Thursday, June 12, 2008

Eric Schmidt's "Moral Imperative"

There are times when I wonder whether or not Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive Officer of Google, learned his personal "art" of rhetoric from President George W. Bush. Consider yesterday's report from Associated Press Business Writer Michael Liedtke:

Google Inc. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said Wednesday that the Internet search leader hopes its recently acquired advertising service DoubleClick will aid newspapers as they struggle to corral more online revenue.

"It's a huge moral imperative to help here," Schmidt said during a question-and-answer session at an event hosted in San Francisco by Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Without providing specifics about how it might be accomplished, Schmidt said DoubleClick's system for serving up online display ads could generate "significant" revenue online for newspapers.

Still, he acknowledged the boost probably won't be enough to restore the hefty profit margins that newspaper publishers historically have enjoyed from print advertising.

Let's accept this for what it is, which is nothing more than a public relations ploy for those still concerned that the DoubleClick acquisition was fundamentally monopolistic. Everything else is basically like the air in whipped cream, grounded on, at best, vague speculations about an optimistic future.

If there is any moral imperative at stake here, it has more to do with the viability of journalism as both an institution and a profession. It has to do with that old-fashioned role of the newspaper as a public trust. It has to do with professional journalists who know how to "get" a story and translate what they got into that concise and compelling manner that used to leave us all hungering for one paper to read while commuting to work and another for the ride home. (Boy, are those images old-fashioned!) This, in turn, involves not only the journalists themselves but also the "standards of practice" of journalism, itself, as an institution. This institution is on the ropes, if not down for the count, as we recently saw in Michael Wolff's story on The New York Times for Vanity Fair.

This is a moral imperative that grew out of the practices of capitalism that emerged from the world the Internet has made. In other words it is a consequence of the very practices that made Google a success and Schmidt as rich and powerful as he now is. The moral imperative is for Google and its executives to choose between growing their assets further (so they can spend on things like airplanes, space flights, and private power operations) or channeling a useful (as opposed to token) chunk of those assets to a few newspapers to help them recover their gutted staffs and, hopefully as a consequence, their gutted reputations. Oblivion to the latter choice would be nothing more than (to borrow a word from Judge John Sirica) moral poppycock.

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