The Myth of Journalism's Golden Age


The crisis in journalism today shouldn't obscure mainstream media's long history of masking the truth and acquiescing to power. From the Vietnam War to credit default swaps to climate change, in many ways American journalism brought crisis on itself.  

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it on paper. There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish. The second paper in town has shut down. Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week. Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south. Subscriptions are dwindling. Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue. Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to fail? Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?

In the previous century, there was a brief Golden Age of American journalism, though what glittered like gold leaf sometimes turned out to be tinsel. Then came regression to the mean. Since 2000, we have seen the titans of the news presuming that Bush was the victor over Gore, hustling us into war with Iraq, obscuring climate change, and turning blind eyes to derivatives, mortgage-based securities, collateralized debt obligations, and the other flimsy creations with which a vast, showy, ramshackle international financial house of cards was built. When you think about the crisis of journalism, including the loss of advertising and the shriveled newsrooms -- there were fewer newsroom employees in 2010 than in 1978, when records were first kept -- also think of anesthetized watchdogs snoring on Wall Street while the Arctic ice cap melts.

Deserting readers mean broken business models. Per household circulation of daily American newspapers has been declining steadily for 60 years, since long before the Internet arrived. It’s gone from 1.24 papers per household in 1950 to 0.37 per household in 2010. To get the sports scores, your horoscope, or the crossword puzzle, the casual reader no longer needs even to glance at a whole paper, and so is less likely to brush up against actual -- even superficial -- news. Never mind that the small-r republican model on which the United States was founded presupposed that some critical mass of citizens would spend a critical mass of their time figuring out what’s what and forming judgments accordingly.

Don’t be fooled, though, by any inflated talk about the early days of American journalism. In the beginning, there was no Golden Age. To be sure, a remark Thomas Jefferson made in 1787 is often quoted admiringly (especially in newspapers): "If it were left to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

Protected by the First Amendment, however, the press of the early republic was unbridled, scurrilous, vicious, and flagrantly partisan. In 1807, then-President Jefferson, with much more experience under his belt, wrote, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”

Two Golden Decades 

If there was a Golden Age for the American press, it came in a two-decade period during the Cold War, when total per capita daily newspaper circulation kept rising, even as television scooped up eyeballs and eardrums. Admittedly, most of the time, even then, elites in Washington or elsewhere enjoyed the journalistic glad hand. Still, from 1954 to 1974, some watchdogs did bark. Civil rights coverage, for example, did help bring down white supremacy, while Vietnam and Watergate reportage helped topple two sitting presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Of course, press watchdogs also licked the hands of the perpetrators when Washington overthrew democratic governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and when it helped out in Chile in 1973. As for Vietnam, it wasn’t as simple a tale of journalistic triumph as we now imagine. For years, in manifold ways, reporters deferred to official positions on the war’s “progress,” so much so that today their reports read like sheaves of Pentagon press releases. Typically, all but one source quoted in New York Times coverage of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents, which precipitated a major U.S. escalation of the war, were White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials (and they were lying). In the war’s early years, at least one network, NBC, even asked the Pentagon to institute censorship.

Nonetheless, the sense that the war was an unjustifiable grind grew, especially after the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive of January-February 1968, startling the U.S. military, Washington officials, and journalists alike. When, in 1969, Seymour Hersh reported for the tiny Dispatch News Service that a unit from the Americal Division had slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in a village named My Lai, his story went mainstream.

Still, the long bombing campaign that President Nixon ordered in Cambodia and Laos did not feature on television, and barely made the newspapers. And even when, in a remarkable feat of reporting, it finally did in a major way, there was no journalistic sequel. The “secret” bombing of Cambodia -- secret from Americans, that is -- was reported on page one of the New York Times on May 9, 1969, and 37 years later, the reporter, William Beecher, said this about his story: “We're not talking of some small covert operation here, but a massive saturation bombing campaign, with a false set of coordinates to mislead the Congress and the public… You would have thought that such a story would have caused a firestorm. It did not.”

After Watergate, whatever hard-won, truth-bound independence the mainstream press had wrested from its own history failed to hold. In the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, for example, most Washington journalism once again collapsed into deference, and so, too, did the financial press on its own front. Washington’s war-making might and Wall Street’s financial maneuvers were both deemed too mighty, too smart, too hypermodern to fail.

