Fred’s Dead!

A friend of mine commented on this article, “Access Denied,”  on Facebook, saying:

Media friends, a great article on the power of social media and how it’s rendering the press ineffective and irrelevant.

Very complex article and topic about the changing dynamics that the modern media distribution landscape places on those who need exposure (they can do it themselves) and those who don’t want exposure for some of the things they do (corporations and politicians no longer have to grant the access demanded by “the press”).

He and I both received degrees from a school within Marquette University that, even in the 1980’s, was beginning to have an identity crisis.  The school, and/or our majors, changed names multiple times in our four years. Was it the college of Speech?  Journalism?  BroCo (Broadcast Communication) BREC (Broadcast and Electronic Communication) or, the last iteration before we graduated, “CoJoPa” (College of Journalism And The Performing Arts”). Even they knew in the late 1980’s that journalism was becoming a performance. Something’s coming.  (Spoiler Alert:  The internet had not been invented yet.  Cable TV was nascent, and in “limited release” in terms of coverage.)

Imagine even CONSIDERING entering college to study journalism or electronic broadcast comm today!

Hell, I entered that school with delusions of being the next Dan Rather, exposing scandals through documentaries like Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame.”  I would be Woodward or Bernstein, taking down a corrupt president in “All The President’s Men.”  I was unaware then that even that movie bore the marks of what was to come:  The  journalists were not portrayed by “no-names.”  The star system put Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffmann in the role of Woodward and Bernstein, much as the star system would put Megyn Kelly in a post like that held by Walter Cronkite. Both of them would tell us they were bringing us truth, but two things have changed since Walter’s time:  The number of outlets has exploded, and the dividing line keeping the sacred “news” department budget separate from the entertainment budget in vast media corporations has been erased.

Before I was a junior in college I had concluded that broadcast news was already becoming “pretty faces” reading stories, beholden to entertainment and profit over public service.  So had the movie “Broadcast news” concluded the same. I didn’t have a pretty face, and I didn’t want to be complicit in the death of investigative journalism.  The owners of media began tearing down the wall between the entertainment and news divisions.  In the earliest days, a news division was a huge profit center, but over time the owners of wealth decided they didn’t need critics inside their institutions, potentially attacking and offending the advertisers, or political patrons from whom they had bought favor.  Nor did they need such “critics” having budgetary control over their own destiny.  Want to end some opposition?  Defund them.  Editorial content produced in concert with marketing; non-compliant editors and reporters forced out; budgets for non-compliant news division slashed.

When my friend and I graduated, he followed his dreams to Hollywood.  Instead either fighting against the media tide, or following my ideals and finding a place to do investigative journalism even if it wasn’t well paid, I moved to an area that wasn’t under attack (in terms of funding).  I entered corporate media, writing and producing paid propaganda for corporations, expressing only the ideas they wanted expressed, in training, marketing and internal communications videos.

This article reminds me how I had a front row seat in my job at Johnson Controls (JCI), watching one very specific battle exemplifying the tensions between access control and a fracturing media distribution landscape .

Scintillating, right? Hang in there… this is JUICY!

Around 1994-95, the Engineering department in my division of JCI began to build and expose the company’s first ever internet Web Site.  Up until then, all publicly accessible media content about the company had to pass through my department, specifically through the approval of my boss’s boss (let’s call her “Penny”).  She had been given the Communication Department Director position after 27 loyal years of service as the CEO’s  personal secretary (let’s call him “Joe”).  (Context…context… this was like “Heckuva Job Brownie” , with no skill or experience in disaster management, being given control of FEMA.  A payoff for loyalty.  And then Katrina hit.  Katrina in this drama is played by “The Internet”)

Penny heard that the engineers were going to be “communicating,” and that was her gig; she was the gatekeeper.  You paid tribute to HER if you wanted communication.  She stormed upstairs to visit the web designer (let’s call him Fred).  Penny forced Fred (using her connections to “Joe” as leverage) to print out every page of the web-site so she could review and approve content.

