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Today the fourth estate is in turmoil—some would say mor- tal peril. A “fifth estate” of bloggers and tweeters is leaking news and sharing opinions to call to task not just the government but the fourth estate too. The “legacy” news media are losing money in the fierce competition among so many information outlets. Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America, a study by the Harwood Group run by Rich Harwood ’82, found that many Americans are dissatisfied with news coverage. Shallow sound bites, sensational shock jocks, or just tight budgets may all be factors. Another, posits Skidmore English professor Joanne Devine, is the post-9/11 climate “in which patriotism is defined as blind allegiance. We saw that in most newsrooms before the Iraq invasion. The Pentagon leaked so- called news to the New York Times, which printed it too unskep- tically, and then Pentagon spokespeople pointed to the planted stories as independent evidence for their arguments. It was an appalling abrogation of the fourth estate’s responsibility.” The start-up news service Pro Publica declares, “This is a mo- ment when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest.” To meet the moment, Scope assembled a few Skidmore alumni and profes- sors to discuss a sampling of fourth-estate issues.

WIKILEAKS AS HERO OR CRIMINAL The release of confidential documents by WikiLeaks has stirred plenty of controversy recently. Its Web site argues that “increas- ing authoritarian tendencies in democratic governments, and increasing amounts of power vested in unaccountable corpora- tions,” mean “the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever.” Its promise: What “institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.” It can, but should it? US government officials have called its founder Julian Assange “a high-tech terrorist.” Ron Seyb, Skid- more’s Palamountain Professor of Government, believes prose- cuting WikiLeaks could violate the First Amendment but con- fesses that he “got a chill” when he read that the New York Times had published some early releases without redacting the names of at-risk people, making them vulnerable to political harassment or murder.

Steve Rosenbaum ’83, a media innovator who’s been called “the father of user-generated video,” says leaks are inevitable in the wired world. “Information is more mobile in a network with more nodes, and someone will always have a reason to make private data public.” Of course, he allows, “if you had a boat with a leak, you’d plug it. If your boat had 10 leaks, you’d try. If your boat has a billion holes in it, you’ve got a strainer— time to learn how to swim.”


One way to look at social media is to recall social modes before any mass media existed. In a recent special report about today’s journalism, the Economist says that camera phones and Twitter feeds “echo the ways in which people used to collect and share information” in the pre-industrial past. Very few citizens owned the means of ink-on-paper production, so they forged informal

14 SCOPE FALL 2011

networks across church, guild, and grange hall; they “friended” each other on a word-of-mouth grapevine, with an occasional small newsletter. Indeed Assange likes to describe WikiLeaks as being in the tra dition of revolutionary pamphleteers, but the Economist points out that the Internet facilitates its “floating in cyberspace above national jurisdictions.” Twitter and other outlets are similarly free-floating—which is doubtless part of the appeal for their millions of users. The Econo mist cites a 2010 Pew Research Center survey showing that 37 percent of American Internet users (or 29 percent of the pop- ulation) had “contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or dis- seminated it via postings on so- cial media sites.” And that survey predated Face- book’s “Like” button, which made it even simpler to share a post with scores or hun- dreds of friends. A risk noted by James Fallows in April’s Atlantic is that “a media system opti- mized for attract- ing quick hits” could be so dis- tracting that people will find each problem “harder to assess and respond to.” Trolling such networks for leads and using “crowd-sourcing” to research large amounts of data, journalists are accepting, sometimes embracing, the eager social-media vol- unteers. Newspaperwoman Nancy Cambria ’87 says, “I have a Twitter account. I’ve blogged. I’ve shot video from an iPhone and uploaded it to our Web site.” Although “sometimes it’s too crazy and too much, and I wish I could turn off the spigot,” she says social media have proved their worth for fast-breaking news. Last spring it was “astounding to see how Twitter kicked into gear when the horrific tornadoes hit Missouri; it was the best way to get information in a hurry.” She is quick to add: “Does this mean traditional newspaper reporting is dead? Ab- solutely not. People still needed and wanted context.” She says her paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “strives to be better at syn- thesizing and contextualizing the news than the competition.”


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