Who Gets To Decide What is News?
According to recent polls anywhere from 67% to 78% of Russians support the ‘special military action’ in Ukraine.
This support is entirely a function of the ‘news’ that they see. For most Russians, according to The BBC, their main source of news and information is television, and television news in Russia is entirely controlled by the government -which would be Vladimir Putin.
This is the inherent danger of a society that does not have a free press. Shortly after he took power in the Kremlin, Putin began a long and very focused process to decimate any notion of a free press in Russia. As the invasion of Ukraine approached, he finished the work, removing and silencing whatever remnants of a free press were left. Today, there is none.
But how free a press do we have in the West?
We like to think we have a free press, but how free is it actually? Certainly freer than Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China, but that is a pretty low bar to clear.
In 1961, AJ Leibling wrote, “freedom of the press is reserved for those who own one.” And that is true.
Some years ago, when I was teaching at NYU Journalism School, I used to have my students take a video camera and go out and shoot a news story. Then I had them take their stories down the WCBS-2 in New York and ask them to air their story.
The ‘news producers’, when they could get to them at all, and were not removed by security, looked at them as if they were insane. “Are you out of your mind?” they asked my students. “We only air stories done by our reporters. What in the world are they teaching you over there at NYU these days?”
What I was trying to teach them was the concept of a free press, and to demonstrate that there really is not one in the United States. Certainly it is better than Russia or China, but there are still deep controls as to who gets to report and what news the public gets to see. This is important, because as we have seen in Russia, what you see on the news greatly impacts what a nation believes and does.
In Russia, Putin decides what the rest of the country gets to see. Here, executives at CBS or NBC or Fox decide what the rest of the country gets to see. It is also a controlled medium, though not so controlled as Moscow, it is also hardly a free press.
The limits on ‘who gets to decide what is the news’ were laid down when the cost and technology of producing and disseminating television news were both expensive and incredibly complicated. You needed broadcast quality video cameras at $70,000 each, and people who could operate them. You needed editing suites and editors who could run them. You needed studios and lights and above all else, access to either a broadcast frequency or to cable. This cut out about 99.99% of the population.
This, of course, is not longer the case.
All you need now to report, shoot, edit and distribute the news is an iPhone.
There are lots of those around.
And lots of stories to tell — far more stories than the 22 minutes that NBC Nightly News allots every evening — far more stories than CNN or MSNBC can cover.
Today, everyone is a journalist, or at least anyone who wants to be one can be one. You don’t have to work for NBC or CNN or Fox to report.
Does that seem crazy?
I don’t think so.
If you want to be a writer, you just pick up a pencil (figuratively) and you start to write. This is where all of our books come from, not from employees of Random House or Simon and Schuster. They come from average people who have a drive and a desire to tell a story to the world. We like it that way. There are 33 million books available on Amazon today. No one in their right mind finds that either dangerous or confusing.
If you want to be a musician, you get yourself a guitar and you start to annoy your neighbors. Maybe you are the next Jimi Hendrix or maybe you suck. There’s only one way to find out. Do it. No one says you have to get a job with Capital Records before you can be a musician.
If you want to be an artist, you get yourself a brush and some paint and go to town. Maybe you’re the next Picasso? I don’t know. But there is only one way to find out. Do it. You don’t start as an intern at the Sherwin Williams Company.
It’s the same for journalism and news. If you want to be a news reporter, get your phone and go for it. Tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need the permission of CNN or Fox News to do it.
There are more than 40 million smart phones in Ukraine right now. Do you think people there have a story to tell? Do you think that maybe a good percent of them are in fact shooting video on their phones every day of the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to them? How many of those stories have you seen on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt? Would not one be a good guess?
It’s funny to me. Journalists are always the first to talk about a free press, at least until they are actually confronted with one.