Although the New York Times and the Washington Post later acknowledged flaws in their Iraq reporting, neither paper nor other major outlets have owned up to the negligence that led up to the great global economic meltdown of 2007-2008. We are far from grasping how fully business journalism played cheerleader and pedestal-builder for the titans of finance as they erected a fantastical Tower of Derivatives, which grew way too tall to fail without wrecking the global economy.

Start to finish, financial journalism was breathless about the market thrills that led to the 2007-2008 crash: the financialization of the global economy, the metastasis of derivatives, and especially the deregulation underway since the late 1970s that culminated in the 1999 congressional repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (with President Bill Clinton blithely signing off on it). That repeal paved the way for commercial and investment banks, as well as insurance companies, to merge into “too-big-to-fail” corporations, unleashed with low capital requirements and soon enough piled high with the potential for collapse.

A Proquest database search of all American newspapers during the calendar year 1999 reveals a grand total of two pieces warning that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake. The first appeared in the Bangor Daily News of Maine, the second in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida. Count ‘em: two. 

On February 24, 2002, as the scandal of the derivative-soaked Enron Corporation unfolded, the New York Times’s Daniel Altman did distinguish himself with a page-one business section report headlined “Contracts So Complex They Imperil The System.” He wrote: “The veil of complexity, whose weave is tightening as sophisticated derivatives evolve and proliferate, poses subtle risks to the financial system -- risks that are impossible to quantify, sometimes even to identify.” He stood almost alone in those years in such coverage. Most financial journalists preferred then to cite the grand Yoda of American quotables, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. And he was just the first and foremost among a range of giddy authorities on whom those reporters repeatedly relied for reassurance that derivatives were the great stabilizers of the economy.

On March 23, 2008, as the bubble was finally bursting, Times reporters Nelson Schwartz and Julie Creswell noted that “during the late 1990s, Wall Street fought bitterly against any attempt to regulate the emerging derivatives market.” They went on:

“A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like stocks, bonds and futures contracts.”

“Little-noticed” indeed. According to Lexis-Nexis, not a single substantive mention of this law appeared in the Times that year. On October 1, 2000, Washington Post writer Jerry Knight did note ruefully, “What's fascinating about the policy debate is the agreement on the guiding principle: The government should not stand in the way of financial innovation.”

In a syndicated column on Christmas Eve, way-out-of-the-mainstream columnist Molly Ivins was not so poker-faced. She called the new law “a little horror.” And in that she stood alone. That was it outside of financial journals like the American Banker and HedgeWorld Daily News, which, of course, were thrilled by the act. That magic word “modernization” in its title evidently froze the collective journalistic brain.

Or in those years consider how the New York Times covered the exotic derivatives called “collateralized debt obligations,” among the principal cards of which the era's entire international financial house was built. These tricky arcana, marketed as little miracles of risk management, multiplied from an estimated $20 billion in 2004 to more than $180 billion by 2007. The Times’s Floyd Norris drily mentioned them in a 2001 front-page business section article about American Express headlined “They Sold the Derivative, but They Didn't Understand It.” He quoted the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank this way: "There are all kinds of transactions going on out there where one party doesn't understand it." From then on, no substantial Times front-page business section article so much as mentioned collateralized debt obligations for almost four years.

In 2009, in an enlightening article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, looked at the nine most influential business press outlets from January 1, 2000, through June 30, 2007 -- that is, for the entire period of the housing bubble. A total of 730 articles contained what Starkman judged to be significant warnings that the bubble could burst. That’s 730 out of more than one million articles these journals published.

The formula was simple and straightforward: the business press served the market movers and shakers. It was a reputation-making machine, a publicity apparatus for the industry. In other words, the job of financial reporters in those years was to remain fast asleep as the most flagrantly abusive part of the mortgage industry, subprime mortgages, was integrated into routine banking.

Meanwhile, thanks to that same financial press, a culture of celebrity enveloped the big names of finance: CEOs of major banks, Wall Street investors, operators of hedge funds. They were repeatedly portrayed not just as fabulously successful tycoons doing their best for the society, but as fabulously giving philanthropists, their names engraved into the walls of university buildings, museums, symphony halls, and opera houses. They weren’t just bringers of liquidity to markets, but wise men, too. In an all-enveloping media atmosphere in which the press indulged without a blink, they were held to be not only creators of wealth but moral exemplars. Indeed, the two were essentially interchangeable: they were moral exemplars because they were creators of wealth.

