Todd Gitlin: Journalism’s ship hasn’t sunk, media consolidation is what’s drowning us

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Todd Gitlin doesn’t mind saying he’s a public intellectual. In fact, he rather revels in it. For over 40 years, he has poked at politics, public policy, and American culture. In the 1960s, he was the third president of Students for a Democratic Society and since then he has written 14 books, been a columnist, a blogger, lecturer, and gadfly.

Currently on sabbatical from Columbia University, where Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology, he has maintained that for decades, there have been wolves at journalism’s door. Some of these wolves he refers to include declining print and broadcast news space; failure of the old business model and nothing to replace it; a fundamental change in how people find news, what passes for news, and who reports it. Add to that last week’s vote by the U.S. House to defund National Public Racio (NPR), and Gitlin’s incredulity is palpable.

“The great risk of democracy was that it put power in the hands of the people,” Gitlin says. “And if the people don’t know, I can’t believe I’m actually having to say this because it’s so elementary that self-government requires people who are knowledgeable. And yet we’re obviously living in a culture where that’s controversial.”

We can talk ad nauseum about “the people” and why they should care, but caring about politics is not universal. Many people simply don’t have the time or inclination and Gitlin says not much has really changed.

“America has always been filled with people who cared and people who didn’t,” Gitlin says. “The people who do care, care vigorously.”

In journalistic terms, Gitlin sees slack reeled in as old enterprises fail or “turn to junk.” He says that ultimately we’ll need “to have public backing, not for newspapers, but for journalistic function. It has to be subsidized. We have to be prepared to pay the price of journalism.”

In order to appreciate that price tag, first, we have to understand the basics—for example how companies are allowed to broadcast.

Gitlin is pointed in his disdain: “The companies that have come to posses the airwaves for the most part—and public radio is the great exception here—are holding federal licenses that give them the right to broadcast on a particular frequency. You know how much they pay for those licenses? Zero! And they think they have a god-given right because they ‘own’ the station. They don’t own the station. The airwaves are the product of the public domain. The companies benefit from great subsidies. They do not have the right to turn the airwaves into strip malls and nonstop cavalcades of tinsel.”

“They think they have a god-given right because they ‘own’ the station. They don’t own the station. The airwaves are the product of the public domain. The companies benefit from great subsidies. They do not have the right to turn the airwaves into strip malls and nonstop cavalcades of tinsel.”

Following last week’s vote on a measure in the U.S. House of Representatives to defund NPR—a measure Gitlin believes is unlikely to find equal success in the Senate—Gitlin also believes a deliberate move to shroud the public is at work.

“What happening here is that very wealthy people who have a very direct stake in public ignorance would rather withdraw their funds,” Gitlin says. “They are content to live in a world in which radio stations don’t have news. ”

Gitlin argues that it’s time for a new incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine, repealed by the FCC in 1987 on the grounds that a scarcity of channels and media outlets no longer existed. Even with the current plethora of places to get information, the sheer number of online, print, or broadcast channels is immaterial largely due to media consolidation.

“There is a public obligation to make sure that education is done and not just the pleasing of commercial audiences,” Gitlin says. “Given that the licenses are given gratis, there needs to be some solid think about how to create a grownup media and not a head-in-the-sand media.”

With 20 percent fewer working journalists today than 10 years ago, reporting that has the power to galvanize Americans has been sorely undercut. Certainly not all Americans shun media for grownups, but despite the seeming agreement of values among them, their lack of action keeps their point of view mute—and that’s where Gitlin finds fault.

“Most Americans think there is a right to collectively bargain,” Gitlin says. “They think that the government has functions that shouldn’t be unplugged. They think that corporations shouldn’t dominate our political system. They think that they should have a voice in self-governance. But they are not mobilized to act on that belief. These are pale and automatic attitudes. They’re not galvanizing, so people fall into a kind of fatalism and the money will prevail unless the numbers turn out to rebut what the money wants.”

Is journalism still a profession?

Online access to the global public through cell phones and other wireless connections brings up a basic question: Is journalism still a profession? According to Gitlin, it’s the journalists themselves who still believe it is. But he concedes, “it’s a funny profession because it doesn’t require a credential. There’s no certificate you have to have to practice unlike law, medicine, teaching, or social work. That makes it interesting.”

Perhaps that’s also the silver lining, Gitlin says. “A lot of younger people are trying to find ways to make journalism live,” he explains. “A lot of that work is being done online by people under 30 who aren’t yet married, who don’t have a mortgage to pay. The profession is renewing itself.”

Especially important in that renewal are nonprofit foundations including ProPublica, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer for its investigative reporting and smaller, nonprofit entities around the country doing local reporting and filling the gaps left by failing legacy media. As we move into the next phase of developing journalism, Gitlin warns that none of us can afford to become desensitized.

“We need to guard against complacency and the thought that it is some natural flux of nature that we lose the ability to know and to think,” Gitlin says. “We need confidence; American media has always had a checkered career, it was not all news gathering from the beginning. The challenge is for them [young journalists] to sustain their nerve. I caution against believing our ship has sunk. It hasn’t.”

The interview with Todd Gitlin is on the Town Square archive at His latest books are The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election and his first novel, Undying. Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]