Osgerby: Journalism and big money

BY PAUL OSGERBY | MAY 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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Sunday was recognized in the journalism realm as World Press Freedom Day. In this context, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, an Al Jazeera America Board of Directors member, wrote an opinion piece on the decline of press freedom in the United States.

She particularly focused on the distrust of journalism between the public and our government institutions. During times in which riots occur nationwide, journalists have been met with strong-armed resistance. Police treat journalists the same as citizens, not withholding any necessary force.

At higher governmental levels, the Obama administration has brought suits against individuals behind leaking classified information as well as wire-tapping Associated Press phone lines and higher profile reporters — perhaps under the guise of monitoring journalistic fabrication following a slew of such cases, including Rolling Stone’s “Jackie.”

Bethel-McKenzie pointed to the lack of federal protection as a major contributor to the decline in the U.S. index of press freedom, ranked by Reporters Without Borders. We now stand in 49th place, in the similar region that countries such as France and the United Kingdom inhabit and behind numerous countries from South America to Africa. Scandinavian countries hold the top three positions.

I completely agree with Bethel-McKenzie that journalists should fear a future federal crackdown on press rights because of events in recent years. However, I think she is missing a key ingredient in why the public’s distrust is growing.

In some very familiar ways to how our government, and its politics, is increasingly dependent on wealthy private donors, journalism firms have resorted to similar means. Following the death (or drawn out dying process) of printed newspapers in conjunction with the Great Recession, approximately 20,000 newsroom jobs were cut in less than a decade. Facing perennially falling industry revenue, many firms began seeking funding in philanthropy groups or venture capitalists with a just cause.

This doesn’t necessarily result in the same politico scandals found at the governmental level, but now journalism is inherently institutionalized. Writing must become focused on (or at least aware of) the entity funding the operation as well as readership. Outlets such as the Texas Tribune and ProPublica are recent examples of philanthropist or venture capitalist financial overhaul.

The Texas Tribune received approximately $1 million through John Thornton, a well-intentioned financial mogul focused on the public, while higher-ups from the Golden West Financial Corporation primarily fund ProPublica. Though the latter was the first fully digital publication to receive a Pulitzer, the lines between corporations and journalism begin to blur nonetheless.

Journalism loves to crown itself as the Fourth Estate, the civic-minded entity that asserts checks and balances on the government. This is a true virtue of the industry, but it’s becoming shrouded. The public has lost its trust in United States politics because of its monetary backers, and for similar reasons journalism is also at fault in this regard; such an organization cannot objectively comment on the political agenda when it is subject to its own political affiliation.

As a journalism student myself, the rhetoric of journalism’s frameworks is that it is on the precipice of change in the United States. I do fear the impending federal infringements on press freedom, but I also fear that the most important aspect of journalism, the audience, is distancing itself from the industry out of distrust towards Big Money funding.

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