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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Why does Tamaulipas journalism matter?

After reading the excellent report about journalism in Tamaulipas in today's Washington Post, I am convinced that the media landscape is both more complicated and less predictable than the one I grew up following and then working in during the years before the arrival of the Internet.

Let's sort out the players.  We the consumers, want information that is factual. Journalists sell credibility with each issue of their publication in hopes of making a profit through sales and advertising. Less obvious is the silent player standing in sidelines, power.
Think of how power, politics and news are tied together. President Johnson used the press to push his agenda in Vietnam. President Nixon was eventually brought down by the press for dirty tricks and corruption in his administration.  Politicians since the time of the Roman Empire have used image and information to build power.  But politicians have had company from church leaders in their use of power and keeping the status quo.  Spotlight is a great film about journalism as a tool of the power of the church and established authorities in Boston.

Why bother to wonder about what is behind the newscast or the headlines on TV, radio or our favorite online news site? One reason is that what you see today may be gone tomorrow. 

The arrival of on-demand news on the Internet removed much of the value of newspapers. Why does that matter? With the end of newspapers and broadcast news ad revenues came the end of investigative reporting. Watching Spotlight is a painful reminder of what we don't have-- a fact made worse by realizing some people don't even remember when investigative news cleaned up corruption in Laredo or in the White House. 

Take Tamaulipas, the state in Mexico bordering Texas. Until the drug cartels moved in and the rule of law moved out, the press in Mexico operated under the same laws as journalism in any free country. There were news reporters, investigators, opinion writers, sports and society writers, all doing their work in much the same manner as journalists anywhere else.  There were important differences in salaries and influence, and these matter. Overall, however, the editors remained in charge. Today in Tamaulipas, that's what's changed. And we should worry the illness our neighbor suffers could infect our own media.

This article about Tamaulipas' fractured journalism shows what happens after after an uninvited new crime boss, not an editor, is at the helm. A crime boss has a vastly different objective than an editor, whose job it is to serve the public good and to promote the well-being of a community. Without a strong investigative role based on promoting, not plundering the public good, journalism loses its function in society.

The Tamaulipas example tells us who moves in to fill the vacuum when journalism loses its 'junk yard dog' function.  If Tamaulipas' story can be of some benefit, if it can serve any good purpose, it is to warn us that the same thing can happen here