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Who Can Deliver the Journalism We Need in the Digital Public Square?
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Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology, Columbia University
There was a golden age of journalism in the United States, but it was short and now it's over. That was the historical context Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, provided for his keynote presentation at the 2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable, sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
Between 1954 and 1974, Gitlin said, American reporters helped bring down Joseph McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. They spurred the civil rights movement and eventually caught on to the problems with the Vietnam War. Watergate, said Gitlin, "was probably the most successful muckraking episode" in American history.
But that hard-won journalistic independence failed to hold, and American media succumbed to a combination of cost-cutting, credulity, and celebrity worship, according to Gitlin. He cited these examples:
In Gitlin's view, America is now in the age of "database and parajournalism," exemplified by Wikileaks and social media. On the optimistic side, Gitlin pointed to the role of Facebook in the Arab Spring. Borrowing from Ethan Zuckerman, he said that any technology that can be used to share pictures of cute cats can be used to bring down a dictatorship.
More pessimistically, Gitlin worried about what will happen to the general run of citizens who are not attuned to what is going on the world, now that newspapers are waning in influence. "The newspaper was the great aggregator," he said. Readers may have come for crime, comics, or sports scores, but they got the news along the way. In the digital news environment, he asked, will the casual reader slide by without having to survey the larger world?