21st Century Media and the Democratic Myth

The most recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning is Mark Fiore, a freelancer whose only medium is electronic. His iPhone app was rejected long before he was a Pulitzer winner and it was only after the weight of his Prize was brought to bear against Apple that it relented. It’s simply the case that speaking truth to power is more effective when the truth has some muscle of its own.

By now, the idea that modern communication technologies have democratized the production and distribution of information is a truism; that the Internet greatly expands the boundaries of our ‘marketplace of ideas’ is equally true, but, as usual, the devil is in the details.

Not to be overly dramatic, but there are gatekeepers to the marketplace; one of late has been Apple. Its policy against apps that “ridicule public figures” kept Fiore’s political satire off the iPhone and iPad. One wonders what such a broad policy could keep out: genuine news reports that run afoul of Apple’s strange ethic? It remains unclear what Apple’s policy is, and whatever it is, it seems to bend at the will of muscle rather than intellect. The iPhone code is not open source, nor will it be. A company like Apple should not stand guard at the marketplace door determining who should be let in or kept out, even if it is the architect of that door. But anarchy in the market is not an ideal solution, either. Some well-established vendors are cheating their customers, big time…

Take the Catholic Church for example. Such an old and ‘venerable’ institution has attempted to stonewall investigations into the various sex scandals surrounding it. The tradition, or rock, if you will, upon which the Catholic Church rests provides it with a great deal of stability. Its strategy is oftentimes to outlast the opposition, much like a wealthy defense attorney against the good intentioned but under-resourced state prosecutor. Its consistent refusal to engage scandal nullifies many diligent reporters.

For this reason, it sometimes takes a big name in news, such as The Boston Globe, to break a story facing such uncooperative people. Clay Shirky calls it ‘the infinite time horizon’, i.e. that only institutions who have staying power can properly investigate other institutions with comparable longevity.

In these cases we see that a completely free and democratic marketplace of ideas is neither a reality nor desirable. 

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