Monday, August 17, 2009

The Mental Munition Factory Manifesto

While the country continues to shift its gaze from a paper-based to a pixel-based outlet for information, something far more profound than a digitized transcription is taking place. Two-century old pillars of the fourth estate are falling, and experts are divided as to whether journalism is headed for a dark age or a renaissance.

In the midst of this transition, journalists are abandoning the vocation and running for the hills. These people are taking on a plethora of career paths, or in some cases, reinventing themselves as bloggers and citizen-journalists. Coming into the pillaged ranks of journalism are the Millenials, a techie generation overflowing with energy, ideas and hope, but who are dry on the economic and editorial support they need to take the reins of the future media.

All of this is taking place in a time of great economic disruption, widening political divisions and wars on two fronts. The need for accurate, critical journalism only increases in such interesting times. Yet, there is doubt whether our mass communication satisfies that need, and if the new, converged system we are adopting can provide the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of information required to sustain a democracy.

This blog aims to make sense out of this evolution in journalism, technology, society and democracy. But analysis and commentary are only useful when one knows the stakes. It’s trivial to extol on that which is trivial. Journalism, as Upton Sinclair would tell you, is deadly serious.

Chapter 113 of Sinclair’s book “The Brass Check” is titled “The Mental Munitions Factory,” a name which I borrowed for this blog to establish its vision. The book is regarded as one of the first, and still one of the greatest, critiques of the business of American journalism. Robert W. McChesney, a renowned expert in the political economy of media, and Ben Scott, Policy Director, wrote in an introduction of a recent reprinting of the book that “each of the 100 first pages contained the potential for a libel suit.” Sinclair admitted it was “the most important and most dangerous book” he ever wrote.

In the “Mental Munitions Factory” chapter, Sinclair lays out in gritty detail the power of journalism. The analogies he evokes in this chapter are frighteningly appropriate:

“A modern newspaper, seen from the point of view of the workers, is a gigantic munition-factory, in which the propertied class manufactures mental bombs and gas-shells for the annihilation of its enemies. And just as in war sometimes the strategy is determined by the location of great munition factories and depots, so the class-struggle comes to center about newspaper offices. In every great city of Europe where the revolution took place, the first move of the rebels was to seize these offices, and the first move of the reactionaries was to get them back. We saw machine-guns mounted in the windows of newspaper-offices, sharp-shooters firing from the roofs, soldiers in the streets replying with shrapnel. It is worth noting that wherever the revolutionists were able to take and hold the newspapers, they maintained their revolution; where the newspapers were retaken by the reactionaries, the revolution failed.” (Page 412)

I can’t - we can’t - do this alone. That’s what traditional media journalists are finding out, and what new media journalists have known from the start. So I’m encouraging that if you read this and love it, hate it, understand it or don’t, contribute by making a comment. You don’t have to be a scholar in the political economy of media to make a worthy contribution.

There is no truly democratic process unless all are accessible, and all are accessed.