The Desertification of the News 

Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again. On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally, still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with the seriousness it deserves. At least it is now an intermittent story, though rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation. Still, as Wen Stephenson, formerly editor of the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section and and senior producer of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a “problem,” not an “existential threat.” (Another note on vanishing news: Since publishing Stephenson’s article, the Phoenixhas ceased to exist.)

Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping journalism does not “flood the zone.” It also has a remarkable record of bending over backward to prove its “objectivity” by turning piece after piece into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.

When it came to our financial titans, in all those years the press rarely felt the need for a dissenting voice. Now, on the great subject of our moment, the press repeatedly clutches for the rituals of detachment. Two British scholars studying climate coverage surveyed 636 articles from four top United States newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and found that most of them gave as much attention to the tiny group of climate-change doubters as to the consensus of scientists.

And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace. Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history, their news divisions went dumb and mute. The Sunday talk shows, which supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites -- those high-minded talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public -- were otherwise occupied.

All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters,

“The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change... ABC's This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes… NBC's Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention… Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming ‘junk science’ on ABC's This Week. More than half of climate mentions on the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single scientist on climate change.”

The mounting financial troubles of journalism only tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog. It’s unlikely that serious business coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their way down the slippery circulation slope. Why invest in scrutiny of government regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation benefits so much greater? Meanwhile, the nation’s best daily environmental coverage takes a big hit. In January, the New York Times's management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters. How could such a move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the environmental beat?

The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out for the most serious professional self-scrutiny. Will it do for journalists and editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes news? It’s long past time to reconsider some journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in: some say the earth is spherical, others say it’s flat).

But don’t let anyone off the hook. Norms can be bent. Consider this apt headline on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek after Hurricane Sandy drowned large sections of New York City and the surrounding area: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” Come on, people: Can you really find no way to dramatize the extinction of species, the spread of starvation, the accelerating droughts, desertification, floods, and violent storms? With all the dots you already report, even with shrunken staffs, can you really find no way to connect them?

If it is held unfair, or naïve, or both, to ask faltering news organizations to take up the slack left by our corrupt, self-dealing, shortsighted institutions, then it remains for start-up efforts to embarrass the established journals.

Online efforts matter. It’s a good sign that the dot-connecting site was just honored with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

But tens of millions of readers still rely on the old media, either directly or via the snippets that stream through Google, Yahoo, and other aggregator sites. Given the stakes, we dare not settle for nostalgia or restoration, or pray that the remedy is new technology. Polishing up the old medals will not avail. Reruns of His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, and Broadcast News may be entertaining, but it’s more important to keep in mind that the good old days were not so good after all. The press was never too great to fail. Missing the story is a tradition. So now the question is: Who is going to bring us the news of all the institutions, from City Hall to Congress, from Wall Street to the White House, that fail us?

Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other books including, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. 

Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin

Image by Jarapet, licensed under Creative Commons.  

2013 Utne Media Awards: The Nominees

2013 utne media award logo 

2013 marks a new chapter in the 24-year history of the Utne Reader staff recognizing and celebrating the best of what we read. Formerly called the Utne Independent Press Awards, we’ve decided to contemporize the name and call them the Utne Media Awards.

Considering the wealth of amazing new ideas, exceptional writing, and outstanding journalism taking place on the internet, we think it’s time the name of the award encompass every form of mass communication we come across each day from longform print journalism to video blogs. While we still love and will always celebrate the printed word, we’d be remiss not to recognize the democratization of information made possible by the internet. We think emphasizing the broad term “media” allows us to appropriately consider and recognize all of the ways people communicate with one another in the 21st century.

Of course, the best way to make that point is to simply refer you to the list of 36 nominees for the 2013 award, most of which have been featured in the pages of Utne Reader in one way or another over the last year. As has always been the case with this award, the selection process is arduous and sometimes even a bit contentious, but only because the staff wishes we could find a way to recognize every one of our favorites. 

The winners in each category will be announced at the Magazine Publishers of America’s Independent Magazine Media Conference in New Orleans in May and published in our July/August 2013 issue. To all the publications and websites nominated, congratulations on yet another year of inspirational work. So without further delay, here are the nominees:

 2013 utne media award nominees 


Can Kenya’s DVD Pirates Help Heal the Nation?

