Friday, August 14, 2009

What is an Information Gatekeeper?

I'm writing another post today, that involves information gatekeepers. Before finishing it, here's a brief discussion of the phrase.

According to Princeton's WordNet, a gatekeeper is literally a doorkeeper or doorman: someone who guards an entrance. "Gatekeeper" may also be used as a metaphor:
"gatekeeper (someone who controls access to something) 'there are too many gatekeepers between the field officers and the chief' "
(Princeton's WordNet)
So, an "information gatekeeper" is someone who controls access to information.

Information Gatekeepers in America

For several generations, the traditional information gatekeepers in American culture included
  • Newspaper editors
  • Teachers and organizations of teachers
  • Leaders of colleges and universities
  • Entertainment industry executives
  • Publishers of books and magazines
There are others, like politicians and military leaders - but I'm inclined to think, "...if you will let me write the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws...."1

A problem I see with America's traditional information gatekeepers is that, by the 20th century, a very small group of people had a great deal of control over what the rest of us were allowed to know. I don't think this was (entirely) intentional.

Newspapers and the Daily News

Take newspapers, for example. A newspaper editor in, say, Cincinnati had a limited number of hours to get the day's edition ready for printing. It was reasonable to take the 'top news stories' and other information as selected by major east coast papers and news services as the day's news. The alternative would have been to try doing the job of a news service: hardly practical for most newspapers.

Since New York City's The New York Times and a handful of other northeastern organizations were the biggest providers of national and international news, their editorial decisions determined, to a very great extent, what newspapers in the rest of the nation printed.

Broadcast News: More of the Same

Broadcast news followed the same pattern, with Los Angeles added to the mix.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that, if The New York Times, ABC, NBC, and CBS news didn't think the American people didn't need to know something, they wouldn't. NET joined the triumvirate (now a quadumvirate?) in 1952, replaced in 1970 by PBS.

Cultural Chaos! Divisiveness! I Like It!

I remember the protestations against those upstart news networks on cable: like CNN. They simply weren't proper. And they represented the first competition that the four broadcast networks had experienced, in some cases, for decades.

Book and magazine publishing was a bit more diversified in the sixties and seventies, but rising paper prices and other factors drove some publishers out of business, and others into merger with larger publishing companies. That happened sometime around the eighties - I generally use an external reference for this sort of assertion, but in this case I'll rely on my own memory: I started working for a publishing company as the meltdown was happening, and had been paying close attention to the industry before that.

The entertainment industry followed a similar pattern. Yes, individual artists and performers could work on their own: but if they wanted to reach a national audience, they'd have to cooperate with a handful of recording companies and studios. Most of those were in Los Angeles or the New York-Washington megalopolis.

You Think Cable is Awful? Here Comes the Internet!

Then came the Internet. Blogs like this one, YouTube, and an evolving array of other online phenomena made it possible for individuals with relatively meager resources to reach a national - and global - audience.

Yes, it's 'divisive' to have a society where a counter-cultural Norwegian-Irish-Catholic like me can make his voice heard. Without the cooperation and control of 'Octopus Records' or 'My Way or the Highway' media.

I prefer to think of this 'divisiveness' as 'freedom of expression' - but not everybody agrees with me. Even so, I think a society is better off, when people whose opinions do not exactly fall in line with what a handful of others want to be so are allowed to speak their piece.
1 That's an excerpt from this paragraph:
"...While such books as these were in wide circulation it can hardly have been that a good church tone was wanting among the faithful laity. It has been said that if you will let me write the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws; and this may be repeated, contrasting prayers and sermons. Let who will preach sermons if I may write the prayers of the people...."
(English church life from the Restoration to the Tractarian Movement considered in some of its neglected or forgotten features,J. Wickham Legg, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta (1914), via Internet Archive)
"Let me write the songs of a nation; I don't care who writes its laws." is attributed to Andrew Fletcher (for example, in Affective Computing, Rosalind W. Picard, The MIT Press (1997)). Fletcher's words are also quoted by Ravi Zarcharias.

Andrew Fletcher, son of Sir Robert Fletcher of Salton and Innerpeffer and Catharine Bruce, daughter of Sir Henry Bruce of Clackmannan, and was born in the year 1653. He died in 1716, and today is probably best-known for his A Discourse of Government With Relation to Militias, Andrew Fletcher, Edinburgh, Printed in the Year MDCXCVIII (1698).

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.