Failed media in a failed state

The Vanity Fair article has really struck a nerve in Iceland. Mostly because it is very accurate but also because Icelandic media is unable to perform at the same level of investigative reporting.  

The concept of a media that is free and independent from any outside forces is absolutely absurd. Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom knows that there is always and angle, and often a spin. The processing of information from various sources into a comprehensive newsstory, while on a deadline  is easier said than done. When you add the pressure of financial performance onto the people whose job is to write the news then the already high blood-pressure is in trouble. 

Since late last century with the advent of the internet, newspapers are supposed to be dying. As to the causes and consequences and what can be done there is little that can be added to Walter Isaacson’s  brilliant article from Time. 

In Iceland, newspapers have like everything else become victims of extreme business and extreme ideology. The business section of the free ( as in not costing anything) newspaper Frettabladid under the ownership of Jon Asgeir Johannessson was a cheerleader for the businessmen under the business-editor Haflidi Helgason. A successor was Bjorn Ingi Hrafnsson who almost succeeded in handing Jon Asgeir the valuable export section of Reykjavik Energy as a councilman, and at the time of most need for hard-hitting, investigative reporting has turned the business section into a joke. Morgunbladid has been lead by attack-dog Agnes Bragadottir who has stood watch over the right wing businessmen favorable by the Indpendent Party elite while going after their competitors. In the papers defence, since the economic crash when Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson lost control of it, it has performed better than ever without an owner. Expect that to change now that 2.5-3 billion ISK have been left with the taxpayers and new right-wing owners have taken charge.

If you want to read past the stories of the day in the current situation, the blogs are the best source. Despised by “real journalists” who are acutely aware of the threat posed by this relatively new media, the bloggers have two things going for them. They are usually not paid by anyone to write, and are usually unashamed to disclose their alliances.  This makes them able to publish relevant material that does not fit with the political ideology that runs traditional newsrooms, and might be sensitive to advertisers but the bloggers loyalty is to the reader instead. 

A friend has tried to tell a story to the traditional media in Iceland. An inside story of corruption and a relevant portrait for the people of Iceland to see of how business has and is still being done in closed, connected circles. Just like the Vanity Fair article chastised. After two months of trying to get his story out, he has given up. And in the process lost faith in a society where journalists band about terms like “fourth estate”, but are in reality underpaid and undersupported by their owners and unable to dig deeper than a phone call for a bit of spin can take them. 

In fact, I would love to see 95% of Icelandic journalists try to comprehend the terms that Michael Lewis based his article on.  

Maybe one day the stories like the one my friend has to tell will be told, but until then we have to count on reporters from abroad to not lose interest in what is happening in Iceland. Because our media has failed and is unable to perform the task itself.

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3 Responses to “Failed media in a failed state”


  1. 1 Kjartan March 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Agnes Bragadóttir as an absolutely thundering disgrace. Anyone who listens to her for more than a couple of minutes on radio or TV debate shows will know that she sounds more like a party spokeswoman than an independant journalist. And now after 176 years on Morgunblaðið she’s coming out with critical “news” about certain scummy business men, with the source apparently being assorted Independance Party members looking to make themselves look better.

  2. 2 Roy March 4, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    It´s either a free press or oligarchy, personally I prefer a free press and unbiased investigative reporting. I find that it
    easier on the body and spirit..

  3. 3 Stan Hirson March 4, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Thank you for calling attention to the Vanity Fair article. I can see how this has riled the feelings of some Icelanders, but I confess that here in Upstate New York my wife and I had a few good laughs at his descriptions of behavior that we encountered there over the past few years. I thought it was incredibly accurate and revealing. In spite of the levity, sad because I don’t see how the Icelandic culture will shed the behavior and values that made the Kreppa in the first place.

    One thing about blogs versus the “real” press (an oxymoron in Iceland). Professional journalists like to claim that bloggers can publish anything they want without having their facts checked by editors or in-house fact checkers. Rubbish. The readers are the fact checkers. Comments modules accompanying each article invite fact-checking. Here in the States one of the best examples of that is Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. He claims to have about 30,000 fact checkers.

    You are doing a great job and I look forward to reading Economic Disaster every day. Frábær! (And that’s a fact!)


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