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The Corporatization of Media

October 9, 2007

Jonathan Landay paid a visit to Dr. William Gentile’s Foreign Correspondence class on October 8th, 2007 to talk to the professor’s students about “Foreign Correspondence and The Future of Public Media.” The topic? Whether the field of foreign correspondence would soon become obsolete in the face of an ever-reaching internet and the mounting risks and costs in sending reporters overseas.

There’s a visible (visibly sad) trend in media today. Newspapers are cutting jobs. Foreign bureaus are being closed. Media outlets are being consolidated, or torn apart. Increasingly, publishers are compelling editors and journalists to focus inward, to report local news, arguing that Americans are tired of news abroad, arguing that local news sells… better. More and more, the media world is feeling the pressure of stockholders, entrepeneurs, and businessmen to rake in the cash at any cost, even at the cost of thorough and objective journalism.

An example of this? The company Knight Ridder, Landay’s former employer, was previously the second-largest newspaper publisher in the United States. It used to have thirty-two newspapers in twenty-nine markets under its jurisdiction. Shareholders forced the company to put itself up for sale in 2005 at a time when the company was making an annual 19% very year. Prior to that they demanded that president Tony Ridder cut staff and budgets to achieve profit margin of more than 20%.

This at a time when we are in the midst of two wars. This at a time when the ‘Fourth Estate’ is needed more than ever.

Landay argues that the value of having foreign correspondents overseas is to tell the unfiltered, unofficial version of stories. In his experience covering Afghanistan, he’s witnessed the Pentagon manipulating facts- after the fact- to cover its own tracks whenever a mistake was made. He was in a small town in Afghanistan when word reached him that the US had targeted, in a neighboring Afghani town, a school which was in fact a refuge for Ex- and Anti-Taliban supporters. There were over 40 Afghanistani casualties. The military quickly tried to cover up its mistake, handing out crisp new $100 bills to the relatives of those who’d been killed. The Pentagon also did not hesitate to propogate the story that ‘gunmen’ in the town had ‘fired first,’ which according to several eyewitness accounts was blatantly and logically just not true.

Landay, one of the few journalists who questioned the validity of the Bush Administration’s reasoning for going into Iraq PRIOR to the 2003 invasion, demonstrated the importance of having journalists on the ground to sift through the information and procure the truth. Because he was there, he felt no hesitation in confronting Donald Rumsfeld about the incident at an ensuing press conference.

The future of foreign correspendence, of media as a field in general, is uncertain to be sure. But the demand for honest, well-informed, and accurate journalism is still thankfully out there. Especially at a time when governments, and politicians, and authority figures can’t be trusted.

As far as Mr. Landay’s concerned, if there’s one thing he could get across to all the businessmen who have a stranglehold on the news business today, it’s that by cutting staff, their undermining their investment: Journalism.

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