 Still from Kenya Until Hope is Found 
Amidst rising ethnic tensions over the coming Kenyan elections, one filmmaker sends his message of healing through a well-established network of DVD pirates.  

"Before the 2007 post-election violence occurred in Kenya, my country was seen as an island of stability in a region of conflict," says Patrick Mureithi in his recent documentary, Kenya: Until Hope is Found. The election results he refers to—which many have since agreed were flawed—resulted in clashes that killed more than 1,200 people and displaced another 500,000.

At the time, Mureithi had been filming a documentary, ICYIZERE:hope, about a reconciliation workshop in Rwanda that brought together survivors and perpetrators of the country’s 1994 genocide. But in the years since Kenya became the site of its own ethnic conflict, Mureithi has turned his attention closer to home. With a new vote just a week-and-a-half away, tensions between tribes have been rising. While many groups are taking steps to make sure the elections are peaceful, the threat of violence looms.

Part of the problem, according to Mureithi, is that people have not had an opportunity to heal from the trauma of the last election. "In a country that has one psychiatrist for every half-million of its citizens,” he says, “one of the most pressing issues to be addressed is that of unresolved psychological trauma. As a nation, how can we heal in order to avoid repeated cycles of violence, in order to ensure that our children have a secure future?"

Kenya: Until Hope is Found documents a three day workshop called "Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities," with severely traumatized residents of Kibera, a neighborhood that Mureithi describes as "Kenya's largest slum and the epicenter of the violence."

But it was not enough for the men and women included in the workshop to experience healing—Mureithi wanted every Kenyan to have access to the same process. So when he finished his documentary last December, he handed it over to his local DVD pirates. "My reasoning was that since they have the most efficient distribution system in Kenya, then they would be able to get the film into as many hands as possible," writes Mureithi. "As I type, their vendors are selling the film country-wide for less than 80 shillings (approx $1)."

Video: Kenya: Until Hope is Found 


To make a tax-deductible donation to Patrick's February trip to Kenya and the continuation of his work, visit 



The Power of Activist Journalism


This story originally appeared at  

Stories are central to our existential job description: making sense of both the world and ourselves. From creation myths to scientific explanations, from political ideologies to the quirky narratives that knead our own amorphous lives into some kind of distinctive shape, stories are essential — not only because they nudge the disconnected bits of reality we face moment to moment into a plausible and graspable form, but because they go to the heart of our identity and purpose.

This goes for navigating our lives. But it also goes for changing the world.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that life poses two fundamental questions —What are we willing to live for? What are we willing to die for? — he presupposes a story that makes these questions intelligible. For Dr. King, this story centered on a harrowing and improbable expedition to what he doggedly called the Beloved Community, a world where all human beings will one day sit at the same table, live together in The World House, and make good on the hunch that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. This story does not come with a warranty or scientific proof. Instead its truthfulness depends on how far we’re willing to go to embellish and inhabit it. This story’s power flows, not from its lyrical metaphors, but from its ongoing, risky embodiment.

The monumental challenges we face today — poverty and economic inequality, climate change, military intervention and surveillance, unjust immigration policies, handgun violence, white privilege and many others — resist transformation for many reasons, including the stubbornly enduring frames that keep them in place. The monumental change we need will hinge on a new way of looking at the world, and this in turn will be spurred on by powerful stories that bring that new worldview alive.

Violence draws life from the endless stories that push its power. But things can work the other way too. Stories of the nonviolent option can unexpectedly seep into our right brain, disturb the certitude of the violence operating system, and open breathing space. We are living in a time when, despite the tsunami of violence, we are hearing these counter-narratives more frequently. Part of the reason for this is that there is more nonviolent action than ever. But another is that we are on the lookout for these stories more than ever. When we put on the nonviolence eyewear and start poking around — as this site does — we start to see the power of nonviolent change everywhere.

One of our most powerful alternative storytellers is Terry Messman. Messman is the editor of Street Spirit, a monthly newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee that is sold by 100 homeless vendors on the streets of Oakland, Calif. Reporting from “the shelters, back alleys, soup kitchen lines and slum hotels where mainstream reporters rarely or never visit,” the newspaper runs stories on homelessness, poverty, economic inequality and the daily grind of human rights violations that poor people face. But Street Spirit doesn’t simply deliver the grim news of poverty. It also chronicles and raises the visibility of the movement that is dramatically working for human and civil rights, challenging inequality, and demanding — and winning — change. This month’s issue, for example, features stories on the challenges and successes of the local anti-foreclosure movement, a campaign countering the erosion of the human rights of homeless people and on affordable housing for the growing senior population. Month after month for the last 17 years Street Spirit has been getting the story out on the reality of the structural violence and consequences of poverty, but also on campaigns that are challenging this reality.

