay-per-view items. No more free stuff. That time may be closer than he thought.
Why isn’t this news story more widely known? To me, it comes down to a couple of things. First, it’s a complex story, one that can’t easily be explained by a 50-word soundbite on the evening news show. Second, I’m not sure that the networks want to broadcast a story about how they’re considering ending broadcasting.
In any case, viewers will await the outcome. The case goes before the Court on April 22 and a ruling won’t be announced for months. If Aereo loses, only their subscribers will notice. If the networks and Aereo strike a deal, their subscribers will likely notice a monthly fee increase. If Aereo wins and the airwaves fall silent, things will have forever changed, with millions of TV antennas reaching into the sky, catching nothing but the wind.
Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against Aereo, siding with the major TV broadcasters. My opinion is that Aereo’s argument was sound, but that the Court wasn’t willing to find out what would happen if the networks pulled their over-the-air programming in the event of their defeat in the case. Moving forward, I’d guess that Aereo will cease to exist, but the threat to broadcast television’s dominance will continue.
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Tags: ABC, Aereo, antenna, broadcasting, CBS, Cloud TV, copyright, digital video, Fox, NBC, Netflix, Networks, Streaming TV, Supreme Court, television, video