Fred told her she didn’t understand the future, but Penny returned to her office to red-line everything she would not allow.  About 50 pages into this fool’s errand, she went back upstairs purple-faced and alone.  When she returned she proudly regaled us with how she’d put Fred in his place.

“He tried to tell me there would be a lot of pissed of people if this website didn’t go live on Friday, so I told him if I was in his position I’d rather have a thousand pissed off people than one pissed-off Joe.  He knew what I meant!”

The first words I heard on arriving at work the next morning were, “Fred’s dead!”  He’d collapsed at dinner of a heart attack.  The co-worker who saw him last said Fred had told him he had a really bad day and didn’t know what he was going to do.

I walked to my cubicle, across from Penny’s office.  Penny and a vice president were in conversation.  “It’s horrible, isn’t it,” Penny said. “I was just telling Fred yesterday what a wonderful job he was doing and that his efforts had my full support.”  That VP left the office, and 5 minutes later another arrived, summoned by Penny’s powers of persuasion, neatly summed up as “I have connections to Joe, so you’d better come visit me.”  This parade of power and lies continued all morning.   There are no limits to which some people will go to retain access AND retain the power of being gatekeeper.  The internet had come to bust up Penny’s role as gatekeeper.  Old age and an impending retirement conspired to end her power of access.  Katrina the Internet rolled over us all, and the “Penny press” was irrelevant.

And Fred was dead.

Even as I type this, the dynamic of access and control unfolds in my living room.  My son has neglected to empty the dishwasher since being asked Friday, after dinner.  He’s watching his beloved Tottenham Hotspur soccer team play live on an early Saturday morning.

“Empty the dishwasher at halftime, or the television is gone for the day. You will not watch the second half.”

“Dad, I was planning to nap at halftime!”

“Well, you can still nap, but if the dishwasher isn’t empty by the end of halftime, the TV’s off, the X-Box is not coming on, and I’ll remove your MAC Addresses from all the routers so you can’t get to the internet.”

Compliance! Yes.  I’m the gatekeeper.  I control the money, and hence the benefits of working for “Dad, Inc.”  My son assures me that when he’s in charge he’ll watch TV anytime he likes.  Agreed.  But until then, if you want to have access to my TV, you will need to give me what I ask.

How different is my son, from the journalist, told by President George W. Bush (or any president, really) “Write what I want or you’re not getting into the White House Press room, or flying on Air Force One”?

Access is granted for a price by those with the money and power.  Period.  The interests of money and power will collude to crush opposition, and that brings us back to the article that started this whole screed. Is the “Press” irrelevant?  The “Press” is those people who fight in opposition to the illicit acts of any form of wealthy power, and from where I sit “the Press” is needed more than ever.

It is a bit of a “Rohrshach article”. My friend sees a story about the power of social media making press institutions irrelevant, which I presume also implies that we as individual creators are gaining the power that once accrued to the formal gatekeepers of news.

I see a story about how the dissolution of distribution gatekeepers means an increase in power for the already powerful.  It’s a bit of both, but allow me to spin my vision in this increasingly lengthy “Explainer” foretold by the article.

The instant, direct distribution of content via social media and internet outlets… allows “power” to avoid focused, continuous inspection of their deeds by an independent “Press” institution that has the resources to counteract their vast propaganda budgets.

Making everyone their own publisher, and only requiring small sums of cash to do it, seems great, but it is a divide and conquer strategy.   This new model sees no need for a corporation or government to employ any element of a “Press” function that is critical.  Therefore, critical press must find its own funding.  The new model pushes the responsibility for telling the stories onto individuals.  Criticism of power structures that are highly centralized, hierarchical and motivated by a very narrow and specific goal, are to be reined in by a loose affiliation of individuals?  How’d that work for “Occupy Wall Street.”  The people giving us(and thus, themselves) this cheap, ubiquitous publishing platform are whooping it up “Caveat Emptor, MoFo. There WILL be no collective press representing your interests.”

And, soon enough, as with every other initially free service… access to this distribution channel will be for pay.

