A Case for a “King of News”?

709px-charles_i_1600-49_in_three_positions_anthony_van_dyck_1635

Capable of seeing all sides of an argument…

For many years now, I have been a resident of two countries, the USA and the UK.  That ‘duality’ has taught me to look at the world from several perspectives at the same time. This is a story about newspapers and TV news  in America, but it has its roots in English history. Stick with it, it’s interesting….

As an American, there is much to admire in England and in the English way of life, but for a long time I could never understand the British respect for the Monarchy.  The ‘House of Windsor’ was to me an anachronism.  Here were inept and painfully average people elevated to the height of power.  What was more irking was that they were supported by tax money.  “Off with their heads!”

Yet Republicanism has had little traction in Britain, and everyone supports the Monarchy.  It’s an institution with very very deep emotional roots.

I did not really understand why until I read Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples.

My new understanding of English History has also given me a new view of journalism in the United States.

Charles I ruled England during the time of the Civil War (the British one, not the American one), and was overthrown and beheaded in 1649.

The Monarchy was then replaced by Republican rule under Cromwell who ruled under the title of Lord Protector. It was a popular revolution and it was England’s first and only experiment as a Republic.  A short 12 years later, the Monarchy of Charles II was restored to vast popular acclaim across the length and breadth of the land.

What happened? And what does this have to do with Journalism in America?

The rule of Cromwell was a nightmare for pretty much everyone in England.  Unbound by the restraints of Nobless Oblige, Cromwell and his followers became the Taliban of England. There were religious trials, there were religious police. It was a holy terror, in every sense of the word.

The English soon came to realize the value of a countervailing force in the institution of a Monarchy.  While Parliament and democracy might well reflect the momentay passions of the population and the ups and downs of the economy or foreign fortune or failure, the Monarchy was able to stand a bit aloof and have a far longer and more stable perspective.  Britain needed a Monarch, in a way, to allow the Parliament to function far more effectively.  It was a pillar of stability. Alone it was unreasonable and could be dangerous. But in concert with an empassioned Parliament, it cast just the right balance. Hence, the experience of the Cromwellian Republic forever cast in the British temperment a healthy respect for the Institution of the Monarchy.

Clever.

Now we come to journalism in the United States.

Our nation, perhaps unlike any nation that has ever existed before, is as much run, defacto, by the Media as it is by our elected legislators.  It might not be too unfair to say that the position of the media in fact has vast sway over the kind of government we get, our perception of foreign policy, domestic policy, the economy and so on.  The very foundation of our goverment is in fact predicated on the notion of a well informed electorate; otherwise what is the point of a voting democracy? (note: First Amendment).

But when the voice of the media and thus of public discourse and public information is also married to the vicissituedes solely of the marketplace, does this place our democracy in danger?

We may, in the next few years, see the very disappearance of newspapers from many American cities and towns.  The economics of the marketplace will simply no longer be able to support them. Television news may follow suit.  There may be a new incarnation on the web… or there may not be.  This remains to be seen.

By the same token, that which does make air, or make print, will increasingly be driven by baseline market demand.  The cushion that once existed for newspapers, in the form of classifieds, car ads, house ads, want ads and so on has now been stripped away by the web. It is a naked news and nothing less.

At a conference I attended in Bristol, England last  month, Paul Dacre, Editor of The Daily Mail, a very popular tabloid made a strong case for ‘shock news’. It is, he said, the only way to sell papers.  Fox News in the US is no different. This is a business.

But it is also a business that is more than a business. It carries with it the concept of ‘the public good’ and ‘an informed electorate’.

There was a time when that responsibility rested firmly, (if tenderly) in the hands of a few families, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, Bill Paley and David Sarnoff.  They understood their responsibility to balance businesss with public service.

Those days are either over or rapidly drawing to a close.

And what will we be left with?  A naked market driven information place…. The 21st Century equivalent of Cromwell’s Republic, but with ROI replace le roi, so to speak.

This is not healthy. This is not good for America.

