April 6, 2012, Ian Greenleigh
Interestingly, the fact that you and I can access a vast, digital universe of conspiracy theories; the fact that a loony-bin conspiracy website, Infowars.com, ranks among the top 500 websites in the US, is a testament to how wide the cracks in the information barriers are getting.
But why did barriers exist in the first place? The gatekeepers have a few goals that are worth considering.
First, gatekeepers can serve as filters for truth and accuracy. By staunching the flow of bad information, and only releasing information after careful and thorough vetting, gatekeepers ostensibly make sure the inputs to our worldview, beliefs and resulting decisions are based on their controlled information output of “better” information. This might be called “paternalism by filtering.”
Second, gatekeepers aim to steer the public’s collective focus toward what matters, versus things that are trivial, irrelevant or inconsequential. A classic example of this role is the media’s handling of John F. Kennedy’s sex life. As Alicia C. Shepard wrote in American Journalism Review:
“It used to be so simple back in the days when John F. Kennedy was president. What reporters covering the White House knew about his promiscuity never saw its way into print. It just wasn’t considered relevant.”
Third, gatekeepers may control the flow of information in an attempt to shape outcomes. In other words, traditional media might actively try to push content that supports a particular agenda—a step beyond bias by omission, to bias by inclusion.
Media gatekeepers are now only able to control the flow of their information through their owned properties. Other stories, narratives and characters have an unprecedented ability to compete with the traditional players and, increasingly, they’re able to win. One story that’s particularly hard to bury: The data isn’t looking good for traditional media. In just six years, ad spending on newspapers has dropped 51.6% (2005-2011), and newspapers’ audience shrunk by 4% from 2010-2011. Television news saw mild growth in 2011—but the 4.5%, 3% and 1% increases in viewership for evening network news, evening local news, and cable news, respectively, aren’t the large reversals many were hoping for.
Publishing, too, is undergoing a rapid transformation. February, 2012 saw e-book sales beat out every other format in book sales for the first time ever. Amazon sold more e-books than both hardcover and softcover books combined in January, 2012. Both booksellers and publishers have had little choice but to embrace the trend, but for ailing retailers like Barnes and Noble, it may be too little, too late.
Everyone’s a critic
All of this means that the cost of entry into the media landscape for the average person has fallen dramatically. Want to be a singer? Post videos on YouTube and record your own MP3s. Want to be a writer? Start blogging and put together an e-book. Want to be a critic? Start critiquing the films you see and post them online. You’ll encounter very few filters along the way.
But there’s another side of gatekeeping that benefits those that are let through. Gatekeepers have audiences and resources. Once you’re through, you’re in front of a crowd that has been gathered for you, not by you. Gatekeepers have promotional budgets, ratings and sales targets to hit, and bosses to please. Letting you through is an investment. They might buy ads for you, or give you airtime, or book you high-profile gigs—expensive, time-consuming things that are extremely difficult for the average person to achieve on their own.
When you’re on your own, building an audience is the hardest part. There’s a saying that drives me nuts: “Content is king.” Oh that it were so! What about the millions of great authors, musicians and comedians you’ve never heard of, and never will? Their content is superb, and yet they toil in relative obscurity. Why? They devote most or all of their time to perfecting the content, and not enough time building an audience for it.