NEWSPAPERS FACE CAPITAL(IST) PUNISHMENT
Posted on June 20th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009
[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.]
  

The newspaper industry in the United States is bracing itself for its eventual demise by 2043 (Sri Lanka Guardian, 24 Feb; 2009). The fate of the newspaper is doomed in all leading capitalist countries, where print newspaper circulation and readership have nosedived because of inexpensive access to all types of news and information through the Internet. The newspaper might linger longer in countries that lack the capital to provide universal access to the Internet.

In the United States, circulation has been falling in absolute numbers since roughly 1990, and as a percentage of households since the 1920s. The World Association of Newspapers, however, attributes much of that history to the waning popularity and ultimate closing of evening papers. The share of revenue from circulation is about 20 percent.

Thus capitalist journalism depends heavily on advertising, which from a Buddhist perspective could involve many pitfalls that could delay the realization of the Four Noble Truths and prolong one’s entrapment in the wheel of re-becoming or samsara. Buddha asserted that existence is dukkha (suffering), which co-arises with anicca (impermanence or ongoing change), and anatta (no-self or interdependence). Although nothing in the universe is permanent, a characteristic of existence is the tendency to crave for and hang onto things. Moreover, although living beings had no self because each was a compound of the ever-changing and interdependent five skandhas (aggregates), another characteristic of existence was the tendency to move toward fostering a distinct nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa (individualism and egotism). Both tendencies, which advertising tended to promote, invariably enhanced and prolonged suffering.

 

 The panacea to end dukkha was to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Path, comprising the three strands of sila (good conduct), panna (wisdom), and samƒÆ’-¾dhi (mental training or meditation). A newspaper dependent on advertising for its existence undermines the Buddhist objective of attaining enlightenment. Advertising, which sustains capitalism, obstructs the entry into the Middle Path by its adverse impact on the tilakkhana (three signs of existence).

 

While advertising tends to prolong dukkha from the Buddhist perspective, the diminishing revenue from advertising has placed the newspaper as we know it in the endangered list. Adapting to the digital age has diminished the watchdog role of the newspaper thereby raising doubts about the connection between democracy and the Fourth Estate. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is based on a strong belief in such a connection. The annual report of the World Editors Forum admits that this connection has become shaky following the 2008 international financial crisis and fears of an unprecedented worldwide recession, which forced many newsrooms, particularly in North America and Europe, to cut costs and resort to layoffs. The result: Celebrity or soft news””‚stories focusing on what journalist Stanley Walker described as the three Ws [women (sex), wampum (money), and wrongdoing (crime)]””‚has risen while well-researched hard news or investigative journalism has dwindled.

 

News organizations and a journalism founded on profit-making (tanhƒÆ’-¾) within the capitalist framework are unlikely to think of their product as a public good. For them, news is a commodity””‚a truth that became clear during the classic debate on the New World Information and Communication Order in the 1980s. This lure of money was the reason that the Associated Press increased its celebrity and entertainment coverage in 2008 and hired an additional 21 employees to be spread across Los Angeles, New York, and London. The AP insisted that the reinforced coverage simply made good business sense due to the high demand for that type of content””‚a euphemism for commodity.

 

This trend, in turn, is reflected in America’s 1,410 dailies, which are heavily dependent on the three oligopolistic wire services””‚AP, AFP and Reuters””‚to fill their news hole. AP dominates as the cooperative enterprise of its member newspapers. The avijjƒÆ’-¾ (ignorance or lack of foreign affairs expertise) in the newsroom has by default allowed AP to dictate the agenda setting for the majority of American newspapers.

 

It is now becoming increasingly clear that the democracy-watchdog press nexus cannot exist under capitalism, which appears to be in the throes of death. With newspapers facing capital(ist) punishment, some wonder whether a non-profit (Middle Path) model is the best solution for journalism””‚especially for expensive investigative journalism, e.g., the online non-profit Web sites MinnPost.com, ProPublica.org, and VoiceofSanDiego.org. Meanwhile, to allay criticism, the Associated Press (June 15) announced a program to promote nonprofit investigative journalism, including articles from ProPublica.org, to its members for republication. All AP members””‚including essentially all of the nation’s leading newspapers””‚would receive the material.  

 

 The axial Buddhist doctrine of paticca samuppada (dependent co-arising) can explain the adverse effects of capitalism and the (capitalist) newspaper better than a putative scientific study. Buddhist philosophy asserts that the universe is a giant network of networks. Each network bears the tilakkhana characteristics of samsara (the wheel of rebecoming)””‚anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (no-self).

