Gatekeepers Are Important, 24 x 7

I’ve begun reading Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don't, Can't, and Do Know,” and while it’s early going, I think this will be an excellent and memorable book. Already, Jamieson is hitting nerves, especially in how she describes the manner in which journalists and the media unwittingly aided and abetted Russian influence of the 2016 US Presidential election.

Jamieson asserts that the 24-hour news cycle, which rode into town on the back of cable television, made it so that gatekeeping slipped away. With this shift from 30-60 minutes of news per night, it became important to fill the vast amount of time 24 x 7 news created, and the best way to fill the time was generally to talk about as many things as possible, with a necessary emphasis on things that lent themselves to speculation — scandal, strategy, and rumors.

With news in a limited space in the previous eras of television, gatekeeping was a vital role, and the newscasters, managing editors, and producers made important decisions about what to pursue, what to show, and so forth. There is often a hand-wringing that “there isn’t a modern Walter Cronkite,” but that misses the point, I think. There aren’t modern gatekeepers. Cronkite was a creature born of gatekeepers, and a gatekeeper himself. There are no longer gatekeepers. That’s the point. Cronkite is a concrete example, but the abstraction is what matters.

Journals publishing has been tilting toward the same kind of information culture for a long time now, for a variety of reasons — increasing pressures to publish on faculty and researchers; rewards for launching new journals for publishers; lately the advent of APCs which ties direct revenue to manuscript publication, linking the incentives of authors and publishers; and the open science/access movement, which argues that everything matters.

Yet, here we are, in an information system potentially irrevocably damaged by the diminishment if not extinction of gatekeepers, from news channels to social media. Like lonely islands in a rising sea, media outlets with strong gatekeepers like the Washington Post and New York Times and the Atlantic and New Yorker struggle to be heard above the waves of undifferentiated content crashing all around them.

With another election on our doorstep in the US, and more reports coming every day of malfeasance on social media, while actual news is squeezed out by scandals and distractions, we need gatekeepers more than ever.

But gatekeepers are worse than absent now. They’re distrusted, resented, or feared as representing a bias or a phenotypic/genotypic category with baggage. A female editor? An Anglo editor? An older editor? A young editor? We look too often at surface characteristics, as well, another potential effect of the 24-hour news cycle, where visuals and optics matter more than words. Intellectual fairness and wise judgment aren’t evaluated beyond the visually apparent in the age of video. As Lady Gaga said in a recent interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” noting that her aim with her art is to make people stop and get below the surface, “I’m afraid we live in very superficial times.”

Part of this is surely because there is too much information filling too much space, which leads to an emphasis on the ephemeral, superficial, and scandalous, and what I’ve called before “information confetti.” Gatekeepers interposed between you and this storm of information could and do help make the things that drive us forward — sense, meaning, culture, and society.

Without gatekeepers, we are susceptible to being whipsawed constantly by anyone with something to say. I’d rather people trying to reach me with information be required to pass some threshold of validity, importance, relevance, and accuracy set by someone I trust before their claims, proclamations, or stories reach me.

Please send more gatekeepers. We need then, 24 x 7.