With the sale last weekend of the Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Corporation, to John Henry the owner of–among other pieces of Boston icons– the Boston Red Sox, and the sale of the Washington Post, owned for 80 years by the Graham family, to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a chill went down the spine of many old time writers and journalists. They wondered where our children and grandchildren will get accurate, reliable information about what is happening in their town, city, state, nation, and world. More important even will be how they will determine accuracy of information. Where will people get their facts and how will they know what is true?
There once was a cardinal rule in good journalism that nothing appeared in print or on the radio or on television unless it was verified, attributed, and double sourced. The American public saw this professional code play out in the movie version of All the Presidents’ Men. Jason Roberts playing Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee kept holding up some of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein’s (Dustin Hoffman) exclusives until he was satisfied they had enough corroborating sources for their latest allegations. Today, anyone with access to a computer and the internet can proclaim themselves an authority and pontificate on any subject they choose, professing to be telling the absolute truth.
The current debate between Time Warner Cable and CBS about their fee structure has shut CBS off millions of televisions; yet somehow the outcry is not as widespread as was expected. The public today has so many alternative options to get their entertainment—and their news. Cable, internet streaming, proliferation of tablet devices are changing the public reliance on television, not only for entertainment but for news and information as well.
Similarly there is a serious debate over whether a planned NBC docu-drama on Hillary Clinton to be broadcasted in the lead-up to the 2014 congressional elections should be televised at this time. Would it be seen as entertainment, news, public support, free campaign advertisement for a likely 2016 presidential candidate? Is the Republican National Committee making a mountain out of a mole-hill when they say they will not let NBC News moderate a presidential debate in 2016, because by broadcasting this program they are blatantly pro-Hillary and biased against the Republicans?
Leaving aside the economic issues which are real, legitimate, and bottom line in any business, the newspapers’ sale, the cable debate, the technology boom, and the availability of a range of alternative options all suggest a set of compelling questions many of which will require much time to examine. Suffice to say that free speech and an open free press are better than ever and more in more immediate danger. Similarly, there will be huge legal challenges as the word that is out in the public domain so fast today is often dangerously far less accurate.
Responsibility for the word is disappearing. Will the next generation of writers and journalists care enough for the long run, since the news and information cycle is instant? In addition government manipulated propaganda will totally undermine factual news. Finally, many of these issues and questions will play out very quickly as technology undoubtedly will move rapidly to address these issues. The rate of change is daunting and the ability to know and understand what is transpiring far more challenging.