 

One can hypothesize the dynamic interaction of the 12 nidƒÆ’-¾nas (dependent co-arising factors) prolonging an individual or a society’s entrapment  in samsara through a long series of rebecoming cycles featuring the entity’s unique jarƒÆ’-¾marana (decay and death), bhava (becoming) and jƒÆ’-¾ti (birth). The duration of each cycle depends on the impact and extent of its constituent elements’ obsession with nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa (psychophysical individuality, which advertising promotes),  proclivity toward tanhƒÆ’-¾ (desire), upƒÆ’-¾dƒÆ’-¾na (grasping on to material possessions), phassa (sense impressions) sankhara (volitional acts like relentless accumulation of capital through exploitation of labor), vedanƒÆ’-¾ (false perception or feeling of wellbeing), and avijjƒÆ’-¾ (ignorance of and lack of interest in other peoples and  civilizations).  These tendencies affect viƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’†’±aƒÆ’†’±a (consciousness or the dynamic stream of life) that carries forth one’s karmic force over the ever-changing five aggregates constituting each sentient being giving the false impression of permanence. Finally, capitalism and advertising may exert deleterious effects on sajƒÆ’-¾yatana (six senses: vision, hearing, olfaction, taste, touch, and thought), which co-arises with nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa.

 

 If one believes that the longer the entrapment in samsara, the more the dukkha one has to endure, one should be pleased with the crash of capitalism and capitalist advertising, and the possible emergence of a system that balances the yin (socialism) and the yang (capitalism). This would be a hybrid retaining the positive aspects of both systems.

 

Heavily dependent on the wire service recommendation of what’s newsworthy, the average American daily newspaper looks the same, except for its own quota of backyard news, from coast to coast. M y hometown newspaper, The (Fargo-Moorhead) Forum, with an average weekday circulation of 51,106, is no exception. Serving a circulation area covering 305,209 residents, who are 93.7 percent white, The Forum ranks 198th of all American dailies. The newspaper’s editor is Matthew von Pinnon, a former journalism student of mine, who took over the position in December 2006 after serving two years as its managing editor. Soon after his graduation from college, he joined The Forum in 1994.

 

Last week, I sent von Pinnon a copy of my article “China Diagnoses Ti-Lakkhana: Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta” (Sunday Island, 5-14-09)  with a covering letter that criticized the lackluster performance of  “American newspapers, which supposedly have so much freedom, [yet] deprive their readers alternative interpretations of international affairs like the attached feature on China. In my view, they are doing the greatest disservice to the American public by feeding them cheap, one-sided stories from pro-Western mouthpieces.”

 

I continued: “I am still subscribing to The Forum out of habit although I find its commodified journalism boring and disappointing. I was waiting to see an enlightened analysis when Sri Lanka defeated the ferocious Tiger terrorists. But such an analysis never appeared in spite of the appetite for such news in a community served by three colleges. Your newshounds ignored the presence of a well-educated Sri Lankan community in the Red River Valley that you could have interviewed to give a very in-depth analysis of Sri Lanka.

 

“On the contrary, you headlined the misadventures of Roxana Saberi [the Iranian-American journalist who was charged with spying for America] elevating her to a celebrity””‚a commercial product. After all that space devoted to Saberi, I doubt that The Forum readers got any inkling about the people of Iran except strengthening their negative views on Islam. The biased reporting of the Western press was also well off the mark on predicting the results of the Iranian presidential election.

 

“The amount of space you devote to women (sex), wampum (money) and wrongdoing (crime) is unbelievable. Some days, the Metro section carries no other stories but those on rapes, police entrapments, child abuse, and other deviances. You do so on the presumption that publicity would discourage their incidence. Compare this with the Buddhist view that places equal responsibility for such deviance on the society/community of which the individual is a part. Pornography, sex-related advertising, loose talk and celebrity gossip in the mass media, inter alia, have become part and parcel of American society. The panacea for individual deviance is rehabilitation more than humiliation or punishment. Individuals and society are interdependent. Newspapers must not promote the idea that the individual is a sovereign entity and that he/she alone is responsible for his/her action.

 

“I did not want this informal harangue to offend you. But I hope you will mull over the unpalatable but impartial advice addressed to you.”

 

These sentiments encapsulate my dukkha engendered by the American newspaper. Entrapped in the capitalist newsroom, von Pinnon has to grin and bear the orders of his publisher: Commodify the news, make profits, and worry about public good later.  

 

[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.]

 

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