Increasingly Street Spirit has highlighted the tools of powerful and audacious nonviolent movement-building, with extensive coverage of the Occupy movement and interviews with Erica Chenoweth (on the ground-breaking research that she and Maria Stephan published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works demonstrating that nonviolent strategies are twice as likely to succeed than violent ones) and with nonviolent action campaigner and scholar George Lakey. Last month the newspaper profiled the Positive Peace Warrior Network and one of its key trainers, Kazu Haga, who was trained by Bernard Lafayette and is organizing a growing community of activists grounded in Kingian nonviolence. (Haga’s essay, “MLK’s final marching orders,” was published this week by Waging Nonviolence.) 

By documenting injustice and building the capacity of the movement for justice, Street Spirit not only spurs nonviolent action but also has become a form of action itself. Its reporting was instrumental in shutting down the East Bay Hospital in Richmond, Calif., which was a dumping ground for homeless, poor and severely disabled people by nine counties in the region and was responsible for widespread violations of low-income psychiatric patients.

Terry Messman has long integrated telling the story of nonviolent action with action itself. In the late 1970s he was a reporter in Montana sent out to cover a civil disobedience action at a U.S. Air Force base. A lone Lutheran minister had crossed the line at the base and was sitting in the driveway, awaiting arrest. Messman was so moved by this solitary witness that he dropped his reporter’s notebook and sat down next to him. He netted six months in federal prison for this action.

Not long after this I met Terry. He was leading nonviolence training at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where both of us were then studying. He and several other workshop facilitators were preparing a group to risk arrest at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nearby facility that had designed 50 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I was immediately struck by his vision of the power of nonviolence, especially his stress on it being active, audacious, challenging and dramatic. Struck by the picture he painted that morning, I shook off my hesitations about engaging in civil disobedience and took part in the action at the lab, which netted 30 of us a week in the county jail. For the next two years I essentially put my studies on the shelf and took action with Terry and the action group he had helped form named “Spirit Affinity Group” and, in effect, enrolled in Nonviolence 101 with Terry as teacher. Terry vividly and actively shared with me, and others, the story of nonviolent change, rooted in the vision of Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothy Day and a rebellious, law-breaking Jesus, whom the theologian and activist John Dear would later characterize as a “one-person crime wave.” But Terry’s story of the power of nonviolent transformation was rooted not only in studying history but also in a series of actions he had taken throughout the western United States. This story — reinforced by the string of nonviolent actions that we organized and participated in together — was gradually changing me.

After years of anti-nuclear activism, Terry brought this spirit to his work challenging poverty and homelessness in Oakland in the late 1980s. He and others formed the Union of the Homeless that launched an action campaign that included occupying — and winning — an unused federal building and occupying a series of homes that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had repossessed and was essentially turning over to real estate speculators. They won these homes for poor and homeless families, including a house that Terry and members of the movement (including myself) occupied overnight one time. (I will never forget a large Oakland police officer at 4 a.m. kicking open the room I was sleeping in and dragging me off with the others to jail.)

Through it all, Terry was telling the story. Two decades ago I interviewed Terry and his colleagues about their campaign, which by then had mobilized government support to build housing, a childcare center with a Head Start program and a multi-service center supporting homeless people, all run by a nonprofit organization whose board was predominantly homeless people. In one of the interviews Terry said, “We did a four-year series of nonviolent direct actions. And all we did in the early years was say, ‘We’re going to go to jail for two or three years, and then we’re going to have housing.’ Which was a totally magical prescription that we just said… And it was really something, that power of belief. We just kept saying that all over the community.”

This story — this magical prescription — was key to driving the dramatic actions that created change. Now, all these years later, Terry is still at it as he continues to call out the myriad of ways homeless people are dehumanized and excluded, but also continues to report in a detailed and thoughtful way the stories of the movement that is challenging this dehumanization and exclusion. While Street Spirit is Oakland-based, all of us everywhere can all draw new life every month from this powerful platform that’s getting the story out for justice and nonviolent transformation.

