Where is U.S. Journalism Headed?

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Aaron Barlow
Author of Review
Carol White

The Rise of the Blogosphere: American Backgrounds by Aaron Barlow (Praeger Publishers, Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT; London, (March 30, 2007)

Those familiar with Aaron Barlow's postings on ePluribus Media will not be surprised to find his new book both iconoclastic and of compelling interest. 

Barlow is a sharp critic of the current trends in the media, such as the presentation of news as entertainment. At the same time, he is passionate about the importance of journalism in creating an informed public debate about the policy issues that face us. As one of the founders of the ePluribus Media collective, Barlow believes web journals and blogs have an important, if not essential, role to play in shaping public opinion and giving citizens the means to take on an active role in political debate.  This __ the role of the blogs and the future of print journalism __ is one of the hottest topics in the field today.

Although Barlow is a passionate advocate of citizen journalism as it is manifest online, he does not see it as a substitute for a viable press. He also rejects the contention that web journals are an essentially new form simply because they are distributed through the internet.  In this, and other ways, the book is full of surprises; it is personal, while at the same time scholarly.  It's a first-hand, inside perspective on modern journalism, but not a first-person memoir.  Barlow references his own experiences as a professional journalist and teacher of journalism, but delivers a comprehensive, well researched review of the history of U.S. journalism from colonial days to the present.

The book begins with a discussion of how early U.S. printers published newspapers as a way to fully realize the capacity of their presses and how they could, by becoming postmasters, run a primitive version of modern-day news bureaus.  Barlow then guides the reader through the technological developments publishing has seen in the past 250 years, from the days when Benjamin Franklin was simultaneously a printer, publisher, writer, postmaster and political leader, to the development of blogs and web journals today.  This growth of technology created the possibility to reach wide audiences quickly, but it also created the circumstances for the stifling development of commercial pressures on publishers.

Besides the advent of profit-driven presentation, Barlow also addresses a more recent development in journalism - the fraud of objectivity. All too often, the truth of a matter is obscured by attempts to appear "neutral" in reporting the news of the day.  Giving air time to two conflicting opinions purporting to be an unvarnished presentation of fact does not meet the ideal of objective journalism; presenting both sides of an issue is always laudable, but honest journalism demands a commitment to truth. 

In addressing this issue, Barlow cites examples to substantiate his claim that the roles of journalist and political advocate can be complementary as long as the writer put his own opinions openly on the table.  He proclaims Ben Franklin, who saw no conflict between the two roles of journalist and political activist, "the patron saint of blogs" [1] and also references the great revolutionary citizen journalist Tom Paine:

Franklin, of course, would not have defined himself as a journalist, but that' s not the point here. Franklin saw himself as part of the world, as an actor in it, not merely an observer of it. Following his example, participation in the world (of politics, at least) would be the hallmark of American newspapers for a full half-century after the Revolution, in part because of Franklin and his attitude, but also in part because of another man, an immigrant to the colonies just before the Revolution who took up the cause in print, and with great passion: Thomas Paine. [15]

Barlow treats the major developments in covering the news, from the colonial to the modern period. He compares how Andrew Jackson depended on the press in his campaign for president to the way in which Howard Dean utilized the blogs to gain political momentum. He writes:

It probably wasn't Jackson himself who developed the strategy that would eventually lead him to the White House four years later __ any more than it was Howard Dean himself who, in 2004, first recognized the power that blogs could have in sparking enthusiasm for a campaign (not to mention in raising money). In fact, it was the partisan press that led Jackson; newspapers were part of the campaign even before his first campaign had really started. [56]

Major developments in printing technology, beginning with single-use newspaper presses, created the capability for large runs and gave rise to the need to create a market. With a large subscriber base, the newspaper publisher could attract advertisers who would finance the expanded role of the press. This led to the on-the-spot news coverage that began during the civil war and to the later development of international news bureaus and world-wide coverage of current events.

As newspapers became a major commercial enterprise, advocacy and political commentary were segregated and placed in a special "editorial" section of the paper. Media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst emphasized sensationalism and the coverage of trivia as a way of increasing the circulation of his papers and was one of the first to develop multi-media packages. At the same time, he used his control of the media to oppose FDR's New Deal and rally the America First movement.

In response, an alternate press evolved, led by progressive journalists like I. F. "Izzy" Stone.  Stone, who specialized in investigative reporting, is one of Barlow's heroes. He writes:

The similarity between Stone' s research method and that of Internet researchers is certainly striking. Today, many journalists look upon the bloggers with disdain, seeing them as doing no reporting. What they mean is that the bloggers aren' t on the spot, watching a war unfold or asking a president direct questions. But what Stone discovered and what bloggers are rediscovering is that effective reporting entails a great deal more than direct observation. In fact, in this view, what has come to mean "reporting" over the past years isn't real reporting at all, but merely the recording of events [111].

The final chapters of the book discuss the recent past, with an in-depth study of the rise of the blogosphere as an outgrowth of the internet. He addresses the future of the blogosphere when he writes:

In the early years of the republic, and since the rise of the blogs, it is the contribution of amateurs that has kept American journalism significant to debate within the public sphere. Over the intervening century and a half, the pressures of commercialism and professionalism constrained the public sphere, limiting the ability of the people __ the amateurs __ to participate directly in the discussions. As much as any other single factor, it is the loss of the ability of the amateur to have a direct impact on the national debates that has increasingly turned people away from both the news media and national politics. With the rise of the blogs, a new venue for direct, amateur participation in both the news media and national politics, we may soon see a reversal of that longtime trend.

[...]

This is not a book about the future of the blogs, but about the past that allowed them to appear, so I will not try to predict much about what might or might not happen in the next few years. 

[...]

If the news media rise to the challenge this realization represents, we could end up with a more fully integrated media mix, running smoothly from the professionals to the amateurs and back, with interaction and connection aplenty. If the news media don't rise to the challenge, they may well find themselves stuck in an eddy to the side of the current, simply spinning around and around again. If that happens, the loss will be not only theirs, but all of ours. For all the problems in the news media today, we do need them as part of the American public sphere. [183,184]

In my opinion, The Rise of the Blogosphere: American Backgrounds should be a part of the university journalism curriculum and be available on academic and public library shelves. Hopefully it will be issued as a paperback soon so that it can also achieve mass circulation.

About the Author: Carol White is Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: cedwyn, cho and roxy