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New Yorker Media Critic Auletta Describes State of the News Media (Audio)

Ken Auletta, media critic for The New Yorker, told an audience at Washington and Lee University that today’s journalists, faced with the uncertainty wrought by rapid technological change, must believe in themselves.

Auletta presented the keynote address on March 2 for the University’s 12thInstitute for Honor, two days of presentations and panels that explored “The New Conversation: How Are the News Media Shaping Our Political Beliefs.”


Acknowledging that he is “of two minds” about the digital revolution, Auletta said that he thinks it is understandable to be conflicted in this way. “You can have two or more disparate thoughts in mind at the same time and still function — a thought of pessimism about the digital revolution and a thought of optimism, and you can have them coincide and clash and yet never resolve how you feel between the two,” he said.

Adding to the confusion, he said, is the pace of new technology. “It took the telephone seven decades to reach 50 percent of the American public. It took electricity five decades. It took television three decades. The Internet? Less than 10 years to reach 50 percent of the American public. Facebook? Five years to reach 800 million people.”

Auletta said that he doesn’t interview anyone in the media world who, if they are honest, does not confess to being terrified “because they know the speed of change means they will be disrupted in their business, just as newspapers have been in theirs.”

The digital realm is both adversary and ally for media, Auletta said. On the one hand, news often becomes a commodity available for free and whose origin may be unclear. But the advantages come in allowing media to provide archives and full-motion video and interactivity with the audience.

“The digital realm can also extend our reporting reach by making available to us citizens who can serve as our journalistic eyes and ears when we’re not on the ground,” he said, citing such recent events as the Arab Spring, the death of Muammar Gadaffi, and fraudulent elections in Iran and Afghanistan when Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones were crucial components of the reporting.

Even as these technological advances confer on citizens an important role, Auletta still sounded a cautionary note.

“If you believe journalism is a profession,” he said, “not one where you need a journalism school degree, but one where training and experience is vital to gathering the news, to exploring more than one side, to sifting through often contradictory statements and facts, to determining what belongs on page one and what doesn’t, to winning the trust of readers or viewers or listeners because you and your news organization are transparent — then you believe an untrained citizen should not be granted the badge of the journalist.

“We are supposed to be the intelligent agents,” he concluded.

Established in 2000 at Washington and Lee University by a generous endowment from the Class of 1960, the Institute for Honor includes an array of initiatives and programs that promote the understanding and practice of honor as an indispensable element of society.