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My Darkest Thoughts Are Not Dark Enough

Over the last few decades, as a fall off in enthusiasm for newsprint, or news, or reading, has caused the ranks of professional newspaper journalists to dwindle, a vast nonprofit sector has arisen to interpret the state of the professional news media. I'm not entirely sure why it has arisen now, when there's less and less of a professional news business to interpret, but I suspect it largely has to do with finding jobs for newspaper reporters after they reach their 40th birthday. That, and the general tendency of our culture to lavish attention on American subcultures only after they disappear. The western didn't ripen as a genre, first in dime novels and then in movies, until the Wild West had been tamed. The Newseum wasn't built until the newspapers and network TV news programs that it celebrates were fast becoming a thing of the past. We are rapidly approaching the historical moment in which the journalism-analysis-industrial complex becomes larger than the journalism-industrial complex. For every working journalist there will soon be five or six foundation-employed experts peering over his shoulder ready to kibbitz every keystroke. The parasite will slowly consume what's left of its host. And that's before we even take into account bloggers who work for no pay.

As a onetime newspaper reporter myself--one who reached his 40th birthday nearly 14 years ago--I find all this quite depressing. But until today there burned within me one tiny flicker of hope. The journalism-analysis complex, for all its gum-beating pomposity, did perform one useful function. It furnished readers. I mean, Christ, somebody's gotta read this stuff, right? And if it isn't going to be ordinary citizens, why not let it be a corps of professional chin-pullers? Beggars can't be choosers!

That final hope is dashed by an Oct. 17 press release from the Pew Research Center's Project For Excellence in Journalism. It announces a new study about media coverage of the presidential candidates. What interested me wasn't Pew's findings, which were predictable--Rick Perry and then Herman Cain got favorable coverage, Obama got dumped on, yadda yadda--but rather its method. The study, we learned, "combines PEJ's ongoing weekly content analysis with computer algorithmic technology developed by Crimson Hexagon. The report introduces a new research tool for the Pew Research Center...." That got me to look at the report itself. Apparently Pew had a team of human researchers cull all the campaign coverage from 62 news-media outlets. Then, "to assess the tone of the coverage," the humans "conducted a tone analysis and then 'trained' the algorithm to follow the same rules they had themselves." Instead of 62 outlets Crimson Hexagon's algorithm gobbled up coverage and commentary from 11,500 news outlets. Then it did the same for "hundreds of thousands of blogs." (Facebook and Twitter feeds were excluded because the commentaries there were deemed too brief and often an echo chamber for existing blog or news content, but I'm sure they'll be included eventually too.)

Apparently the journalism-analysis-industrial complex, following the well-worn path of other industrial complexes, is replacing human readers with automated ones. Henceforth journalists who earn their pay writing for the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe (not to mention the New Republic) can look forward to serving a readership made up entirely of machines. These machines will produce interpretive reports that will be read, I guess, by other machines. Advertising agencies will devise ad campaigns deemed appealing to machines. What kind of Scotch do bots like? I guess we'll find out. Eventually bots will be making pissed-off phone calls to circulation departments demanding to know why the goddamned bot that delivers the morning paper keeps throwing it into the rose bushes instead of onto the front porch. Other bots will write letters to the editor proposing that Ray Kurzweil's birthday be made a national holiday. But I guess we human journalists don't have to worry too much about any of this because by then we will have been replaced by androids. Maybe they'll have some better ideas about how to revive the Newspaper Guild.