Predicting Digital Media Challenges Is Not Difficult
A newspaper journalist reflects on a book in which many problems are proclaimed, but hard thinking about solutions remains elusive.
Jeff Chester's polemic actually reads more like the hybrid of a public interest position paper and a Nation editorial. Chester writes in a complaintive style that inevitably grates—even when you broadly agree with what he is saying. Whole sections of the book are consumed with procedural minutiae within Washington, D.C.'s Beltway. At the end of these sections, Chester smugly holds up the obvious and shakes it like a bloody shirt. Corporate lobbyists give money to politicians! Companies are gathering information on you and selling it to advertisers! Corporations care about profit more than your privacy! It's a fiery sermon delivered in the church of Robert W. McChesney and Ralph Nader.
And yet, despite problems that invariably will limit its audience, "Digital Destiny" raises vital questions for journalists and all Americans about the future of our media landscape. Chester may not have the answers, but he is pointing to dramatic upheaval that must concern us all. Print, radio and television—ancient divisions that were guided under separate, arcane governmental rules for so many decades—are morphing into one surging medium. The digital broadband revolution is transforming how and when we will consume the Internet, video, audio and typed words like these.
Beneath the dramatic technological transformation, companies are angling in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to cut advantageous deals for when the new media landscape, whatever it will be, settles in. Right now, legions of corporate lobbyists are walking the halls of Congress trying to make sure their clients get the most out of new governmental arrangements concerning advertising, privacy, media access, and information control.
Chester is most lucid—and frightening—when he explores this revolution. The biggest concern arising from the technological Pandora's box of digital broadband is the ability of companies to track everything you view and download to the precise second. Chester labels one of his sections "Big Brother Lives on Madison Avenue." He discusses at length what he calls the "Brandwashing" of America. Advertisers are plotting whole new ways to track and guide buying habits. The technology now at their disposal has as much in common with the TV Nielsen Ratings as a mission to Mars has with throwing a rock. Precious little public discussion has accompanied this information revolution. A gaggle of technocrats, appointed commissioners, lobbyists, consultants (usually ex-technocrats hired by lobbying firms), and people like Chester have been left to sort out the political, social and economic consequences of all this change. The privacy consequences of such developments are obvious and scary.
Marketing firms are not waiting for it all to be sorted out. They are busy at newer, more exact versions of their old game: getting people to give up private information under the guise of convenience. Chester uses the example of TiVo, which pitches itself as a way for consumers to quickly skip advertisements. In fact, the company is gathering detailed information on consumer habits about which ads they do not skip over and selling that information to advertisers. Such efforts have been afoot for decades. I am old enough to remember when cable television was supposed to be a medium devoid of advertising. Look at what we have now.
Chester, executive director of the public interest lobbying group Center for Digital Democracy, spends much of his book attacking standard villains of the media reform movement: the Telecommunications Act of 1996, media consolidation, former FCC chairman Michael Powell, and politicians' habitual coziness with K Street. Chester has much to chew on. A phalanx of lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, trade associations, pseudoconsumer groups, and even university journalism departments are working to influence Congress and the White House about the future media landscape. Chester identifies key problems and leading players in the game. Although his own bias dominates, Chester has produced a book full of useful information. He does an admirable job presenting his view on how the sausage of media rules is made.
The greatest weakness of "Digital Destiny" is the last section, where Chester presents his supposed solutions to problems he has railed about for 191 pages of his 208-page harangue. Chester shows us what's wrong and scary in his view, but he doesn't do enough hard thinking about what a better future can actually look like and what it will take to get us there.
He argues that the current system is stifling competition, but then he argues for more publicly funded news programming. He suggests major television networks need to set up public trusts to pay for news. Would they have advertising on their programs? He argues for broadband networks set up by local governments, but he does not explore the free speech consequences. If the government controls the information network, will it filter the information that passes through it? Will we trade the Big Brother on Madison Avenue for the Big Brother in Washington, D.C.? Who will be gathering data about citizen broadband use and to what end?
Chester recommends subsidizing broadband for low-income Americans. He makes the appealing public policy argument that poor children need to have access to information to have a level playing field in the new digital age. Fair enough. But will the government control how subsidized people use broadband? If not, would taxpayers be happy if thousands of people used subsidized broadband to watch YouTube, download pornography, and pirate copyrighted music?
As his book nears its concluding pages, Chester attacks media consolidation and declares vaguely, "It's time to assert that the public's right to a diverse and equitable media system is paramount to business interests." That sounds important, but what does he actually mean? Should the government control the media? Should the media be forced to split ownership just as the technology is bringing the various mediums together?
At the opening of his book, Chester uses the obligatory quote from Howard Beale in "Network." He then goes on to show why he is mad as hell and he won't take it anymore. Okay, now what? Diatribes delivered to people who already agree with you won't accomplish the preservation of the media's essential role in both our democratic experiment and the spread of human knowledge. Answers to the daunting questions about our media's digital destiny have to be carefully conceived, arrived at through consensus, and grounded in what government can realistically control in a free and open society.
Cameron McWhirter, a 2007 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
On January 12, 2007, Bill Moyers held up a copy of "Digital Destiny" before thousands gathered at the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee. "Make this your Bible," this broadcast journalist and former public official declared.