Sunday, 8 March 2009

Will citizen journalists destroy the world?

If the Cuban Missile Crisis were to erupt today, would the world survive?

It’s a question that goes to the heart of No Time to Think: The menace of media speed and the 24-hour news cycle, by Howard Rosenberg and Charles S Feldman (Continuum $24.95) and particularly to what its authors describe in their subtitle as the “menace” of modern media.

In 1962, when surveillance showed nuclear missiles trained on American cities from its near neighbour’s territory, there were no 24-hour rolling-news channels and web sites with voracious appetites for instant news, comment and analysis; no millions of bloggers ready to pass snap judgements on the actions of government; no rapid-reaction political spin teams designed to exploit this media landscape for their own gain.

For a week, President John F Kennedy was able to keep the missiles’ presence secret while a private dialogue with Krushchev defused the crisis. He was not pressured to follow his first, instinctive reaction – an air strike to destroy the missiles.

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and intimate adviser to President John F Kennedy, says in No Time to Think that today’s media pressure would have made it impossible to keep the missiles secret, that there would have been public panic and congressional pressure, and that the first choice of military response would have been followed.

He concludes: “in all likelihood…the result would have been a nuclear war and the destruction of the world.”

So, No Time to Think argues that the internet and 24 hour news channels are a force with the power to destroy the world.

It’s a powerful argument – and one that deserves a considered response. So let’s consider it while we review the rest of No Time To Think’s attack on modern media.

Rosenberg and Feldman believe the standard of modern news reporting is poor, and identify two culprits: speed and citizen journalism.

The need for speed means that news is reported before it is clear what has happened, and before events are understood. Coverage is trivialised: “The public’s right to know has been supplanted by the public’s right to know everything, however fanciful and even erroneous, as fast as technology allows.”

And then there is the citizen journalist. Rosenberg and Feldman see “a modern reformation that preaches a new-media theology, one that elevates amateurs to exalted status with little halos glowing above their golden heads.”

What they leave out in all this is the public’s practised ability to choose what, and how much, news they consume.

In a succinct and illuminating historical analysis of the need for speed in reporting, they chart the golden hour of the fresh-minted CNN as its coverage of the first gulf war. As they point out, audiences fell off dramatically once there was no war to screen.

So it’s clear that, when we have no need for 24 hour news, we choose not to watch it.

Rosenberg and Feldman see the outpourings of citizen journalist bloggers as a “tsunami” of questionable information. But saying there are too many blogs is like saying there are too many books in a library. Readers – of books or blogs – use cataloguing devices to select what they need.

Most bloggers don’t see themselves as professional journalists. Just as, when there was a piano in every parlour, it didn’t follow that there was a concert pianist in every home.

The citizen journalist will get the audience he or she deserves. When, in January, an ordinary passenger on a ferry diverted to rescue passengers in the New York plane crash took a snap on his iPhone, uploaded it to the internet, and saw it reproduced in newspapers around the world it was because of its unique journalistic value.

But what of the one really serious assertion in No Time To Think: that the internet has the power to destroy the world?

Rosenberg and Feldman fail to make the case. They cite no examples of knee-jerk, media-fuelled military reactions that might provide a modern-day contrast to Kennedy’s measured response over Cuba.

If anything were to have proved a catalyst for such calamitous reaction, surely the attacks of 9-11 would have done so. But they did not. Rather, the response, in the shape of the War on Terror, was formulated over some months.

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