evolving ecological media culture(s)

An average (pandemic-era, pre-election) Sunday


For an observer of the politics of the “media ecosystem,” so much can happen in a single day, and even in a single newspaper (the Sunday New York Times).

(“Media ecosystem” is a tricky term: if Benkler et al are correct, there are at least two media ecosystems in the United States. Others, like the authors of this piece on the “right-wing information ecology”, selected as “open-access paper of the week” by the excellent “The Syllabus” project, use the term “media ecology” or “information ecology” as if it were synonymous with “media ecosystem.” Technically, an ecosystem is a system of relations, while ecology is the study of something ecosystemic. My course title uses the term “media ecologies” not because there are multiple media systems — of course there are — but because there are multiple ways of studying and making sense of them. Some of them, or at least one, call themselves “media ecology”; others do not, but they still function that way. And of course, neither of these terms has much to do with the biological science of ecology, but that’s neither here nor there — unless you’re one of my ecologist colleagues. Or me, when I put my ecomedia hat on.)

Two front page articles in yesterday’s Times are of particular interest to us. “How the Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine” (in the print version, “How an Obscure Newspaper Became a Bullhorn for the Far Right”) examines in detail the transformation of a newspaper affiliated with Li Hongzhi’s spiritual movement Falun Gong into a leading organ of pro-Trump, right-wing propaganda. I recently compared QAnon to Falun Gong and the “redemptive society” tradition in which it loosely falls. (I consider the empire-like network connecting Falun Gong to the Epoch Times, Shen Yun Performing Arts, and various other groups to be analogous, in its hostile relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, with the Gülen network’s relationship to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both are shadowy, religious inspired and politically active, transnational movements aiming to create a kind of alternative power structure to those who currently run their home states.)

Unlike the Gulenists, however, who sought and found some favor with the Obama administration (which they lost under Trump), the Epoch Times has made the fateful decision of casting its lot both with Trump and with the wider global alt-right.

Times technology columnist Kevin Roose writes:

Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.

The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.

The other front-page article of interest is the one examining the long and tangled relationship between Apple and Google, which is threatened now by last week’s announcement of a U. S. Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against Google. (Progressive attorney and tech-watcher Zephyr Teachout provides useful context on that here.) When you take into account that the two companies’ (Google/Alphabet’s and Apple’s) combined value is over three trillion dollars — making them the largest company in the world if they were to be combined — this is a big story not only in the tech world, but in the world, period. In practice, they compete on many levels, so that’s just a hypothetical point. But in practice it still amounts to a cozy relationship:

Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits. That’s not money Apple would be eager to walk away from.

A third lengthy, media-relevant piece is a seven-page (count ’em!) arts section marking the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Service (“PBS Showed TV the Future. But What Does Its Own Look Like?“). The overview article by Elizabeth Jensen provides a spirited assessment of how PBS’s public broadcasting model has fared since the network first emerged in the cracks between the big three broadcasting networks that not only dominated but practically defined television in 1970.

What’s sometimes forgotten over the course of the political fights over funding that have characterized much of the network’s history is that it actually gets very little direct federal funding (it’s no higher than 14% these days). For the rest of its support, it goes begging to foundations, corporate sponsors, and individual donors. At the same time, it retains a reputation for trustworthiness that eludes most other broadcasters. Whatever PBS has done with its mandate, public media comes in many colors around the world and its potentials have hardly been exhausted.

A final piece by media columnist Ben Smith provides a glimpse of how the Rupert Murdoch owned Wall Street Journal failed President Trump’s plan to blast the “Hunter Biden laptop” story out to the world (“Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.”). The piece interprets this optimistically as a “return” of the old media gatekeepers “after a long absence.”

It has been a disorienting couple of decades, after all. It all began when The Drudge Report, Gawker and the blogs started telling you what stodgy old newspapers and television networks wouldn’t. Then social media brought floods of content pouring over the old barricades.

By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. Television networks all but let Donald Trump take over as executive producer that summer and fall. In October 2016, Julian Assange and James Comey seemed to drive the news cycle more than the major news organizations. Many figures in old media and new bought into the idea that in the new world, readers would find the information they wanted to read — and therefore, decisions by editors and producers, about whether to cover something and how much attention to give it, didn’t mean much.

But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it, even between an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggesting Joe Biden had done bad things, and a news article that didn’t reach that conclusion. [emphasis added]

That’s quite a story, and a hopeful claim when it comes to media fulfilling its fourth estate duties. Smith justifies it with reference to “[p]erhaps the most influential media document of the last four years” — which is what he calls Yochai Benkler’s “network propaganda” chart depicting the “dense new right-wing media sphere” around which mainstream news had begun to “revolve.”

So there you have it: the last three weeks of our course reconfirmed by the New York Times, with an interpretation that judges things to be improving. Shall we take their word for it?


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