Confessions of a Media Gatekeeper
Five Days Left to Have Your Contribution Matched
By Bill Conroy
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Professor
June 17, 2004
I am part of the commercial media. I guard one of its many gates.
I can trace my journalism career over 22 years and across four states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona and now Texas.
Currently, I’m the editor of a weekly business journal in South Texas. That paper is part of a chain that is controlled by one of the largest media companies in the country.
Over the years, I have held down a number of mainstream jobs, working for an auto-racing newspaper, a daily newspaper, and several other business journals. I also have kept a hand in the alternative media market. In fact, I was part of a crew that helped launch two alternative newspapers in Milwaukee—including the weekly Shepherd-Express.
More recently, I have been a contributor to Narco News, which several weeks ago published the final installment of my book, Borderline Security: A Chronicle of Reprisal, Cronyism and Corruption in the U.S. Customs Service.
On the home front, I have a beautiful wife, four kids (ages 11 to 21), and a heart-felt family commitment.
I grew up in a blue-collar union home and was the first to graduate from college. Although my values are clearly working class, I’ve always felt between worlds, never quite fitting into the blue-collar or white-collar molds. So, pursuing a career in the media was attractive to me, because when I got out of school in the mid-1980s, journalism was still one of the last white-collar “trades” around.
True, nepotism was rife in the business, but if you had the skill and desire, you could still succeed — regardless of your pedigree. And hell, it was a writing job! Plus, the journalism trade, at the time, seemed to attract an eclectic mix of free-thinking misanthropes and hard-drinking iconoclasts—which meant I would fit right in.
Much has changed since then, of course. The past two decades have been marked by a super-charged consolidation of media ownership. You have to look long and hard today to find any media outlet that isn’t part of a large conglomerate. That has led to what I like to call the “Stalinization” of the media.
I wrote something a while back that put it this way:
“...Journalism as an institution is Stalin. Everyone who obeys Stalin gets to stay in, gets to work there, gets to make all their money and write all their garbage and use monosyllabic tongue and keep everything in the normal, in the status quo, so nothing gets ruffled, so Stalin can keep the government going.
“All the people who want to go against the grain and push at their words to make a point, or to get some feeling into their writing, are all ostracized or purged, just like Stalin would do.”
That’s a pretty grim assessment, I admit. But most mainstream journalists, if they are honest with themselves, would have to admit that the fast-track to success inside this business isn’t found by pursuing stories that threaten to rock the bottom-line, status-quo boat of the media conglomerates. (Al Giordano is not going to be editing the New York Times anytime soon is my guess.)
With that said, it must be stressed that there are still many talented and honest journalists working in the mainstream media. It’s just that the best of them have committed career suicide by choosing to follow the path of the authentic journalist.
But I also think those who are on that path would agree that it’s worth the price you pay. Because, like Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
What is authentic journalism? More importantly, why should you care?
Well, consider the fact that what the commercial media offer you is an approximation of reality, or life in a frame. Mainstream news is filtered through people like me, a newspaper gatekeeper, who determine what you read, view and hear about the world around you.
If you read my newspaper, you read what I, and other gatekeepers like me, decide you should read. Of course, if you don’t like what I put in my newspaper, you can always choose to read another paper, or so the theory goes.
It could be argued that formula did work, to some degree, several decades ago, when there was far more diversity in media ownership and true competition. Unfortunately, with the hyper-consolidation of the media, every paper now works the same way—offering you a homogenous mix of news tailor-written for brand-driven market niches.
That milk-toast hegemony in the mainstream media is not the product of a conspiracy, liberal or otherwise. It is made possible through simple organizational dynamics.
Corporate-owned media are operated through an intricate system of gatekeepers who are aligned in a hierarchical order and who keep a close watch on the keys to the gates. And at the highest levels of this gate-keeping system, the line between doing good journalism and making lots of money is so thin that it is easily crossed over by those who put greed before honor.
This gate-keeping system also has another drawback. Gates are of no use without fences, and fences are built to keep people out. The best way for the media barons to shore up their fences is to get some hired guns to keep guard on the property. It’s even better if you can get the sheriff (FCC, etc.) to help out—never mind that a free press belongs to all, as do the airwaves.
That’s why the people have come to “hate” the media. They hate its empire of fences.
But where there are no fences, there’s no need for gatekeepers; more to the point, when the existing fences begin to fall, so, too, does the media barons’ empire.
Make no mistake about it. The current mainstream media structure is not likely to go away anytime soon; it’s too profitable. But businessmen aren’t journalists, and they shouldn’t be treated as such, nor should information vital to a functioning democracy be treated like a commodity, like so much beef to be bought and sold in a marketplace of fences.
In my mind, authentic journalism may be the last best hope to create a media landscape that is not based solely on fences, barons and gatekeepers.
This summer, Narco News is once again sponsoring the School of Authentic Journalism. The event brings together investigative journalists from all over the world who, like me, have agreed to donate their time and money to have the opportunity to both teach and learn about the “authentic” path of journalism.
For me, the school is a chance to spend a week or so with some of the most talented journalists in the world to help formulate a strategy for fostering a better kind of journalism, one not dependent on gatekeepers who have hitched their careers to the nearest conglomerate; one that truly serves the people—not the bottom line, niche audiences, or streams of advertising.
In order to pull this vision off, however, the people have to help make it happen. In part, this is a numbers game. The more people trained as authentic journalists, the more people there are to spread the people’s gospel, if you will.
In my case, I’m fortunate, in that I have a job that allows me to come up with the nearly $1,500 it will take to get me to Bolivia for a week or so. However, not everyone seeking to attend the Authentic School of Journalism has the ability to get there without a little financial assistance.
We journalists always keep the deadline in mind: To make sure that all the three-dozen scholars – chosen through a very intense application process (I know; in 2002 I applied for the 2003 session) will also arrive at this gathering, less than five days remain of the “matching grant” offer: the handful of hours left of today, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (deadline at midnight), to get your donation “matched” (doubling the amount) by the Tides Foundation’s Fund for Drug Policy Reform.
Please make your donation online right now at:
(If you are not in a position to make an online contribution with a credit card on deadline, but you want to make your contribution in time to double your money, one of the Narco News co-publishers and scholars, Ben Melançon has generously offered to donate in your name and you can pay him back, interest-free. To work out the details, contact Ben immediately at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
So, if you can find it in your heart, and pocketbook, to throw a little change their way, I promise you it will go a long way toward buying some real change in this world down the road.
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