Captives of the media?

(Denver Post, Jan. 18) You, a captive of the media? No way. Nobody mediates for you. You think independently. You gather your own information and decide for yourself. Me too. We don’t need no media mediating for us, no sir. Yeah, right. In our dreams, maybe, but not in America today. The world is so interconnected, changes so fast, and presents each person with so many choices, that reliance on others for much of our knowledge is inescapable. But which media can we trust, and how do we keep them at our service – on tap, not on top? Especially if newspapers as we have known them are on the way out, how can we stay reliably informed as free citizens in a free society? That’s the underlying concern as Coloradans wonder about the fate of the Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and maybe even the Denver Post.

I love newspapers. They’ll always be my preferred window on our civic and cultural life. Online and broadcast media rank a distant second. I hope enough American papers manage to reinvent themselves for the digital era so that print journalism can long continue. Since you’re reading this, you probably agree.

Yet trouble and transformation are stalking the media industry regardless. News providers face brutal pressures to adapt. For us as news users, this is a good time to think about the fundamental question we began with: Who mediates for you? Or as the counter-culture used to say, what do you feed your head?

The media seldom challenge us on this. They have a commercial motive not to. Challenging myself, I find I’m often careless as to both the quality and quantity of what gets fed into my head. New technologies and rebranding by the providers are beside the point. The problem is my passivity about the content they deliver.

A medium is a just a conveyor belt. At one end is a loadmaster, the editor. According to what’s on his clipboard, the belt gets loaded with news from reporters, opinions from pundits, and ads from businesses. It’s all conveniently brought to our homes. That convenience can be a trap, however. We may become too accepting.

“Couldn’t drink coffee without the morning paper,” worried someone at our Vanguard discussion club when the industry’s woes were this month’s topic. “We are Colorado,” says a Denver Post promo campaign. Media companies, this paper included, become part of our lives. They’re still only companies, means to an end. The end is knowing what we need to know to live together responsibly and happily.

Running the conveyor costs money. Persuading us to buy things, either subscriptions or advertised goods and services, is life and death to the company. Print is in trouble because more and more people are buying elsewhere. How concerning is that?

After all, as the Post’s Dean Singleton told fellow publishers in a speech last June, “Newspapers are the cornerstone of democracies everywhere…. If we fail, democracy fails.” Thomas Jefferson said two centuries ago that he’d rather live in a country with newspapers and no government than vice versa. So are bankrupt papers a national crisis?

No. Both men’s points go to freedom of the press via whatever medium works best. They aren’t limited to ink on pulp. In America, thanks to the First Amendment, it’s the marketplace and not government that picks media winners and losers. You and I as consumers, voting with dollars, make that sovereign choice.

Again, as I’ve written before, it’s up to us. Insisting on liberty, WE can make our country’s broadcasting and Internet as free as print has always been. Exercising personal responsibility, WE can choose a healthier information diet, more fiber, less junk. Conveyors inevitably come and go, but independent thinking remains.