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Free Press’ mediaFail site a bad idea from a good organization

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Read a news story you didn’t like? See a news story you think really sucked? See any news product you believe represents a failure of the American news media (no matter what your standards are and whether they’re valid)?

Well, get your dander up and head on over to mediaFail and vote against that mediocrity. There, the site says, you can “Expose the Worst of American Media. Find It. Post It. Fail It.”

This site, a project of the highly respected media reform group Free Press, allows irritated readers and viewers to log in, post a link, give the story a failing grade and, lo, let the nasty comments flow.

Free Press bills this site as a route to a better media system. I disagree. Vehemently.

At mediaFail‘s “About” page, Free Press defines itself thusly:

Free Press is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, quality journalism, and universal access to communications. … That’s why Free Press was created. We’re working to make media reform a bona fide political issue in America. Powerful telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies have plenty of lobbyists to do their bidding. We’re making sure the public has a seat at the table, and we’re building a movement to make sure the media serve the public interest. [emphasis added]

In an interview with S&R, Josh Levy, the online campaign director for Free Press, described mediaFail as a strategic project to invite more people into the media reform movement. The site is designed to put more of the public at the table. That’s a laudable goal, but this isn’t the best route to that end.

mediaFail represents an unfettered “Wild West” approach to media criticism. It asks people to post bad stories? What is bad? Will posters understand the many reasons, and not always reporters’ fault, for a story to be bad? The site urges posters to help fix the media. Will there be some behind-the-scenes analysis of data provided? If so, by whom?

Will some of the posted “failed stories” reflect ideological disagreement rather than factual disagreement? Will complaints about lack of coverage reflect that there are simply far fewer journalists than as little as five years ago? And will posters realize the increasingly fewer journalists left are paid less and have less experience but far more work to do because so few are left in newsrooms? And will all these folks complaining about “failed” stories be willing to dig into their wallets to pay for stories instead of assuming good journalism will continue to be produced at no cost to readers or viewers?

The site explains itself, in part, as

MediaFAIL is a user-powered project of Free Press that exposes the worst in American media. Just find a link, post it, fail it, and share it with friends. The top-rated submissions will migrate to the site’s front page for all the world to see. We don’t just want to give the media a failing grade — we want it to pass. That’s why we’re featuring links to actions on important campaigns by Free Press and our allies, so that you can help build a better media system. [emphasis added]

Lofty language, indeed. But the site’s apparent function is akin to piling on, to kicking a faltering drunk while he’s down instead of offering a helping hand.

And mediaFail fails to articulate what a better media system would be. Why not create a site that allows readers and viewers to post a great story that makes sense, that holds the powerful accountable, a story that helps readers and viewers understand how the world works and why it works that way? Why not ask people to post stories that are not failures so they can demand that the corporate managers hired skilled professionals in sufficient numbers and provide the needed resources to continue to produce good journalism?

If would help, of course, if all those online critics would actually pay for the news they consume. So why not create a site such as mediaPay? Use that to explore the psychology inherent in web readers and viewers’ insistence that all information be free despite the costs that must be paid to produce journalism of consistently high quality.

Or mediaSchool? Lead discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s journalism programs. What do they need to produce skilled, intelligent professionals who will provide information citizens, consumers and voters both want and need?

Or mediaExperiment? Review the recent trends in new business models and methods of providing reporting of depth and quality.

Or mediaLocal? That’s the heart of what ails journalism today. Local newspapers in general, because of staffing cuts and other issues, don’t produce the quantity or quality of reporting they did only a few years ago.

Free Press’ mediaFail is little more than unrestrained media bashing. If Free Press’ stated goal for this site is to bring more folks into the media reform movement, then I’m not sure I’d like to be in that tent with some of these people.

Free Press has done extraordinary work on behalf of the public. I applaud that.

But pull the plug on mediaFail. Now. It is not up to the laudable standards of Free Press as an activist organization. Free Press’ mission advocates education, but its mediaFail site is merely a highly flawed kindergarten.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 19, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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