Will Commercial Forces Overwhelm Needs of Public-Interest Journalism?

Article excerpt

Kathryn Montgomery

This past January I flew out to Los Angeles to attend the information superhighway summit, where Vice-President Gore addressed the television industry at UCLA. It was kind of a scene to see it sort of overrun by all these Hollywood types in their fancy Gucci suits and sunglasses, in hill stereotype. I had never seen so many cellular telephones in one place at one time in my life. There were just hundreds of them, and people were busy making deals inside the auditorium during every possible break.

I unfortunately was one of the unlucky ones without a cellular telephone, and I had to wait with a lot of other people in the same boat, in very long lines, unbelievably long lines, at the few public telephones that were in the buildings. And, as I said to one of my colleagues, now I know what it's like to be one of the information have-nots.

The other thing that really struck me about the meeting was that despite the high level of excitement and enthusiasm highway, very few people, even in that group of writers, producers, directors of all of our entertainment fare, really knew what it was. One of the panel moderators in fact kept referring to it as the super information highway. I guess that's just as good as the other. The only thing they seemed to know was that it was coming, and they probably were going to be able to make a lot of money somehow in it. And they were there to find out how. I know that sounds like a cynical view. Not that they hadn't heard a lot about it. The term had worked its way into the press, spawning endless permutations. We hear about on-ramps to the superhighway, toll booths on the information superhighway, drive-by shootings on the information highway, and now there's even an information superhighway patrol. A recent Wall Street journal piece concluded that the metaphors are piling up on the electronic interstate like jackknifed trailers and there isn't an off-ramp in sight.

But what's also interesting is that even with all of this media coverage, a Harris poll recently found that not only did few people know what the information superhighway is, but only about 34 percent of the public had ever seen, heard or read about it. And that's really too bad. Because though the public may not be fully aware of it, the American media system, as we all know, is undergoing a dramatic transformation. And clearly by the early part of the 21t Century, we're going to be seeing an entirely new media environment, and it is sure to have profound impact on our society.

Now, needless to say, there's still a lot of speculation about the nature of that impact, about how it will all play out. But we know that it will be producing fundamental shifts in American life, from work to education to government to culture. And the key question that we are to ask ourselves is how can we ensure that this emerging new communications system will serve and enhance our democracy. And obviously a critical part of that goal is ensuring that we have a healthy future for journalism. Such a future I will argue is by no means guaranteed.

There's a lot of promise for this new interactive digital age. Lots of people are already very much intrigued and dazzled by the democratizing power of the Internet, which is a first glimpse of things to come. As I'm sure you all know, the Clinton Administration's white paper on the national information infrastructure paints a glowing picture of the future benefits of these technologies.

They are predicting that the infrastructure can be used by all Americans, not just by scientists and engineers, as entrepreneurs, factory workers, doctors, teachers, federal employees and citizens. Americans can harness this technology to create jobs, spur growth and foster U. S. technological leadership. To reduce health-care costs while increasing the quality of service in underserved areas. Prepare our children for the fast-paced workplace of the 21st Century and build a more open and participatory democracy at all levels of government. …