Culture is Not a Crime: 10 Years of Creative Commons


This post originally appeared at  

The future of the cultural commons looked dim in December 2002: Napster had been shuttered a year earlier, while record labels treaded warily into selling DRM-locked music online. The FCC dismantled regulations forestalling the consolidation of media ownership. And as the housing bubble inflated, privatization — of media, public space, scientific and technological research, even the military — became the watchword of the day.

A decade later, the cultural commons remains threatened, but stands on somewhat firmer ground. The record industry abandoned its futile efforts to lock music to users or devices, a costly lesson movie studios and book publishers seem determined to learn for themselves. An emerging generation of cultural producers acknowledge that “good theft,” as Austin Kleon puts it, is a fundamental part of the creative process. And Creative Commons — a once heretical notion to develop a copyright system for cultural works based on the principles of open source software development — is celebrating its tenth year.

Founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, then a Stanford Law professor, and a board of directors that included Duke Law School’s James Boyle and Eric Saltzman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Creative Commons announced its first copyright licenses on December 16th, 2002. In an announcement, the organization’s Executive Director Glenn Otis Brown stated “One of the great lessons of software movements is that the choice between self-interest and community is a false choice. If you’re clever about how you leverage your rights, you can cash in on openness. Sharing, done properly, is both smart and right.”

The organization — and the larger free culture movement in general — is not without critics, now and then. Some are intent on rehashing arguments about the dubious economic and artistic value of retaining inalienable and irrevocable rights to intellectual property. Purists take exception to licenses that state “some rights reserved.” More pointed critiques question the efficacy and impact of Creative Commons, observing that the licenses remain untested in many courts, are often embraced by creators as their careers are either on the ascent or descent.

But anyone holding their breath for the Rolling Stones or Michael Bay to embrace Creative Commons might want invest in ventilators. Meanwhile, the purists’ definition and parameters of what constitutes free culture remain situated, as such notions often do, at the fringes of culture and academia.


The pragmatic critiques hold more weight: A decade in, the organization and its licenses has achieved only modest success in the courtroom. Creative Commons has been ported to over 70 jurisdictions globally, it has only been upheld in a handful of court cases.

More important, perhaps, is the cultural capital accrued by the principles that Creative Commons champions. These concepts are taking root in the mass psyche, albeit incrementally. They’re espoused by bestselling author Jonathan Lethem, whose Harpers essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a manifesto comprised of scraps from other texts, makes a powerful case for the artistic value of preserving a free, widely accessible, and endlessly mutable shared cultural heritage. Lethem writes:

Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.

The free culture movement that Creative Commons helped kickstart has provided legal support and ample publicity to struggling creators like filmmaker Nina Paley. It’s been embraced by unlikely institutions such as The World Bank, whose Open Access Policy requires that its research papers are licensed under a CC Attribution license. News outlets such as Wired and Al Jazeera release works of photojournalism to the commons, while the likes of Nature release genomic research under the license.

As was the case a decade ago, the future of Creative Commons and the free culture movement may be predicted by developments in the open source community. In recent years, git, a version control system for software development, has become a prevailing way for coders to collaborate, share, and build upon each others’ work. The most mainstream iteration is GitHub, a public hub for developers to easily connect, collaborate, and iterate on code. Using GitHub, modifying an existing project to serve your own needs or goals is as easy as clicking the “fork” button.

Increasingly, GitHub is not only hosting code. Designers are posting editable templates and Illustrator files to the site, while GitHub Pages hosts writing by forward-thinking bloggers, journalists, and authors.

The notion of a platform that makes it easy to create new and modified versions of creative works, while retaining chains of attribution back to those that have come before, may seem radical to some, untenably geeky to others. But as Creative Commons has demonstrated for the past decade, software development is a creative and collaborative process from which artists and other cultural creators can learn much, to enrich their work by preserving and building upon our shared cultural heritage.

Images by Tyler Steinfanich and Dawn Endico, both licensed under (you guessed it) Creative Commons.  

Farewell, M.G.H. Gilliam

 Orion Constellation Hevelius
Editor’s note: After 30 years of publishing
Orion, founder M.G.H. Gilliam announced in the November/December issue that he would be leaving the magazine. What follows is his final publisher’s note, in which he assesses the challenges we face with clarity. 