Thus, perhaps we should start to think of creating a kind of separate and non-market driven countervailing force in the world of journalism.  One that exists not to replace the Fox News or Today Show of the world, but to provide a stable pillar of quality journalism. A benchmark. An alternative that is not driven by ratings or the passions of the moment.

It is true we have both NPR and PBS, but both are woefully underfunded, and in the case of PBS, so badly constructed from its birth as to be almost stillborn.

Perhaps what we really need in this country is a kind of BBC; free of ratings and a haven for the best journalists in the nation (as Harvard tenure, for example… ), where they can work unthreatened by layoffs or cutbacks.  A place where television, newspaper and online journalism might flourish at its best; and provide a ‘safe haven’ for the information we so desperately  need to function effectively.

It would cost us, but far far less than we spend on so many other goverment ‘programs’ that deliver so far less.

It might be the best investment we could make with a small percentage of our tax dollars. Something that would return a thousand fold.

You might, for the moment, think that you can depend upon The New York Times. But in this world, there is no guarantee that the vagaries of the marketplace might not place that newspaper ‘on the block’, the same place Charles I found himself 360 years ago, this month.

9 responses to “A Case for a “King of News”?

  1. Michael, please “don’t piss down my back and tell me its raining” because when I hear folks telling me how good it would be if the Government could step in and make things right… well, I know, and history has shown, that its about to get ugly and we are all going to be little less free.

    This is America, not Britain, not Holland or whatever socialist country you care to name. There was a day when Americans didn’t want Government involved in much of anything. For me, thats the way I believe it should be but unfortunately I’m starting to feel kind of lonely these days in this regard.

    The “media’s” customers are going away, why is that? Because thats what happens in a free society when you no longer provide goods or a service that people want.

    Who the hell wants more of the dribble that PBS or NPR have to offer? Michael, you say they are “Under funded”- come on, most of what they produce is crap, Government subsidized CRAP.

    The news papers and the media (in general) are in trouble because they have become infested with hard core, agenda driven liberals and people have had enough, simple as that.

    This Country voted for “change” and we are sure going to get it. Let the “change” begin!

    Avery

    Hey Michael, I understand one of my segments will air on “What’s Your Trip” this Saturday on Travel Channel. That is very cool, hope my free market views wont disqualify for consideration for future broadcasts : )

  2. Not to worry Avery. That’s what a free press is all about!🙂

  3. King Rosenblum the First?

    It has a certain ring to it…

  4. Avery, if your definition of the programming on PBS and NPR is dribble – what do you call what passes for mainstream commercial broadcast programming? At least here in Oregon, OPB has some of the finest programming I’ve ever watched – one of the only reasons I still watch what little TV I do.

    I agree with Michael – a U.S. equivalent of the BBC would do this country some good from a broadcast TV standpoint. Nothing to speak of is worth watching these days that actually informs except what I’ve seen on PBS.

  5. Why would we want to create another publicly funded media outlet? It would seem to me that “grass root” programing/reporting (with free access to the cable/airwaves) would be less obligated to any funding “master” (corporate or public funding). But, as in any source of information, what is credible/reliable? One person’s truth is another person’s untruth.

  6. PBS is definitely set up to fail. You have so many different ways of setting up members, and more than one members in each market. It’s just a crapshoot.

  7. i must say michael, i normally agree with most of the stuff you post here but not today.

    competition
    i agree that competition can be a bit of a double edged sword but let’s be honest here, bleeds it leads will always be with us. it always has been. it’s important to recognize the good that comes from competition. it provides incentive for journalists to go after stories that aren’t being told. it leads to innovative approaches to storytelling. most importantly competition provides consumers more choice, which is a GREAT thing. if you don’t like o’reilly and fox news, stick with npr and the times. or avoid the big guys altogether. go to rosenblumtv to get inside information from an industry expert who writes and distributes his thoughts outside of mainstream altogether.

    government
    this section is particularly troubling. “a haven for the best journalists in the nation (as Harvard tenure, for example… ), where they can work unthreatened by layoffs or cutbacks.”

