Media folk love to lament the future of journalism. It’s hard not to—evidence of the industry’s demise keeps building. Just this week, CareerCast ranked “Newspaper Reporter” and “Broadcaster” on its list of the “10 Worst Jobs of 2012”—the first time two different media jobs got that dubious honor in a single year. And GOP congressmen are once again launching a symbolic crusade against publicly-funded media, with Sen. James DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) on Thursday telling their colleagues in Congress public broadcasting is just too darn expensive to keep funding. (Never mind the United States spends just $1.43 per capita on public media, the lowest in the developed world). Craig Aaron, CEO and president of the media reform group Free Press, has very different thoughts about government support for media. On Thursday he told an audience at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., that journalists need to stop bemoaning and start acting. “You can’t be objective about your own demise,” Aaron told the small crowd, quoting a reporter from the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News who (unsuccessfully) urged her colleagues to speak up before their publication met its gloomy end.
Aaron, who worked at In These Times as managing editor from 1999 to 2003 and co-edited Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times, understands that asking journalists to breach objectivity is fraught with challenges. “Talk about activism makes a lot of journalists uncomfortable,” he said. It scares people to think the government might have to step in, or that journalists might have to speak out. But “while so many journalists have been fretting about objectivity,” he said, “their bosses have been electing candidates for years. Their bosses have been going to Washington with their hands out seeking favors… I have to ask how different things might look if working journalists had been advocating for themselves all along.” We’ll never know, of course, how different things might have been. We do know, as Aaron articulates, that under the current media paradigm, “tens of thousands of journalism jobs have been lost; foreign, Washington and statehouse bureaus have been shuttered; major news organizations are in bankruptcy; and some, like the Rocky Mountain News, have shut their doors for good.” And we also know how we got into this mess in the first place: a lack of public involvement. “The media system that we have, good and bad, is the result of political choices and business decisions and complex policies that have been made in the public’s name, but without their involvement and consent,” Aaron said. Free Press, based in Washington D.C., believes the solution involves mobilizing activists against forces resisting reform. The national group, co-founded by media scholar (and former In These Times board of diretors member) Robert McChesney, has already amassed a vast network of media activists (they claim more than 500,000) to combat the efforts of corporate-owned media conglomerates. “If you can mobilize the public at critical junctures,” Aaron said, “that’s the only way to counteract powerful industry lobbyists and make real changes. And when it comes to the future of journalism, I really believe we’re at one of those critical junctures right now. The decisions we make in the next few years are going to decide whether we continue to have quality journalism… and ultimately whether our democracy continues to flourish.” Aaron urged journalists and activists to help support Free Press efforts, digital campaigns to oppose legislation like a cybersecurity bill that passed the House last month and a campaign to urge Congress to investigate corruption at News Corp. Aaron also suggested a number of innovative (though perhaps less viable) ideas, like an AmeriCorps model for journalists to give federal funds to both budding and veteran reporters to cover local community news. “The government is going to have to be involved,” Aaron said, explaining that federal efforts have long sustained public media. “Our public media system is far from perfect… but it’s not hard to imagine what can be accomplished” if we work to better shield it from the whims of Wall Street and the pressures of Washington, he said. The most pressing question, Aaron said, is who will be in the room when decisions are made about the future of media policy. Right now, he said, “you’re not in the room. Journalists aren’t in the room. And that must be changed.”
Matt Bellassai is a spring 2012 In These Times editorial intern.