OCCUPIED TUCSON CITIZEN
Beau Hodai is an Arizona-based investigative reporter writing for the national press. He made these comments on journalism to Norah Booth for occupiedtucsoncitizen.org
OTC: From your perspective as a working investigative journalist, would you comment on the state of American journalism today?
HODAI: There is a nexus between the logistical problems that confront journalism via the Internet: monetization of content, intellectual property, as well as the shift in the expectation of what journalism is, or the perception of what journalism is.
With the Internet there is sort of a smoke screen out there, as far as journalism is concerned, or an illusion, a mirage. People will look at it and say, ‘Wow, we’re in the information age. I am looking at the Internet all day long through my iPod even though I almost got hit by 5 cars today.” The ubiquity of the Internet is almost complete. So I think there’s this sense that people feel they are living in this reality totally awash with any information they could possibly ever want and that may be true to some extent, and certainly there is a large amount of raw data out that anybody could put their hands on and that is a real boon to journalists. It makes that work a lot easier. But, while there is an incredible amount of raw data on the Internet that journalism is built out of, the average American is working 40-50 hours a week. That would only be of value to them if they had the time to put in the same amount of research that goes into making an investigative report. Which I know for a fact they do not have time to do, because if I’m writing an investigative report it will be 70 hours a week for me to do it.
So I think it’s an illusion.
And the rest of it is a lot of static, a lot of voices screaming in the wind, a lot of blogging, a lot of punditry, which is pretty much the same thing. And perhaps even more disturbingly, something that is contributing to the death of journalism is people’s rampant stealing, or rampant use of other peoples’ work. There are a very small number of journalists who are actually putting new material into the equation or the conversation. I would say at least 90% of the static, constant noise that we hear, the white noise, is other people taking portions of that very small amount of real information and just ricocheting it around and putting their own spin on it, adding their punditry slant to it, or just blogging about it without attribution to the actual source. There are very, very few people doing original work. That contributes to the illusion that journalism is doing great because there is all this content, but the vast majority of it is garbage. It’s like going to a landfill and saying you have a lot of good food because you happen to be standing next to a fresh sandwich somebody just threw out. The rest of it is inedible bullshit. You just happen to be standing next to the one thing you might conceivably eat.
OTC: What about investigative journalism in particular?
HODAI: There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is totally another animal . . . and investigative journalism has never been profitable, so it suffers even more in this current state with these current issues.
OTC: How connected is a free press to democracy?
HODAI: It’s almost one in the same, I think, but then again, I’m a journalist. I’m biased. The basic premise of a republic, based on democratic ideals or philosophies, is that everybody is supposed to have a voice. You are supposed to have a representative of your voice who does your will. Aside from very real problems we have in the general realm of electoral law—what is allowable these days in terms of influence on our representatives—the American public cannot make any kind of informed decision when it comes time to vote if the press isn’t actually functioning. A small proportion of Americans actually sit down and read the campaign finance reports for the candidates. The vast majority of Americans don’t have the time to do that. That’s the journalist’s job, one of the many facets of the journalists’ job, and without someone to deliver that information in as objective a form as humanly possible, it’s all just propaganda at the end of it.
And that’s the great weakness of a democracy. If it is actually a democracy to any extent, the individual does have power. That individual then by virtue of the power they hold must be manipulated by special interests that want to usurp that power for their own, in this case, financial gain. The way to usurp that power is through propaganda. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole—and I am not a man of the world— but I believe the United States is the most heavily inundated country with propaganda that exists, at least in the Western World. And that’s because there really isn’t any functioning free press.
OTC: What do you mean by “the perception of what journalism is”?
HODAI: There’s a lot going on that I don’t think the average news consumer is aware of … I believe it’s a relative of punditry. It’s a large amount of content presented as news, or unbiased information, or accurate information that is disseminated by think tanks posing as news outlets. And that’s a hugely problematic thing. Very, very problematic. We have seen a great amount of propagation of what I have come to call counterfeit journalism where you have a think tank that is funded by grant foundations or rich individuals with clear agendas of their own. They’re publishing and posing as an independent or genuine news publication. Ironically, oftentimes through DBAs (“Doing business as”, or DBA, is a formal declaration that an individual, company or organization is conducting business under a different name), which is something I really did not anticipate when I named DBA Press.
I think that the shift in journalism to a nonprofit business model is not good. It should be a for profit entity so it does not have to go begging from ideological entities and grant foundations. When that’s your business model, that’s where the trouble comes in. When that’s your business model, no matter what you do, your editorial line is going to be dictated in some way or another.
OTC: How do you see the future of the monetization of journalistic content?
HODAI: It used to be more revenue derived from readers—now that revenue stream has entirely vanished—so there is an even greater shift to begging wealthy patrons, benefactors, for your salary so you can continue to put this work out. It just astounds me that the American news reader isn’t willing to foot the bill at all.
People are becoming less and less engaged. I have seen it happen so many times that you can put something right in front of somebody and they won’t even look at it. You can’t give it to them because they don’t want it. They don’t want the information. And I’ve already seen the realization of my worst fear: it’s like you can lead the horse to water and in the end the horse actually chooses not to drink and then dies. And you’re stranded out in the middle of nowhere.
OTC: Do you see any hope?
HODAI: So if we could make a living doing this we’d be doing it around the clock and we’d be happy as clams in mud and all that. It’s so strange that people will say that the work you are doing is really good, really important, even because we have to have this functioning free press and all this, good job, pat on the back, or, what really gets me is “fighting the good fight” because it doesn’t mean shit at the end of the day. If you support this kind of thing you have to support it where it counts because in this somewhat ugly and cynical world where we have such an ugly and cynical economic system, where all things revolve around currency, the only way to really do that is with currency and people won’t do it.
The big thing that would be the game shifter is a shift in attitude on the part of the American people. If the American people took it upon themselves to actually support media, actual journalistic media, it would be radically different. Even twenty percent. But I’ve seen it right now with people I know in the journalism industry who are going along with the mob rule of the Internet where everybody gets everything for free and so they’re going along with that and providing all the content for nothing. And when they do fundraisers or something like that the numbers that I’ve heard are beyond dismal. Less than five percent of the people who receive something will donate. And there’s all this pressure in the media to switch over to social media, which is also a concession to this mob rule of the Internet and a vast watering down of journalistic content. In my opinion if you have something to say in, what is it?—130 characters?—it’s not even worth saying in the first place. What can there be that’s worth saying other than, “Help. I’m on fire!”? So this social media thing is an absolute load of shit.
You first need to decide if you actually do value this (an independent press) and then your next step is to put your money where your mouth is and support it. And it’s not that huge of a leap. The world wide web debuted in the United States in, what, 1993? Prior to that the expectation with the vast majority of, well, print journalistic content, was that you had to pay for it. The public essentially needs to pull its head out of its ass. And it’s not like it’s this big amorphous blob. The public means every single individual. That means that anybody who listens to, or reads this conversation at a later date and says, “You know what? These people are right. This is something that should be supported. This is something I do value,” that means that you should do it. You shouldn’t wait until somebody knocks on your door and asks you to do it. You should go out there and do it. And that’s when the public changes, is when a large percentage of the individuals that comprise that public body make a change. That’s basically what it comes down to.
The American public absolutely needs to weigh their values, weigh, for example, the value they place on entertainment as opposed to education and figure out if they actually want to be a functioning part of this alleged republic, and to be an informed citizenry.
Copyright 2014 Norah Booth