Pass the Remote: Online News

by: Elliot Panek, Kristen Grant and Elaine Baumgartel

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at clucas@mail.utexas.edu.

Pass the Remote

Dear Kristen and Elaine,

Whenever I tell folks that I’m studying media, one of the first things they ask about is the slipping quality/integrity of cable TV news. I nod and confirm their suspicion that TV news (like politics, education, etc) is more about entertainment these days than about issues. Although I try to keep tabs on what the talking heads over at FoxNews, CNN and MSNBC are nattering about, it takes some effort — I stopped getting my news from TV years ago. Like many people I know, online news is my only news.

In a way, it makes sense that the content of cable news networks has become increasingly frivolous. I feel as though, by design, the internet is a better medium for the dissemination of information, and so it has taken over those duties from television, leaving TV to do what its always done best — entertain. This tendancy towards frivolity in TV news is lamentable, to be sure, but it may not be the sign of the apocalypse that many take it for. Its easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a medium fulfills the same needs it did 20 years ago. Now more than ever, I think we need to consider the WHOLE media landscape rather than just one medium before making any pronouncements about media and the public sphere.

Needs migrate across media; just because the public isn’t informed by television doesn’t mean they’re not informed. I’m well aware that many, perhaps most, people haven’t made this shift from TV to internet, and those of us who have encounter news in radically different ways (blogs vs. CNN.com vs. the headlines on the frontpage of Yahoo). I’m eager to hear about your experiences with online news, and hope this will help start a dialogue to match the one revolving around cable news.

Yours Truly,
Elliot Panek
University of Texas, Austin


Bush Lifts Ban On Vigilantism: ‘Let’s See What Happens,’ Says President

Katie Holmes Embracing Scientology

Dear Elliot and Elaine,

Just minutes ago, one of these headlines was a top story featured on CNN.com, the other on theonion.com.

It seems not a little scary to me that I have a hard time identifying which is which.

Like you, Elliot, I too turn to the Internet for my news needs; CNN.com for news and theonion.com for “news.” That’s the theory, anyway.

As of right now, the two most popular stories on CNN’s website, after the just-breaking news of Michael Jackson’s trial, are the aforementioned spiritual soul-seeking of Ms. Holmes, and Paris Hilton’s announcement that she will retire from whatever it is she does…two years from now.

Now, I’m not blaming CNN for this prioritization (power to the people…whose brilliant idea was that, anyways?), and I know that many surfers do go straight to the meat and potatoes news. But as much as we like to lament that TV news is going down the, er, tubes, I’m willing to bet that ABC’s lead-off news story is not the breakup of Destiny’s Child (oh yes they did!). With Internet news, we can skip dinner and nobody’s there to send us to our room. It’s a veritable news buffet out there in cyberspace, and as you buffet-goers (and you know who you are) are well aware, who doesn’t pole-vault the salad bar and head straight to the ice cream sundae bar? Except now, everyone’s on Atkins, so they’re getting their sugar fix online.

So I guess my question to you two is, what news is important, and how is the Internet affecting who gets to decide? Well, apparently if we leave it up to democratic vote, non-famous famous people and the celebrity religion that brought us Battlefield Earth are not only newsworthy, they are THE news. Yes, the Internet may be a better medium than television for the dissemination of news and information, but if a tree falls in the forest, and everyone is looking at Paris Hilton instead…

Best,
Kristen Grant
The University of Texas at Austin


Dear Kristen and Elliot,

I am one of those weird people who doesn’t watch TV. At all, really. My cable news exposure is limited to public locations: the Financial Aid office, the doctor’s office, the 24-hour restaurant near campus. I, too, get my news online. With online news, I can choose my top story and control the speed and direction of my information consumption. I read columns on alternet.org and commondreams.org. Primarily, though, I stream audio news. My appreciation for news sources such as Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, and Flashpoints is constantly growing. I also stream NPR programs, even as I am disenchanted by the long arm of corporate influence and its impact on even this purportedly progressive news source.

While I agree with Elliot that the internet seems better suited for broad and democratic dissemination of information, I am seriously concerned by the continued lack of internet access experienced by so many people in the US and around the world. I also commiserate with Kristen about the ease with which we can surf around important issues while gravitating towards the sensational. The internet’s potential is threatened by, among other things: municipal wireless prohibitions; social and economic limitations on access to internet service, technology, and education; and increasing corporate monopolization of infrastructure and content.

What’s our plan?

Peace,
Elaine Baumgartel
University of New Mexico


Dear Kristen and Elaine,

I think you’re right, Kristen, to question the relationship between news and choice. Which brings up a question — could more choice ever be a bad thing?

