Al Jazeera, ‘free speech’ and the future of journalism

One thing though will remain true in the future as in the 1980s: stories about two-headed seals will still make headlines.

A journalist conducting an interview. (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A journalist conducting an interview. (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
‘Sobs, gasps and expletives,” is how a writer for The Denver Post described a recent round of layoffs, according to The Washington Post.
One of the biggest stories in journalism these days is the destruction of journalism. Newsrooms are being pared down to the absolute minimum, or going out of business altogether. In the recent story about the ruination of a series of regional newspapers in California, staff declined from 1,000 employees to 150 in 10 years. Soon there will be even less. In another newsroom the staff had declined by 85%.
Amy Webb, a “quantitative futurist” who is also a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the founder of the Future Today Institute, wrote on Twitter that while we need quality journalism, no one has been planning for the future of journalism.
“While everyone acknowledges that the business model has been dying since the 1980s, little has been done to radically change the business model for news,” Webb tweeted. In addition, newspapers have “ceded distribution to third parties like Twitter, FB [Facebook], Google” and other platforms.
While the regional newsrooms are being cleared out by “vulture capitalists” in the West, foreign news coverage is also being whittled down. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review discussed the phenomenon with Sulome Anderson, who said she could no longer sustain reporting abroad. According to the piece American newspapers had cut international staff by 24% in a decade. “Network news coverage of stories with a foreign dateline averaged 500 minutes per year in 2016, compared to an average of 1,500 minutes in 1988.”
The overall picture appears bleak. Freelancers can’t make a living. Newspapers are reducing staffs to a bare minimum and cutting budgets. Oddly, that doesn’t mean there is less content. In an online world there is actually a lot of content out there. There are numerous news, or newsish, websites. Some of them are just aggregators of other websites, but they are ostensibly producing content.
There are also robust newsrooms with well-paid staffs at state-funded channels. In a piece at The Forward Clayton Swisher describes how he had come to Qatar to lead Al Jazeera’s “first professional investigative unit, leading a team of committed journalists striving to challenge convention wisdom rather than report the obvious.” He noted that “even though our network is a private company funded by the government of Qatar, my unit operates independently and without government interference.”
By 2016 he was running an “award-winning investigative unit” at Al Jazeera and it had “sent an undercover reporter to look into how Israel wields influence in America through the pro-Israel American community.”
His op-ed was ostensibly about a controversy involving Qatar and its documentary about the Israel lobby. But his op-ed is really about something much larger: the elephant in the room of modern journalism.
In January the famed US lawyer Alan Dershowtiz wrote in The Hill about a trip to Qatar. “One does not have to agree with all the content of Al Jazeera in order to defend their free speech rights and those of their viewers,” he wrote. Al Jazeera talks a lot about free speech. Swisher claimed that the network was set up “to shine the light of transparency across the Arab and Muslim world. Established powers hated us.”
Well, except for the monarchy that helped establish Al Jazeera. Swisher ends his piece in The Forward claiming that he hopes his network will run the documentary he worked on rather than cave to “short term political expediency.” After all, “nothing less than free speech and democratic values are at stake here.”
Swisher’s narrative represents the future of journalism: Large, state-funded media enterprises with well-heeled newsrooms and the resources to send undercover reporters around the world. This all sounds great, but the dark side is that all the talk of “democracy” and “free speech” comes with a catch. Does Al Jazeera send undercover reporters to look for corruption among the royal family of Qatar? Does it report critically about Qatar? Does it support “democracy” in Qatar? Does it “shine the light of transparency” on Doha?
Al Jazeera speaks truth to power only outside Qatar. And it is only one example of powerful media organizations supported by countries from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere that primarily support a state narrative and are in many ways tools of a state agenda.
The future of media will involve a series of massively powerful state-funded media supporting “free speech” abroad while undermining it at home. Abroad they speak to “dissidents,” at home they speak to state officials. They don’t so much speak truth to power as power to truth. They amplify the power of states through media. They operationalize the spreading of information.
What is particularly interesting is that at the very same time that some countries in the world have decided to plow state resources into creating “willing media” empires, the Western democracies have a crisis in media. Corporations see no profit in legacy media and are cutting budgets. At the same time the profitable online media mostly deal in “click bait” or “viral” stories, and have to package them via the new marketplace of gatekeepers like Facebook.
There is a third side to all this. With the decline in corporate newsrooms, a new breed of journalism is entering the vacuum. An article at this month notes that “across the country, digital journalism startups with a hyper-local, regional or statewide focus face many of the same questions as the Tyler Loop [a digital magazine in Tyler, Texas]: is non-profit or for profit the best fit? Within these categories, what type of classifications and arrangements are common? What revenue streams are available?”
The article says that news outlets that see themselves as doing a “public service” are moving toward the non-profit category. That brings them some flexibility. They still have to raise money but they have more options. And there are no shortage of mediastyle organizations going this route, finding a major funder or funders, and supporting original reporting.
However, the non-profit model has some of the same problems as the state funding model. Right- and left-wing funders with agendas are creating media organizations to advance those agendas. The future of journalism, then, is really about agendas. As corporations see less profit in media the vacuum is filled by states and private donors.
The nostalgia now for “times gone by” which involves the catharsis of watching movies like The Post leads journalists to pat themselves on the back and speak of the “good old days” when they “spoke truth to power.” This is mostly a fantasy. Journalists never operated in utopia, free from profits and agendas. But the current newsroom culling has dramatically reduced journalists’ ability to maneuver within the constraints of politics, power and profit.
The era when The Chicago Sun-Times could run a bar full of undercover reporters to crack a corruption scandal is obviously done. When I saw Spotlight and the team said they worked for a year on a story, I almost fell off my chair. A year to write a story? A whole team?
So that’s all done and gone, unless of course you can explain to some emir in the Gulf or perhaps Ankara or Moscow or Tehran why such a massive undercover project would be worth it for their interests.
The last outcome of the decline in newsrooms in the West has been the degree to which breaking into the journalism field is no longer “I worked my way from the copy desk to the editor’s desk.” Because there are so few spots left for journalists, newsrooms are increasingly dominated by a small clique of mostly privileged men and women who tend to come from the same background and even went to the same schools.
Connections and nepotism are now the direct path to newsrooms, which have become some of the least diverse spaces in America and Europe. When newspapers had 600 staff they were more likely to take a chance on a new face or people from diverse backgrounds. Now they are more likely to save limited resources for someone who is a known quantity, and that tends to mean that when there are thousands of submissions to choose from, you choose the one from the person in your fraternity, church, synagogue, or who sat next to you at Columbia. It certainly means you almost never hire someone from abroad, who is a native speaker of a foreign language. So the future of journalism is more insular, ignorant and driven by the agendas of countries or wealthy donors.
One thing though will remain true in the future as in the 1980s: stories about two-headed seals will still make headlines.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.