McGuire on Media

That loss of control that hit mainstream media is now the Meta story we have to cover better

Charles Krauthammer on Sunday boldly credited the Bush doctrine for the tumult in the Mideast.  Krauthammer argued, “ the administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.”

I am no Charles Krauthammer when it comes to bona fides or knowledge of the Bush doctrine or foreign affairs, but I think the pundit is missing the “meta story” in the same way critics and correspondents are missing the “meta story” behind WikiLeaks, the Wisconsin protests,  the rolling wave of Mideast protests and even the battle for control in the Catholic Church.

The first thing I teach my students in Business and Future of Journalism is that the days of our school’s namesake, Walter Cronkite, are fond memories. The days when audiences got their news almost exclusively from Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and a regional metro newspaper like my Minneapolis Star Tribune have gone the way of that banged up old Olivetti typewriter I used to lug around.

Today people are gathering news from big news organizations, but also Twitter, Facebook and scores of specialty news sites of which many mainstream journalists have never even heard. Ken Doctor in his Newsonomics book writes: “In the age of Darwinian content, you are your own editor.” Doctors says we have become our own gatekeepers and adds, “We don’t so much get the news, as the news gets to us. “

I call that the news ether. It’s real and pervasive.

Jeff Jarvis in his book What Would Google Do?, makes two compelling points that describe the current condition of journalism and American business. “Customers are now in charge. They can be heard around the globe and have a huge impact on giant institutions in an instant.” His next bullet point is this: “People can find each other anywhere and coalesce around you—or against you.”

I am thinking Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi would nod yes to that like  runaway bobble head dolls!  

At least Julian Assange believes there is profound evidence that the documents released by WikiLeaks lit the match to the Mideast uprisings. This Wired article argues that bad dictators are the actual cause of the revolution but that Twitter has been a crucial tool in fueling the incredible spread of tumult across the region. No matter what your freedom of press position is on Wikileaks it is definitely as much a product of our citizen-controlled Digital Age as Twitter.

The dictators who had held tight rein on their citizens for decades watched their control evaporate in days and now the Digital Revolution is the new dictator. Jarvis first exposed me to the idea that it is customers who are in control. As we watch international events citizens are in control now.

Just as the media once decided who would watch and read what news when, institutions and leaders have long attempted to control what citizens will know and when they will know it.

Control is essential for those who have it and it’s a dangerous thing to lose, but once the genie slips out of the bottle, once freedom and control passes to the citizens and away from the institutions, nobody can predict the results.

This loss of control by institutions to “customers,” “constituents” and “believers” is the”meta story” ripping through our global society right now.

You can see it in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker was apparently convinced he was doing the people’s will, but when he allegedly overreached the Wisconsin electorate yelled back quickly and assertively. 

You can see it in the Catholic Church in Phoenix where the rumblings against Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s controlling decision to remove the “Catholic” designation from St. Joseph Hospital has a lot of moderate to liberal Catholics rolling their eyes.  There is simply no question this case is about control. This quote proves that. "There cannot be a tie in this debate," Olmsted wrote. "Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question." This blog post indicates this is a burgeoning issue for Catholic hospitals.

I don’t mean to imply I’ve discovered this issue. The Economist seems to appreciate the Meta Story. This rather philosophical story about religion makes a similar point and so does this one.

The crucial point is that while most intelligent people have a sense that institutions are losing control, it is a meta story that needs to permeate journalistic coverage of just about everything from business to media to leadership to followership.

Perceptive reporters will chronicle that loss of institutional control and what it means for audiences.