Alumnus publishes book, talks modern journalism

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Victor Pickard, ’95, sees the commercialized foundation of journalism as its crux.

“The commercial media profits by selling audiences to advertisers, and one of the most surefire ways to attract audiences is to foment conflict and controversy,” Pickard said. “That’s kind of the problem, to get at the core structural root of this media system — of a system where it’s rational to amplify noise and it’s irrational to try and amplify reliable information to audiences within a democratic society.”

These conclusions take center stage in Pickard’s recent book, “Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Crisis,” published on Dec. 2, 2019. The book has been called, “(t)he first scholarly book to historicize the current American journalism crisis and situate it within long-term structural problems” by Oxford University Press. It is Pickard’s second independently written book and the fourth book in which he has acted as an author or editor.

 Response to the book has been positive, according to Pickard — he said there was a period of time in which it was sold out shortly after its publishing.

According to Ben Slote, professor of English and a member of Allegheny College’s Journalism in the Public Interest steering committee, the real value of the book lies in the issues Pickard examines.

“(Pickard)’s work and the way it historicizes the relationship between things like legislation and journalism and marketplace and anti-monopoly (and) all the various bills that have passed that have in large part encouraged the corporate sort of control of journalistic work (is) really important,” Slote said.

As Slote suggests, Pickard is taking a look backwards in his book to place journalism in its present moment of conflict and transition. The argument he makes about the past — that American journalism was problematically built upon a foundation advertising revenue — is further complicated by issues of the present, particularly Facebook.

Pickard argues that Facebook, as an “unregulated… information hotbed,” has exerted enormous and dangerous influence over its roughly 2.5 billion users. He said that democratic societies like the United States have been forced to examine Facebook’s place.

“That’s kind of how my book approaches this, which is to see it as a very important and huge social problem that we have to confront, and we have to think in terms of creating a new social contract between platforms like Facebook, government and people,” Pickard said. “I’m trying to start that conversation with my book.”

A response to Facebook’s presence in the media landscape will have to address two key issues, according to Pickard. The first is that Facebook is “amplifying and proliferating false information,” often making profit doing so. The second is that outlets like Facebook and Google receive much of the ad revenue that would previously have supported “actual” journalism.

“It’s kind of tragically ironic that at the very moment that Facebook and Google are proliferating misinformation, (they are) expecting new organizations to help fact- check misinformation, and simultaneously starving those news organizations while also profiting from their content,” Pickard said. “So this is all part of the same problem.”

Slote said that the unfortunate emphasis on “creating noise” rather than “actual” journalism, in Pickard’s words, can also be traced back across the decades.

“Really, from the 19th century on, in the late 1880s, … these sort of newspaper wars between the two big newspapers in New York City were desperate to get more and more readers, and so the rise of sensationalism and giant scare headlines — that’s been a part of American journalism for a really long time,” Slote said.

Part of the answer to the modern journalism crisis lies, Pickard wrote, in government involvement in the press. While he stressed that the government should never have the power to select which voices appear in the media, the idea of total uninvolvement is an unrealistic interpretation of the first amendment, according to Pickard.

“The whole notion that the government is not involved in our media system is really a Libertarian fantasy,” Pickard said. “It’s just a question of how it should be involved.”

According to Pickard, that involvement should mean supporting and generating investments in the infrastructure of the media so that it can continue to contribute to a vital democracy.

Pickard’s path to making such arguments included four years spent obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English at Allegheny College. He said he had a “very positive” experience, studying psychology and philosophy before eventually deciding on English and working with Slote as his adviser. Slote recalled witnessing the early stages of Pickard’s career in his classroom when Pickard took a literary theory course.

“I think probably that class was actually kind of important to him,” Slote said. “I think it kind of opened up his interest in thinking about writing and discourse from a lot of different perspectives.”

Pickard said that his Allegheny education enriched his interests and helped him to find the path to his present success.

“In retrospect, I’m very thankful that it was a broad liberal arts education,” Pickard said. “For me in particular, it allowed me to keep my interests very broad in the beginning.”

After graduating from Allegheny, Pickard lived in Japan for three years and traveled for another year afterward. He received a master’s degree in communications from the University of Washington and a Doctorate in Institute of Communications Research from the University of Illinois.

Pickard has since held various positions in academia and is currently an associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also currently serving as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Slote said that seeing a former student attain Pickard’s level of success has been rewarding.

“The best part about teaching is to see students who you had a little role in helping to encourage and flourish going off and doing these fabulous things,” Slote said. “It’s the deepest gratification.”

Pickard said his path to those “fabulous things” did not begin with the most ambitious undergraduate career, calling his generation — himself included —“slackers” and “very disengaged.”

He said he sees much higher, and very inspiring, levels of engagement in today’s young people.

“It’s often not a very steep hill to climb for me to try to encourage students to connect the dots,” Pickard said. “They can intervene. They can create their own reality.”

The vision of young people gives Pickard hope for the issues he articulates in his book. He said that the new generation of leaders in journalism can look beyond the market forces that have “constrained” the generations before them. 

Ultimately, it is that vision that he believes can turn a present crisis into an opportunity to create “a new kind of journalism.”

“That journalism is a journalism that I think should be based on public ownership and democratic decision-making,” Pickard said. “I think for young people today, I think they get this. I think they get that we can’t trust profit-driven corporations to make those decisions for us.”