Fragmentation of the entertainment audience is one thing, but if everyone can subscribe to their own version of what happened in the world today, maybe we’ll be back where we were before mass communication. Obviously, when we got our news from 3 TV networks, there was hegemony. But now that there are more news outlets (blogs, leftwing websites, rightwing websites), it doesn’t seem much better. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood right now, but all I can see are two possibilities — a hegemonic, monolithic voice or a million voices that refuse to interact with one another. To be less bleak about this — maybe Internet sites should be designed so that the reader will encounter unlikely/unpredictable combinations of news, an Ishuffle-like random news generator that doesn’t distinguish between the capture of Muhammad Khalaf Shakar and the reunion of Pink Floyd.

I share your concern, Elaine, over the lack of Internet access in many areas of the world. This might be considered an extension of last week’s “PTR” discussion about ‘leveling the Internet playing field’. There has never been an inexpensive way of receiving & producing information worldwide. OK, server space and a laptop with wireless Internet aren’t THAT cheap, but when you think about the infrastructure needed to produce other media, this is as good a shot at allowing the entire world to communicate with one another as we’ve ever had (especially if one throws cell phones into the mix). But then, what do you say to those worried about cultural/economic imperialism? As the Internet spreads, rich white guys get richer. I think it isn’t perfect, but considering how “closed” the media that came before it were, even a government-censored, Microsoft-sponsored Internet is a leap forward in the democratization and localization of media production. Like Dr. Jenkins writes in his most recent Flow column, we’ve got to keep both sides of the equation in our heads — be vigilant for cultural imperialism while understanding that the people can take over a medium and use it to their own ends.

Sincerely,

Elliot Panek
University of Texas


Dear Elliot and Elaine,

Despite their obvious differences, print, radio and television are all remarkably similar media in terms of the model of information dissemination they follow. As such, the way we as producers and consumers conceive of “the news” really hasn’t changed all that much; someone or something tells a lot of other someones about something that happened, usually in the form of a story to try to make it more interesting. The path that that “news” follows has largely remained the same, but so has — and this is what I’m getting at here — our idea of what “the news” is (and I don’t mean what events and ideas we consider newsworthy). The Internet is a medium so radically different from the others that it seems strange that we are trying to fit the square news peg fashioned by TV, print and radio, into the Internet’s round hole.

If we take a very third grade (but very useful) definition of the function of news to be “learning about the world around you,” it would be ridiculous to suggest that on the Internet, this process could only take place while, say, surfing cnn.com. I still see the value in traditional, pointed news stories relating current events, etc., but instead of using our current definition of news to shape the Internet, maybe we need to reconsider just what do we mean by “the news” in the first place?

Best,
Kristen Grant
The University of Texas at Austin


Dear Kristen and Elliot,

When I think of news, Kristen, I think of information that has a direct impact on the lives of many people. Of course, the impact could be a local community project, a state or national election, or global warming trends that threaten the livelihoods of people around the world. “Real news… is the news we need to keep our freedom.” So said Bill Moyers on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman (democracynow.org, 6/22). This is the key, in my opinion.

Clearly, we all agree that finding real news on the internet takes some previously existing access, skills, and knowledge, dedication to the search for meaningful information, and sufficient time to weed through less meaningful stories. The choice between state-oriented media sources and independent/community news sources is a choice worth preserving, while a choice between cotton candy and a cinnamon fireball isn’t really a choice at all. Michael Jackson’s acquittal, Paris Hilton’s retirement, and the successful rescue of a boy scout in Utah are not real news in Moyers’ sense. These stories are sensationalistic-fluff-celebrity/overcoming-adversity stories that do nothing to educate, inform, or empower citizens. In-depth coverage of proposed cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the progress of the Patriot Act II in Congress- now these are real news stories that affect real people and real lives. What about the lies recruiters are telling to young men and women to increase enlistment in the US Armed Forces? Obviously, a monolithic state-run media system serves to protect the interests of those in power. But then again, so does a commercial media system such as the one we have now, offering thirty-two plus flavors of the same nonsense, with the profits all going to the same place.

The internet as an online news source provides a semblance of equal air-time to various voices, although those who choose to sign on might have to avoid corporate media sites like cnn.com or msnbc.com. As Elliot said, looking at the entire media landscape as a whole becomes a necessity. If we go online to get the same news that is available on TV, cable, and dish networks, we are not utilizing the potential of the internet as a source of news. The internet provides a square hole for traditional broadcast news content by recreating options that are already available elsewhere.

But the internet is also flexible, dynamic, and unstable — conceivably this portal is an unlimited source of simultaneous progress and oppression. Users will determine how the medium is manipulated and what the effects of this manipulation produce. Being aware of the complete media landscape — by promoting internet sites on community radio stations, and promoting community radio and television channels online, for example — is how integration of the power of different media news sources can be accessed and used for purposes that protect and inform citizens instead of silencing and exploiting them. We are participating in this project even as we write. Let’s continue to do so!

Cheers,
Elaine Baumgartel
University of New Mexico


The Remote Passed:
Pass the Remote: Carnivale
Pass the Remote: Adult Swim
Pass the Remote: Catch and Release
Pass the Remote: The iGeneration

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