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The Net and its dodgy news

Corporate mass media filter their information. So does the Internet

Dateline Earth: As if the Planet Mattered
By Kunda Dixit
Published by IPS Asia-Pacific Centre Foundation, 2011
Available at Asia Books, Bt450
Reviewed by Pravit Rojanaphruk

"Dateline Earth" is both an informal textbook suited to journalism students and a thought-provoking challenge to notions about corporate and online media.

Anyone who thinks the mainstream corporate mass media are essentially benign will think otherwise after reading Kunda Dixit's book, first published in 1997 and now updated to examine the Internet as a source of news.

Dixit is a veteran, respected journalist from Nepal and former regional director of Inter Press Service, an "alternative" international news agency. He has this to say about the hyped world of online news:

"All this talk of nanoseconds and gigabytes proves we are indeed communicating more and faster than ever before - but what is it that we are communicating? Is it relevant, does it educate as well as inform?

"Information overload threatens to bury the essential in an avalanche of shallow words and superficial images. It is getting more and more difficult to find the pertinent and relevant in this global electronic haystack of trivia."

Dixit is utterly sceptical about the promise of a communications revolution being fostered by the Internet. "The most astounding thing about these changes in the media landscape is to see how little the content itself has changed. The news agenda is still determined by the corporate entities in the powerful countries … the filters are the same ...

"Whatever falls beyond the penumbra of your customised default news portal doesn't exist. If an event has not happened in the informationsphere, it has not happened."

Those who find a measure of escape in their blogs and on Twitter will beg to disagree with Dixit, at least partially, but they can still enjoy being challenged by him.

"The global web of criss-crossing data, it is said, will level the playing field, democratise information, and everyone will benefit. But if history has taught us anything, it is this: Technology by itself is never the answer. All this 'cyberbole' has the danger of distracting us from the essence of information."

Much of the book dwells on the evil of corporate media control over what is news and what is not, but Dixit also criticises people who make poor choices in the information available online.

"As more and more people visit sites that they agree with, the Internet may end up fragmenting and ghettoising its users. Instead of building bridges, the Internet could therefore play an even more polarising role."

Such a statement underlies the patronising assumption that the elite corps of the mass media is solely responsible for providing news that matters - because consumers are too ignorant to find their own sources.

Dixit's diagnosis of all that is wrong about corporate media is mostly sound, but he's an old-school thinker who still believes in the crusading role of journalism in a world where people are increasingly disillusioned about and distrustful of the mass media, even the alternative mass media.

Thais are increasingly sceptical about what they see on TV and read online, to the point that they construct their own media menu, often supplemented by foreign news that avoids the censors, sometimes from secretive blogs.

Today's corporate media environment doesn't nurture the kind of engaged journalism for which Dixit yearns. The next best thing is for the public to become more media-literate, and to recognise the problems and contractions posed by the corporate media, the Internet and even the alternative media, with its too-frequent reliance on suspect donors.

There is tension in Dixit's book, that of an accomplished journalist disappointed with most of his peers and anxious about a future in which traditional journalists no longer command respect.