Tom Brokaw on Old vs. New Media

by on November 12, 2013 · 0 comments

Tom BrokawI think I owe Tom Brokaw an apology. When I first started reading his most recent Wall Street Journal column, “Imagine the Tweets During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” I assumed that I was in for one of those hyper-nosalgic essays about how the ‘good ‘ol days’ of mass media had passed us by and why the new media era is an unmitigated disaster. Instead, I was pleased to read his very balanced and sensible view of the old versus news media environments. Reflecting on the evolution of the media marketplace over the past 50 years since JFK’s assassination, Brokaw notes that:

The media climate has changed dramatically. The New Frontier, as Kennedy liked to call his administration, received a great deal of attention, but 50 years ago the major national information sources consisted of a handful of big-city daily newspapers, a few weekly news periodicals and two dominant TV network evening newscasts. Now the political news comes at us 24/7 on cable, through the air, the digital universe, on radio and print. And it comes to us more and more as opinion rather than a recitation of the facts as best they can be determined. News is a hit-and-run game, for the most part, with too little accountability for error.

This leads Brokaw to wonder if the amazing media metamorphosis has been, on net, positive or negative. “The virtual town square has been wired and expanded,” he notes, “but the question remains whether more voices make for a healthier political climate. With a keystroke we can easily move from an online credible source of information to a website larded with opinion or deliberately malicious erroneous claims. Have we simply enlarged the megaphone, cranked up the decibel level, and rallied the like-minded without regard to facts or consequences?”

While he’s obviously concerned about what we might label “quality control issues” associated with some new media outlets, Brokaw’s answer to the previous question he posed generally gets it right:

Still, as a child of an earlier media era, I much prefer the contemporary news and information culture—even when I am occasionally singled out by one side or the other for something I’ve said. I like the range of choices, the new voices, the ease of cross-checking and getting the most obscure information with a minimum of effort. This empowers us as no technological advancement has before. And while it may be easier to stay within one’s ideological comfort zone, left or right, it is a good deal more stimulating to wander beyond the boundaries to find what else is out there.

Good for Tom Brokaw. That generally reflects my own thinking on the issue, which can be found in the essays down below. Generally speaking, we’re better off with today’s world of information abundance than the old world of information scarcity, limited outlets, constrained choices, and homogenous fare.  That’s not to say everything is perfect in the new media ecosystem. In particular, Brokaw is right to point to the quality control issues that accompany a world were every voice can be heard. But we’re still figuring out ways to grapple with that problem, largely by encouraging still more voices to join the endless conversation and check the assertions made by others. As Brokaw correctly notes, “This empowers us as no technological advancement has before.” And it leads to more truth and wisdom in the long-run.


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