I believe in newspapers and the power of a free working press.
That sentence sounds like it should be immediately followed by “Journalists of the World UNITE” which itself is then followed by a fanfair of trumpets and people dancing in revelry while waving the banners of revolution, but in fact the only response I should, and would hope for, is for the reader to nod their head and agree. Such is the dream, yet not always the reality, and in fact, it seems the last real refuge for real reporting seems to be in cinema or “parody” news programs like The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight. On one side note The Nightly Show is no longer running which is unfortunate because it seems every time Comedy Central puts up a show that tries to present news and information from a black perspective it only ever lasts a few episodes before it gets canceled. That’s an entire article or online lecture by itself, but I’ll have to get to that later.
A few weeks back Last Week Tonight did a piece about the state of Journalism, specifically the Newspaper industry in the United States and the sentiment expressed by John Oliver mirrored Gerald Ford’s now classic statement during his first State of the Union Address. The State of Newspapers in the United States is “not good.” That’s a simple way of saying print news in America is either dying or plagued by bias. The complex way is saying that newspapers in America are on the decline due to the rise of digital news, low sales of printed newspapers, lack of trust by the readers, and the general apathy of readers due to the fact that most people get their “news” via Facebook or Google. There isn’t much, if any money, going into newspapers and this a conflict because a free media is responsible for monitoring for corruption and ensuring that the public of a democracy are informed to what is actually going on in their government.
I recognize immediately that my position can immediately become one of obnoxious preaching or else a nauseating mourning of an industry that possesses an “inherent nobility” and so I’m going to try and maintain a professional distance from emotion. My point in bringing this topic up is not to wail and bemoan the tragedies that are taking place in the journalism industry, but instead to allow these tragedies to illuminate the importance of the media and two articles which shed an revealing light on this subject.
In September of this year, The Atlantic put out an article by Derek Thompson titled Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, and while it’s a short essay it manages to point out several of the reasons why Journalism in general is becoming so suspect to citizens of the United States. Early on in the essay Thompson explains what is happening to that trust:
With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.
This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.
It should be made clear that the article is not Anti-Trump, it simply relies regularly on Trump and Trump supporters denying the legitimacy of newspapers when scandals appear which tends to happen a lot. Still the facts remain that more and more citizens are beginning to recognize or perceive flaws in reporting, and when you take into account that perception tends to create reality far more often than facts it begins to become clearer why so many Americans distrust news. Thompson’s article goes on to list out five reasons why this distrust exists, and the fourth reason, that it’s easier to find news that confirms bias rather than challenging it, he manages to make an important point about how this distrust forms:
Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.
Several weeks back I wrote about the speech Walter Cronkite gave on CBS news entitled We Are Mired in Stalemate. Part of the ongoing appeal and interest of this speech is that it was one of the first times a newsman like Cronkite allowed his personal opinions or assessments to come through in his reporting. This is not so uncommon today, in fact it’s so common it borders on obnoxious. Watching programs like Hannity, The O’Reily Factor, Legal View with B & B, or even anything involving Keith Olberman that isn’t about sports, one becomes buried beneath the weight of personal opinions of newscasters that it becomes so nauseating one has to change the channel or turn off the T.V. and meditate to Stomp to reclaim one’s sense of composure. Watching these shows in bulk is about the equivalent of a years’ worth of self-inflicted papercuts to the webs between the fingers, yet despite this I still find myself watching the news and reading the newspaper.
At the core of this is always my romantic patriotism.
I worry sometimes that I wrap myself up in the American flag, and that despite my supposed dedication to pure, unfettered reason I am actually an emotional gerrymanderer. In my own defense I tend to read a lot of Walt Whitman a man who also had a rather large hard-on for liberty and the inherent nobility of the American populace, identity, and territory. But if I can strip everything down though, and find the purest kernel of honesty to explain the reason why I believe so much in the importance and dedication to a free press is because I really do believe democracy is the best we, as a human species, have got philosophically.
The ages of man have been a constant effort and experiment to co-exist as peacefully as humanly possible and in our time we have constructed governmental-philosophies which have ranged in form from totalitarianism to a level of republic bordering on hippie communes. At the end of this democracy is the one system that, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, leaves at least a modicum of equilibrium. Before I start to sound like fucking NPR, which I appreciate as a news media source, my point is that by studying history it becomes clear that if human beings want a society in which people are equally protected by the law and from the government which is supposed to execute the law, the republic and democracy have been the most successful in accommodating that environment.
But in order for that to exists there has to be a system which monitors government because, to use an old platitude, power corrupts absolutely, or to put it another way, politicians are butt-fucking cowards and thieves and they need to be monitored and transparent because corruption is easily acquired and can quickly become a comfortable vice.
While I was considering this idea, and watching the Journalism episode of Last Week Tonight, I remembered a consistent impression, one moment in the video which kept gnawing at me because it seemed as best as I could describe as “right.” In the video John Oliver introduces a clip from CSPAN which appeared to be some panel or news coverage over the state and future of newspapers and in the clip a man by the name of David Simon explained that the next decade will be a “Halcyon Error” for local and state political corruption due to the pronounced lack of journalism covering simple governmental activities likes zoning board meetings. It wasn’t the diction that sold me on Simon as an important figure in this particular argument however, it was his level of confidence. Interested in the man I did a little digging, starting on Wikipedia. I know I’m supposed to hate that website because it’s the scourge of academic integrity but in reality it has helped me discover sources I never would have. Including the article David Simon wrote for The Washington Post entitled Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?