With this issue of Orion I will be stepping down as publisher and turning over to others the work I started thirty years ago. My hope from the beginning was for a publication that celebrated the wisdom and beauty of the natural world in the belief that humanity will respect and protect that which it comes to know and love—a publication in which both the literary and visual arts would communicate the conviction that humans are responsible for the world in which we live and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.

Since the inaugural issue, Orion has sought to explore how to achieve harmony between nature, which sustains and supports all life on earth, and our civil institutions, which provide governance and justice, goods and services, and address humanity’s physical needs and desires. Orion has also aimed to reflect on the qualitative values that nurture the soul and strengthen our will, while highlighting the growing understanding of the quantitative limits to resource extraction and untenable pollution. Both these approaches are essential if we are to form an ethical framework within which our existence on this planet may be sustained.

Much has changed in the three decades since the magazine was launched, and the matters with which Orion’s early authors grappled appear humble when compared to the urgent challenges humanity faces today. Climate change, the population crisis, and the extreme methods of extracting the earth’s remaining resources dwarf the environmental issues that Orion addressed in 1982. Perhaps most alarming of all is a political and corporate culture the seems less and less interested in understanding the truth of what is happening in the world, and less and less inclined to demand sane policy. At the same time, I take heart in the groundswell of activism and activist groups that have emerged during those same three decades and that do so much good work.

The problems caused by rampant consumerism, the acceptance of short-term fixes, and self-serving behavior with little or no willingness to make sacrifices are still the primary challenges, in my view, that face society. We need a way of exploring environmental issues that is realistic and honest, yet hopeful and inspirational. This will require an increasing attempt to learn from nature: what will nature permit us to do before it is likely to destroy us? If the primary role of government is to protect the rights of individuals and defend the nation, we must figure out how to disconnect money’s influence on the election of government officials and on the legislative process. If the role of business is to provide goods and services, how do we encourage its leaders and shareholders to take the focus off bottom-line profits and to encourage sustainability rather than heedless consumption? And if culture’s role is to be an arbiter capable of creating balance between the governmental and economic areas of activity, how do we foster a culture that is based on moral and spiritual values that will demand equitable treatment for all living creatures?

It is my hope—and belief—that Orion inspires its readers to strive for a vision of life on earth that is just, and that the magazine, in its small way, makes the world a kinder place. I thank you, dear friends, writers, and artists, and all the members, past and present, of my Orion team for the honor of being a part of this special constellation.

—M.G.H. Gilliam, publisher and founder of Orion and The Orion Society.

Image: Johannes HeveliusProdromus Astronomia, volume III: Firmamentum Sobiescianum, sive Uranographia, table QQ: Orion, 1690. This image is in the public domain.


The Wonderful Fare of NeverSeconds

NeverSeconds Martha Payne

A school lunch in Argyll, Scotland. Martha Payne, a nine-year old student there, started taking pictures of and blogging about her food in April of 2012.

This post first appeared at Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons.

When nine-year old Martha Payne began a food blog last year, chronicling the paucity of her school lunches, she was not prepared to become a social media star. Payne’s blog, entitled “NeverSeconds,” began as an innocuous school project that showed pictures of her cafeteria meals in Argyll, Scotland, along with a “Food-o-meter” rating their healthiness on a scale of 10. Suffice it to say, not many got close to 10. The school was initially supportive of Payne, an aspiring journalist whose dad helped her construct the website. Within a week, however, NeverSeconds, was being posted on social networking sites and receiving 100,000 visitors a day, earning her a congratulatory tweet from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. National media was soon running headlines like “Time to fire the dinner ladies,” with Payne and her school identified.

A few weeks after the blog started, Payne was ushered into the head teacher’s office and told she could not take any more photos of school dinners. It transpired that Payne’s local council, Argyll and Bute, had reacted to the adverse publicity by imposing a ban. As ever, the cover-up proved to be worse than the crime. The council’s censorship provoked an even greater backlash. Two hours later, a shamed council leader, Roddy McCuish, appeared on national radio to announce the immediate reversal of the ban.

"There's no place for censorship in Argyll and Bute council and there never has been and there never will be,” told McCuish on BBC Radio 4.

"I've just instructed senior officials to immediately withdraw the ban on pictures from the school dining hall. It's a good thing to do, to change your mind, and I've certainly done that."

Let’s hope that contrition extends to improving the school meals in his schools. In the meantime, Payne has raised enough money, through her charity, Mary’s Meals, to build a new kitchen at a school in Malawi. Her blog continues at NeverSeconds.

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