The news media and democracy

Steffen Schmidt

It is a well-established fact that for democracy to flourish, the news media has to be strong and independent. Only with an aggressive media will the public be informed so it can exercise it’s democratic rights and power. Only with an adversarial media will politicians at all levels of government behave themselves and remain transparent and ethical.

It is interesting that as countries fall into dictatorship and autocracy, the first thing they do is take over the media and eliminate opposition journalism. This happened in every ancient empire, Fascist Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, Chile (Pinochet), Cuba, Libya, Iran and in Venezuela today under Chavez.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly spells out freedom of the press. The founders of the new country felt very strongly that freedom of speech and a free press was essential for the American experiment to work.

In 2010 the media is still crucial to democracy. However, there are massive changes going on and we need to understand what the media will be going forward into the 21st century.

One of my close friends — and like me, a graduate of Columbia University School of Journalism, one of the world’s best — sent me the following.

On Friday, Aug. 27, USA Today announced it was starting “the most extensive reorganization in its 28-year history,” according to Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times, firing 130 employees — 9 percent of its work force — and re-examining its entire business model.

The newspaper is only the latest traditional media to bleed from the recession, which has cut advertising and the new sources of news and entertainment made possible by the Internet that have killed circulation.

I found it important and worth sharing with you that Peters reported that USA Today was going to “shift its emphasis to digital media operations.”

It was also telling that the newspaper was enacting “a series of senior executive changes, including the appointment of a vice president for digital development, who will oversee the paper’s web, iPad and mobile phone offerings.”

This development needs to be taken together with the demise of many venerable newspapers, the shrinking of others to smaller and leaner operations and the decline or death of numerous news magazines.

My friend also reminded me that the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication has announced plans for a “program discontinuance” of this school. Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced that the school’s goal is to “strategically realign existing academic strengths and resources” in order to ensure that whatever comes after the SJMC will “meet the needs of our students, the labor market and our rapidly changing global society.”

So where will Americans get the information and commentary it needs to exercise their power as citizens and voters in the future?

The answer is in the direction that USA Today and many other media are moving. They are embracing all kinds of digital and mobile technology, including websites that are robust and interesting — video, audio blogs, slide shows and “interactives” — and especially social media which helps drive short but informative news to “friends” and subscribers. I’m talking Twitter and Facebook, as well as directly delivering product to iPhones, BlackBerrys, Droids, iPads and other devices.

Some skeptics poo-poo this new media reality and correctly point out that there is a lot of crap out there and that the Internet is full of lies, hype and disinformation.

I agree that there is a lot of misinformation out there. That’s all the more reason for journalism programs to teach the next generation of “media professionals” how to deliver accurate and reliable content through the sources that are actually growing rather than clinging to the ones that are in decline.

No doubt many more programs like Colorado’s SJMC will either morph quickly or become irrelevant and be eliminated.

As we undergo this difficult transformation, I’m confident that serious “new media” professionals will work very hard to fill the void that will be left by the old and dying media. If they don’t fully embrace the “brave new world,” American politics and democracy will become a smash-mouth fistfight of the ignorant vs. the uninformed, and the United States will greatly suffer from the decline of an informed public.

Steffen Schmidt is a university professor of political science at Iowa State University. He writes a political blog for the Des Moines Register and does analysis in Spanish for CNN en Espanol. He also serves as chief political and international correspondent for