How do you stop criticism in “access” media? You cut off access to those who won’t be sycophants. That kills the “collective representative” (the “news” agency) from the inside, getting individual members of a press corp to scuttle their own values of critique and investigation in favor of “access.” The lapdog press corp.  The cowering former dreamer of Journalistic heroism, making copies and filing TPS Reports.

Change the distribution model from a few centrally controlled channels to a billion individuals and criticism, or public interest investigation, of any organization is nearly dead! Take away centralized distribution mechanism in music, and the landscape for distribution of wealth generated BY the musicians is run through the food processor.  The money is still there, but those handling the new distribution channels of Pandora and Spotify have unilaterally used this new pathway as a means to pay artists less.  The artists are forced to build audiences on their own time, using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. That work used to be done by the company publishing or distributing the work.  Push work onto the labor, but keep the mechanism for accumulating the wealth of that labor in your hands.

“No,” you might say, “interested bloggers and Instagrammers, and Facebookers have the power; they can form common interest and become powerful critics.” In theory, true, but as the article said…meanwhile the owners of the platforms (Zuckerberg, et. al.) are selling those activists down the river by selling the aggregated data “access” to the powerful who can afford to buy it, and employ the informatic analysts to make use of it.  Access is bought once the powerful no longer have to seek distribution.

From a governmental level, this landscape provides a perfect surveillance platform where any interested bureaucrat with connections can nip protest “movements” in the bud, up to and including through killing those who would dare to foment a movement against any form of power.

Here I am writing a lengthy “explainer” without access to anyone, proving the article’s point. But we must remember that whatever we see on the front side of new media in terms of ubiquitous, instant news, and instant personal publication there is always a backside: powerful organizations owning, consolidating, and controlling the distribution: of tweets and posts, blogs and Vines.  They OWN the data aggregated from it, and they can SELL that data to the already powerful, to either more effectively position themselves to take MORE of your money, or use it to quash revolution or criticism and further maintain their power. Let us not make the false distinction between “the government” and “corporations.”  What we have in both is an organized form of power.  Where does a whistle blower turn to expose corruption when there’s no “press.”

I’m slipping this post out before the clampdown. 😉 (Read the lyrics and interpretation)

The chaos created by a new means of distribution (the digital age, the internet, social media) allows something like an Oklahoma land rush into the newly opened space.  It’s worth noting that Sun Tzu wrote in ‘The Art of War,”  In chaos there is opportunity.”  The same people interested in monopolizing and controlling the old paradigm suffer through a few years of everyone being able to “do their own thing”  but the powerful… those seeking to break through what limits them from gaining even MORE power and wealth, figure out exactly how to restrict, control and leverage the new model to the same ends as the old:  an increase of wealth and power, with as little exposure to criticism as possible.

Does social media make “the press” irrelevant?  Only if we consider “the press” literally.  Yes, the old means of publication, gatekeeping and distribution are irrelevant.  The ideal of an institution of “critics of power,” working for those whose interests are not vested in the power structure, is just as relevant as ever.  “The Press” simply must find its feet in the new, individualized landscape.  Much as corporations bust unions, they bust powerful collective “press” institutions into isolated individuals like me, attempting to express some opposition to our dwindling rights, even in the face of our rapidly expanding ability to post selfies, cat videos, memes and opinionated Blog/Twitter/Facebook posts.

I abdicated my role and involvement in the ideal “Press” back in the mid 1980’s.  I’m ashamed I abandoned my ideals under economic pressures and fear.  The “Press” is not irrelevant.  Our need for a Fourth Estate, an independent “check on power” is not irrelevant.

It is I who made myself irrelevant to the press, but with some effort and atonement maybe I can strive to actually join the fight again, regardless of what the distribution network around me pays for or desires?

Irony, Part One:  Social media gives an amazing freedom to publish without gatekeepers, and simultaneously it is a mechanism of placing ourselves even more under the surveillance and control of those who own the distribution networks and tools

Irony, Part Two: I’m conveying this message to you in the medium that allows those powerful, who might be hurt by expression of critical ideas, a means of instantly finding and counteracting me.

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