    who decides who the best journalists are anyway? the government? the same federal government that created the mess in iraq? the same federal government responsible for medicare, medicaid and social security? the same federal government that’s bailing out financial institutions and the auto industry? you want these people to be in a position to make decisions about which journalist i shoud listen to? no thanks, i can figure that out myself.

    faster, lighter, quicker
    consolidating resources in one quasi-government entity would be a contradiction to everything you’ve advocated for over the years. the lighter cameras, lights and other gear allow for one man crews to head out and tell stories. whether working as a VJ for a paper, for network news or just as concerned citizen x. that’s the BEST PART about what’s going on right now. any one with a knack for storytelling, a good eye and a couple thousand bucks can get out and make something. and now they can DISTRIBUTE it as well. how exciting! people can bring camera’s in places they’ve never been before (think of sadaam’s hanging etc.) we’re entering an amazing era of proliferation of choice for consumers. a move toward consolidation could work against that movement by de-legitimizing citizen and VJ docs that are posted online. the newspaper industry, the government, the major networks and all of the people helping to shape the media landscape should encourage this type of engagement to add legitimacy to web 2.0 and user generated content. it would promote all kinds of new ideas and important conversations that might be otherwise ignored.

    obama
    to his credit obama’s use of new media and video on the web was extraordinary. he continues to use it in his excellent transition to power series online. he’s already made the weekly radio address into a weekly web video. smart. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy6aBVdOCg8 114,000 people who might not have listened to the address on the radio watched online. that’s engagement. they also ask for letters from citizens on issues that are important to them. viewers then create short videos with ideas or send in letters and the obama team reads back some of the good suggestions and talks about how they are hoping to incorporate the citizens ideas into obama’s policies. at the end of the day are the viewers really making policy for obama, no, but they are engaged in way that they haven’t been in years and i think that’s an extremely valuable thing.

    depth, layers and choice
    i think the key to the new media landscape is providing more choices and more ways to engage the consumer. say you have one very good story that’s worthy of a good 5 minute documentary style video. you need to repackage your content in several ways so that consumers can decide how little or how much they care to engage your idea/story. this means a one sentence TWEET on twitter, a headline and sub head on a website, a blog post with a short summary, a 30 second promo video with some sexy/interesting soundbites, the full five minute doc and a couple longer interviews with subjects of the documentary to supplement the original piece for those who can’t get enough of the story.

    as you can see i feel pretty strongly about this. anyhow, take it for what it’s worth and thanks for making me look at things in a different way. i really appreciate your blog and your work.

    dan hayes…

  8. “The English”… soon realised the need for a monarchy…

    I precise

    as politely as
    I can
    as
    we recover from
    the holidays
    here
    on my small island

    with your phrasing
    Taliban?
    perhaps
    a little
    too broad sworded
    for our times

    The English learnt …

    for their pains
    and for their troubles
    during our civil war

    Cheap shirted
    sans coulotte
    our labouring
    peasants
    my ancestors
    our poor

    Chopsticks
    as William Cobbett
    my hero
    would say

    All those

    unpressed
    unread
    unschooled
    who went
    against

    to fight

    a king’s divine right

    To tell them
    what to think

    The English….

    Soon
    discovered
    how…

    Life liberty and the pursuit of happiness

    a century before it was written down
    in your land

    depends on which part
    of a larger battle field
    you hold your weapons
    and stand on

    They
    lost

    the Diggers
    the Levellers

    that’s
    all

    Michael
    you
    have media barons
    And a media monarch
    King Rupert
    the First
    to cash
    in
    already

    why swap that majesty
    for the
    BBC
    or
    a
    USBBC
    when
    for £4.5 billion
    a year
    all you get
    back
    is a monastery

    Keep the faith

    ‘cos your money
    spent
    on
    your media king

    will only bring
    you
    costume bonnets
    sci-fi
    some shock-less jocks
    and dancing
    and news
    that moves to the centre
    chasing Fox

    every time
    it matters

    No my friend
    and I say this sweetly
    let the old die peacefully

    Do what you do best

    Make citizen
    publishers

    poets

    of us all

    with warmest regards
    ever

  9. and please
    knock off
    the ‘e’
    in precis

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