Zombie Eating Zombies: The Aggregation of the News Media

Ahhh! Thank heaven for freedom of the press, the first line of defense against the forces of evil and ignorance that threaten any democracy! How well does the press perform that function today? I wish you hadn’t asked that question because I don’t think you’re going to like the answer.

Those of us that lament the passing of “old school journalism” would do well to keep apprised of what is happening today. What with print journalism in crisis and newspapers folding too frequently, we have to ask: What is the future of the fourth estate? Do we need newspapers or journalists given the existence of other sources of news and the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security? Was it Jefferson who said that if he had to choose democracy without newspapers or newspapers without democracy, he would rather begin with the first line of defense for a democracy and go from there? He meant, I suppose, that democracies can be created but not sustained without a free press. Is this still true some 200 years later?

My thesis for this essay is that any “journalism” worth its salt is much more than just news, and the form of journalism that understands human behavior does not exist today if it ever did. We are fortunate in having an essay by Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, to give our roller-coaster car a push. Uuuup we go! Clickety click, are you feeling anxious?

We begin our ride with a particularly vexing human behavior that we can label the “cult of celebrity.” Keller finds himself such a cult figure despite being not so thrilled with the idea. According to the list makers at Forbes, I am the 50th most powerful person in the world—not as powerful as the Pope (No. 5) but more powerful than the president of the United Arab Emirates (56). Vanity Fair (get the pun?) another arbiter of what matters, ranked me the 26th most influential person in the country…. New York magazine asked Woody Allen to name the single most important person in our city; he named—aw shucks—me.

So, it turns out, our editor and author is a man of consequence in the eyes of some at least. There is a downside to this, however, and Keller sees it. By turning news executives into celebrities we devalue the institutions that support them, the basics of the craft and the authority of editorial judgment. He does make an insightful observation, the first of several, when he says that our fascination with capital-M Media is so disengaged from what really matters. What is it that really matters? I’m glad you asked. Here comes the first descent, don’t hold your breath, it’s best to breathe and if you like you can let go of the bar and raise your arms—but this is only for the most adventurous.

It seems to me that our media have been dropping the ball lately. We have all been blind-sided by the human false self. It seems that Wall Street was able to hood-wink the media into not doing the hard-work investigative journalism that would have revealed hanky panky in packaged derivatives or the ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and others. Much as the creative minds of Wall Street found a way to divorce investing from the messiness of tangible assets, enabling clients to buy shadows of shadows, we in Media have transcended earthbound activities like reporting, writing or picture-taking and created an abstraction—a derivative—called Media in which we invest our attention and esteem.

Wow!! Glad that’s over. It was fun but scary. Oh no! Up we go again. No, you fraidy cat, you can’t get off. You’re committed now. You should have thought about this before you signed on—you know what this Thriller Paradigm ride is like. If not, you’re about to find out. You remember the distinction between emotion and feeling right? OK! Here goes.

Possibly I am old-fashioned, but in these days when actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals, the obsession with the theoretical and self-referential feels to me increasingly bloodless.

What does Keller mean by “bloodless?” Well what I would say is that many journalists don’t have any skin in the game or that their “heart” (read “feeling”) is not in it. That wasn’t so bad was it? Are you getting used to it a little. Good! Because the tallest and steepest challenge is yet to come!

Now we introduce and define Keller’s term “aggregation.” It can mean …taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them over your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.

Last month AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million and now AOL is moving into the business [of] what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.  The good news is that Huffington …has hired a small stable of experienced journalists, including a few from here [The N.Y. Times], to produce original journalism about business and politics.

We are now coasting into the exit platform. Be careful, you might be a little unsteady and dizzy and this last stop can cause you to lose your bearings. Having journalists who investigate business and politics is not enough to get at the causes of the fear-driven American narrative. We must, whether we’re journalists or not, ask the questions related to not just what is happening or where it is happening but why it is happening. What are the underlying causes of the self-destructive behavior that predominates in American society? If we fail to ask why it is happening, then it won’t matter whether our media consists of “ole-style journalism” or “aggregation.” Unconscious zombies will continue to find other unconscious zombies very tasty.

Bibliography, notes and references are in the published books by Roy Charles Henry.

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