Monday, June 08, 2009

A citizen of what?

Some conversations I've had recently, along with articles and interviews I've read, as well as the upheaval in the world media industry, has made me think more about democracy lately, and the relationship between media and citizenship. By citizenship I mean not whether or not one is eligible to carry a passport from any particular country, but the role one plays as a citizen of wherever you happen to be living.

This train of thought started when I interviewed Trevor Paglen earlier this year about his work mapping secret surveillance projects, military installations, and government agencies. He talked about how valuable investigative journalists were:
Investigative journalists are becoming so scarce; there's increasingly less and less funding for people to do real time-consuming, painstaking forms of research and journalism. And let's face it, when we look at the big news stories coming out of the world of state secrets in the last eight years or so, they were pretty much all broken by people who spent years, investigative journalists who spent years working on these stories. Things like NSA wiretapping, CIA secret prisons. And people who are in a position to do that work are becoming rarer and rarer, and there's less and less funding for that kind of work.
So the endangered status of newspapers means not just that we'll have to figure out a different way to get box scores in the morning, but that we'll have fewer people holding government, business and other institutions accountable for their actions or failure to act.

Then I saw this fascinating interview with San Francisco journalist Richard Rodriguez, who says it's not so much that the San Francisco Chronicle (to take one example) is dying, it's the myth of San Francisco that the Chronicle sold all these years.

Finally, there's this annoying piece by Pico Iyer in the New York Times, in which he brags that his life is better without a car or even a bicycle, much less his own laserjet printer:
I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media -- and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can't think of a single thing I lack. I'm no Buddhist monk, and I can't say I'm in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I've written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn't want or need, not all I did.
Later he makes clear two things: he hasn't divested himself of electronic possessions, for he exults in new releases by his favorite bands; secondly, "when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven't missed much at all. While I've been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or 'Walden,' the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started."

Great for his peace of mind. Of course most people want a simplified life, and if it means choosing between a stereo and a printer (although printers are cheap, and it just seems silly not to have one), then you have the advantage of feeling virtuous for (in his case) having to walk an hour to print something.

But I was alarmed at the note about how he reads a newspaper only once every three months. If everyone detaches like that -- sorry if this sounds corny -- who is left to defend democracy? Who is left to notice, and to protest, when a mining company plows a mountaintop into a fragile river, or when businessmen wreck an industry and profit from it? Or when the police or government agencies overstep their bounds, as they always will when no one is looking?

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