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Hello, Corruption, My Old Friend

How Craigslist is Killing Democracy


Many people tout the power of crowdsourcing, Craigslist, Google, and suchlike to replace the role of the newspaper. I have confidence these can supplant almost all aspects of the local newspaper — EXCEPT for one highly critical function, and possibly their most important single function: Local investigative journalism.

The common thinking runs much like this quote, "We don't need reporters, when we can get the news directly from the source." (Comment#86) Alas, I don't have that much faith in governments / corporations / criminals / etc. to give me news about their wrongdoings.

The "watchdog" role is one of the key elements of the press. It's critical to a healthy democracy and open society. Yet investigative journalism requires a lot of time & effort. Amateur, part time blogging doesn't cut it here. "How HBO And Gawker Tricked Us Into Reporting An Ad Campaign As News" is a pathetic example of the quality of journalism you get from this system. When "check your facts" means, basically, "ask the people who told you in the first place," (which is what these allegedly "professional" bloggers in this instance did, googling and clicking on the links that were essentially provided to them by those who alerted them) — then lord help us with real watch-dog roles. This poor methodology is bad enough when it's just an ad campaign masquerading as real news, but consider how this "in-depth" journalism works when applied to keeping democracy open: "The governor told me he wasn't taking bribes, and he isn't, because I verified it by clicking on the governor's web site!"... Um, right.

The problem, unfortunately, is that investigating wrongdoing doesn't seem to be something people will pay for in and of itself. The watchdog aspect of journalism has traditionally been subsidized by newspapers — paying full time salaries to reporters who write other kinds of articles, all paid for via advertising revenues, in a nutshell. Newspapers have often had budgets specifically for court challenges — but as The New York Times notes Shrinking Newsrooms Wage Fewer Battles for Public Access to Courtrooms." We all know those budgets are withering, not to mention the newspapers themselves. TV news is facing a similar problem. We aren't willing to pay for it, yet this role is essential.

The large size of media companies also affords a certain degree of protection against retribution from those being investigated. It's harder to pressure the NYTimes Company to squelch a story than it is to pressure Pat Microblogger.

This is even more true at the local level. While, as the New York Times notes in the article above, "the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have taken the leading role in trying to shake loose information about the Bush administration's policies and actions," who will fill this role at the state, county, city and town level? The ACLU doesn't have the funding to investigate allegations of bribes taken by your city councillors or the allegations of tainted milk from the local dairy you're buying at the grocery store for your kids to drink. Without the media who is there even to hear the allegations, let alone check them out? Government is notoriously bad at being its own watchdog, and almost as bad at overseeing others. Government watchdogs often only bark when the media is hounding them.

Sadly, a bunch of amateurs twittering won't have the time, money, diligence, and cojones to uncover corruption and keep shedding light on our democratic, capitalistic, and other institutions. It's a function we absolutely need, and history has already shown we aren't willing to pay for specifically. I'm curious to see if there's some new model that can replace this critical function of the "free press."

For our sake, I sure hope there is.

— Andrew Burt

Okay, let's open up the phone lines — Realistically, how are we going to replace the local investigative journalism aspect of dying newspapers? Add your comments here:

[ 15 comments | Add a comment ]

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