I read the article in one sitting, it’s not that difficult to finish in one session due largely to the fact that Simon is a fantastic writer for his ability to weave gorgeous prose without going up his own ass. Simon begins his article with a personal and effective opening:
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
It’s an honest question and after reading Thompson’s article I’m tempted to answer it quickly. The simple answer is the American public became disenfranchised with newspapers and news organizations. While on some level this is largely attributed to people simply believing the news is boring or else just really depressing (for the record I’m almost quoting verbatim a friend of mine here) perhaps the largest reason is because journalism has become subject to the pitfalls of capitalism, or really hyper-capitalism. John Oliver expresses and analyzes this far better than I ever could, and so I would recommend my reader actually take the time to find the video on YouTube, but the simplest explanation is that because newspapers are looked on more and more as, and Simon even calls them such in his articles, an anachronism people are looking more to digital content for information and that’s a problem because anyone can contribute to digital media. And I mean Anyone.
I’m an example of this. The reason I began White Tower Musings was because nobody would publish my creative work and so I began writing “essays,” really a charitable word for my early diatribes about power and freedom and Orwell, and publishing them here on WordPress for free. I pay nothing to host my site apart from internet provider, and my wife pays that bill so in fact I really do pay nothing. I can write whatever I want, when I want, and publish it, and while I personally try to make sure each article is well thought out and well researched and written to the best of my ability the real unbiased truth is I’m just some jackass with a blog. And with that knowledge in hand I remember that there are dozens of jackasses with blogs who can write and say whatever they want about current events without having to worry about any kind of oversight or editorial board to make sure their writings are supported by solid sources and facts.
This isn’t meant to be morbid self-loathing, which is my usual same old song and dance, but instead just an honest reflection upon the institution of the news as a force in this country and how a writer like Simon makes it seem not just important but necessary even as it’s dying. Simon offers a glimpse at the contemporary position:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simon wrote Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? in 2008, and I can already sense the reader’s objection. This seems like a moaning diatribe of whining about American Newspapers that doesn’t reflect reality. Plenty of newspapers are writing material old-school journalists would be proud of. And this is a fair objection which Simon actually acknowledges in his article before pointing out the flaw:
Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn’t take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics — a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.
Newspapers are not just about heroism and I recognize how I sound writing that out after preaching about their inherent necessity and nobility. Newspapers are first and foremost about community. Simon points out that often newspapers are in the market for young, hungry, and most importantly cheap employees to produce media content and the conflict with this position is the divorce from their reality. If you don’t have any history with a town, it’s going to be difficult to understand the dynamic and history of the city when you have to report on it. There is a local paper in my own home city but I never read preferring instead to read articles on NPR or else the Washington Post and this in itself reveals the larger bad habit of certain readers. I should not say that I represent a microcosm, but I do believe it’s fair to admit that a portion of news readers in this country take a rather abstract view of news because the news that we do receive tends to concern the larger national or international events, and while these most certainly possess real relevance the problem is that the real impact of such occurrences is always felt at the local level and manifests in different ways.
A question emerges and Simon writes it out plainly and perfectly:
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have — as one, industry-wide — declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?
This final point is reiterated by John Oliver in the Last Week Tonight Special, and echoes in my own summation of the “service” I provide my readers for this site (the difference being that what journalist provide possesses a more immediate utilitarian purpose than my intellectual musings). Freedom of the press is not just a given by the first amendment because the individuals who provide the information citizens need to be informed do not work for free. Reporters are working people who need food, living space, and entertainment commodities the same as every and any citizen of the United States and the problem is their line of work is increasingly being dwindled by the hyper-capitalist system in which media too often given away for free.
The reason people enjoy free internet pornography is because people have grown accustomed to having it at their fingertips, but beneath that is a deeper understanding that the media they’re consuming isn’t worth their money. The conflict with the internet is that too often the content being generated is rarely designed to be a valuable physical commodity from which the consumer can acquire some kind of emotional or personal investment. It’s something to be consumed and then abandoned. My reader may argue that newspapers, even when they weren’t purely digital, existed in the same way for after all a newspaper is produced for one day and then would often be thrown away and in fairness that is a fair criticism.
However even before newspapers moved to a digital market, consumers and readers were willing to pay for the paper. Some of them, and I include myself in this crowd, simply read the paper for the comics or the sports pages, but there are consistent readers who are genuinely concerned and should be genuinely concerned about what is taking place in their local government: whether public money is being used for nefarious purposes, whether or not public projects have actually benefitted their community, and simply to figure out whether their elected officials are crooks.
Simon, Oliver, and Thompson have all offered me a chance to decide whether or not my local newspaper matters or not. In all honesty my local paper probably doesn’t because anyone willing to actually write anything negative about local politics or history would either be silenced or exiled, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It may be my clinging to the romanticism of the Watergate-era, but I do believe the news, whether it’s digital or paper-bound, does matter, and should be trusted, and does play a crucial role in our democracy.
I am just some asshole with a blog, but like Simon I know a great newspaper from a good one. And those few gems are worth reading, and more importantly worth paying for.
Below the reader can find links to the sources for this article. The first is Thompson’s article published in the Atlantic:
The second is the Last Week Tonight special over journalism:
And finally here is the article Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? Published originally in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy: