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Democracy and participation

I was having some fun yesterday ridiculing a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper. The first comment on David Eaves’ post, “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy,” suggests a further exploration of his assumptions. This is the comment:

Simply put: Democracy thrives with participation. The old media isn't participatory, but the new media is based on that very premise.

So how participatory are we prepared to be? Before the drop in advertising revenue reduced newspapers to wafer-thinness, a common complaint from readers was that they didn’t have time to get through it all. But now that we have participatory media, we apparently have endless time.

Look at the news stories on sites that permit comments — a story followed by, say, 157 comments. After the first dozen, the responses become duplicative. Cranks arrive. If the comments are not mediated, there’s an excellent chance that the “conversation” will sink into vulgar abuse and the racists and anti-Semites will crawl out into the sunlight. And that is for one story. Who is prepared to do that repeatedly through the day?*

Wikipedia advises its readers — I am not making this up — not to rely on the accuracy of its entries, but to consult the citations linked to the entries. Who is going to do that? Who is going to reproduce the research? Who has the time for that? (Of course, once the wicked, undemocratic, authoritarian, paternalistic, hegemonic newspapers go out of business and I am put out on the street, I’ll have that kind of leisure; but I’m concerned about people who will still have jobs.)

There is, of course, no dispute that the expression of multiple points of view is healthy. That is the central argument of Milton’s great defense of freedom of the press in the Areopagitica, that truth and falsehood exist intermixed in the world, that it is our task to sort them out, and that only broad freedom of expression permits us to perform that task.

The question to be determined remains how the wider participation of the Internet will permit this. Yes, bloggers have broken important news stories. And bloggers have also contributed to a cacophony of rumors, most of them unfounded. The sorting-out of truth and falsehood remains, and bald pronouncements about how participation is good for democracy don’t really address that issue.

The thing that is essential to the success of democracy is accurate information. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the opening number of The Federalist: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Accurate information is what permits “reflection and choice” and protects us from “accident and force.”

It has been the task of the newspaper to perform the functions necessary to permit such reflection and choice: investigation and reporting, selection of significant information, verification of its accuracy, and publication in a clear and compact form. And despite the sneers at our outdated 19th-century industrial model, with reporters answering to assigning editors and copy editors independently examining the texts, we can still do the job tolerably well.

Whether the print newspaper will survive at all, or it what form it might survive, remains beyond me. But I remain clear on the point that the health of democracy will be better served by the continuation of forms of organized journalism — investigation, verification and selection — than by raw participation.


* I admit to a weakness for the comments at a few sites, such as Language Log, which appears to attract knowledgeable commenters, and Elizabeth Large’s Dining @ Large site, where the comments have considerable entertainment value. Look at “Vandals hit Iron Bridge Wine Company,” where the comments veer off from foie gras to the merits of different bourbons.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (14)


Accurate information is what permits “reflection and choice” and protects us from “accident and force.”

So, that Judith Miller, how's she doing? She still working for Fox these days?

I know lapses happen. I know that newspapers are - presently and very generally - better than blogs at watching local and state governments.

But isn't it weird that the highest-profile example of bad information leading to "accident and force" came from a newspaper?

No comments on democracy and the press, but thanks for the word "omnibibulous." (Which, for the record, I am not.) Generally, I won't go over to Dining @ Large, but I'm glad I made an exception this time.

I have, once again, shamelessly used this post (though with proper attribution) for one of my own:

It's a slightly different take; if you're someone who likes things laid out less artistically and more formal logic-y.

The advantage of the internet over traditional journalism isn't "participation." Comments on blogs resemble letters to the editor, though there are more comments and their language tends to be more coherent but less polite than in letters to the editor (at least the ones in my local paper). The internet's edge is in quality. The content of traditional journalism is funneled through reporters, few of whom know much about science, law, or economics (to take three subjects of some interest to me). I can still remember Dan Rather, many years ago, talking with a straight face about a guy who had invented a perpetual-motion machine. If you want good analysis of economics, you can find several first-rate blogs by economists, some of them Nobel Prize winners. In journalism, there's just one--Krugman--and he's very partisan and given to opining at length about macroeconomics, which isn't his field. As for law, you'll find far better analyses of important cases and legislation on the web than in the papers. Take the devastation being wrought by CPSIA, which has shut down sales of used children's clothes and other products all over the country and which has made it illegal to sell or even repair children's dirt bikes, leaving businesses stuck with millions in unsalable inventories. My local paper ran a "human interest story about a woman who knits children's clothing and blankets and sells them at the farmers' market. Not a word about the fact that it will be illegal for her to do this when CPSIA goes fully into effect. Only the Wall Street Journal seems interested, and they can't do all that much. If you want the real story, you have to go to or to some of the sites devoted specifically to CPSIA. Sure, there's also a lot of garbage on the web. But it's easy to spot, and to ignore.

Newspapers aren't dying because they're "undemocratic," they're dying because most of them aren't very good. I express no opinion about your paper, which I have never read. There's a moral to that, though: I'll probably never read the Baltimore Sun, but I can, and do, read your blog. The internet wins again.

I'm directing this to Mr. Gunn, but anyone else can of course weigh in. I see what you're saying, though I wonder what paper you're reading that has less-coherent comments than comments on any popular blog.

I would agree that there's more potential for quality on the Web, largely because there are more sources, but I take issue with the "easy to spot" part. Most newspapers have some minimal standard for quality simply by having a process for the gathering, writing, and vetting of the content. No such standard exists on the Web, and I would contend that it isn't easy at all to differentiate the bad from the good.

For example, a Nobel laureate in economics recently wrote an article that betrayed a remarkable ignorance of the subject. Had this appeared on a blog (which, in ten or so years, seems inevitable), would his credentials make it credible? No, but how could an average reader be expected to make that determination?

What I'm saying is that the medium does not offer absolute safeguards, whether on- or off-line, but it is asking a lot of a reader to make that determination. I have no way of knowing if an on-line source has been checked by anyone; I have to believe that traditional media has had at least some fact-checking.

None of this excuses the declining quality of newspapers as they try to compete with the Web. I see things in the Chicago Tribune that I would not have seen just a few years ago; it's sowing the seeds of its own decline by a "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy, but that doesn't automatically imply that Web sources are better.

At some point there may be a vetting service for web sites, blogs, etc., that could give us some confidence that there is a minimal standard. Right now, though, there is simply chaos, and the reader is put into the untenable position of having to evaluate something that, in most cases, he or she is just not equipped to do.

Thanks John, I hadn't heard mention of Areopagitica since college. And I'm ashamed to say it's one of those things I wrote down, and answered correctly on a test, but never read. Thanks to the power of the Internet, now I can, here:

I'm happy to see The Federalist cited, as it reminds me of another qualm with seeing the Internet as the new arbiter of information: Madison's "violence of majority faction."

The Internet is the tyranny of the majority writ large. It freely gives minority groups a voice, then swamps them in bileful, virulent speech until they're drowned out. It lets anyone write the truth, so long as what's written achieves consensus - otherwise, it's stricken from the record, scrubbed so completely from history in ways no society before ours was capable of undertaking.

There's miles of history behind America's decision to reject democracy in favor of the republic. Protecting the few from the many is a prominent role, and while it took us centuries to live up to it, that compromise laid the groundwork for civil liberties that once stood unsurpassed.

The freedom of the Internet is a great tool for democracy, but a decision to rely on it - to trust the majority tyrant - unravels every compromise our founding fathers made to temper democracy against its own tendency to eviscerate those in opposition to what is popularly supported, yet wrong.

I have to agree with Alan Gunn. Furthermore, I think much of the decline in the traditional press comes from the 19th-century model of knowledge wherein it was assumed that a cultured person would have an overall grasp of pretty well everything there was to know. In the 21st century, this is absurd. It didn't matter for most of the 20th century because journalism was the sort of job teenagers were apprenticed into, or which you entered at the top end after taking a really good degree. This changed in the sixties and seventies when university departments and schools of journalism sprang up everywhere, after going through which professional journalists were less educated than ever before, having the benefit of neither a proper academic background nor an on-the-street school of hard knocks. So it's hardly surprising that journalists sometimes stand out for their ignorance - all too often, they really are ignorant (obviously, I am not including John McIntyre in this. After all, he isn't so much a journalist as a metajournalist).

Androcass said, "Most newspapers have some minimal standard for quality simply by having a process for the gathering, writing, and vetting of the content."

"Minimal is the right word, though in some cases, like the New York Times, there should also be a reference to "political." Our "paper of record" refuses to print anything about the devastation wrought by CPSIA. Why? Apparently because doing that would make Congress look foolish, and all right-thinking people know that Congress is on the side of good. And in the Duke lacrosse phony rape case, the Times stuck with the crooked prosecutor almost until the end, and took a reporter who wanted to write about the possible innocence of the suspects off the story because his editor "wanted a different slant."

As for letters, those in my local paper (the South Bend Tribune) come largely from people who think that any dealings with foreigners are evil, that God has told them, personally, what's right, and, sometimes, that the government always knows best. You get a lot of the last of these in blog comments, too, but less of the first two. Furthermore, that paper is edited by people who think that "split verbs" are ungrammatical, which causes them to use clumsy, unidiomatic English. And writing is supposed to be their profession. Don't they teach writing in journalism schools?

Newspapers are seldom crazy; in that respect, they beat the internet, on the average, because lunatics love the net. And newspapers have done some very good things: Dorothy Rabinowitz's series in the Wall Street Journal on the prosecutions of people running day-care centers on trumped-up charges of sexual abuse was wonderful. (The papers haven't been nearly so good in covering the Corey Maye case, though: a guy on death row in Mississippi for what was plainly self-defense from his point of view.) But the average quality of reporting in most of the papers I read is very poor, and experience has shown me where to find much better coverage on the web. At best, newspaper "fact checking" of political stories seems to involve telling us what each side said. When, as often happens, both sides are lying, that's not nearly good enough. And in some cases (the Times, again), you often don't even get both sides.

What it comes down to, for me, is that while newspapers, on the average, do a barely adequate job, they seldom do things well. If you can find the good things on the web, you'll do much better.

I, too, have read many inane comments on the "death of newspapers" and advent of a brave new ecosystem of news.

It's good to find a fighting column by a newspaperman proud to stand by his profession and its traditional values.

Earlier today, I scanned the comments of Huffington Post readers praising the proposed foundation for investigative reporting. Many greeted a new age of "true" investigative reporting allegedly abandoned by old media.

Even as Arianna Huffington was on MSNBC promoting the foundation, IRE -- Investigative Reporters and Editors - was issuing its annual awards to the best of 1,000 reports, most from newspapers.

The vision that troubles me when I contemplate the ecology of a grassroots newsroom, where everyman and everywoman pound the beat in all directions clamoring for their story to be told - or aggregated - this instant -- my vision is not of a democratic ideal but a media of mass fragmentation incoherent in all its coherencies.

There are a lot of good comments here (actually, if Mr. McIntyre is screening these, he's doing a good job; otherwise, we who read this blog are just people of discernment and politeness). I'll once again focus on Mr. Gunn's most recent comment, and say, first, I'm glad I am not stuck with the South Bend Tribune.

I think he and I are in fundamental agreement in our concern for the lack of completeness in print newspapers, something that gets worse with the passing days. What I would reiterate, however, is that finding the good on the Web is not all that easy. It is easy to find, unfortunately, things that simply reinforce our existing prejudices; we can end up in a silo of our extant beliefs without even the minimal challenge that would come from a good general-interest print source.

[Of course, seeing what's happening with newspapers and the dumbing down of our newsmagazines, we're heading in a bad direction no matter what source we take. Newspapers seem to be making themselves more irrelevant by the moment - even the Chicago Tribune had a recent cover story on the Illinois Lottery lady.]

John, these are lively posts. Thank you for engaging my writing. I hear what you are saying, but I think the way you are saying it validates the points Taylor and I are trying to emphasize. I'm also convinced there is a lot we agree on.

I've responded to both this and your previous posts in a post entitled: How an old media drudge’s actions explain the death of newspapers

Yes, Wikipedia does indeed have a content disclaimer. Have you read Britannica's disclaimer?



Obviously Wikipedia can't be "reliable" by the process it's written - it's just written by people, after all. However, it's clearly useful, or it wouldn't be a top 10 website.

I'd *hope* the people reading would know that and consider it when getting information from it. Expecting us to be able to think for the reader if they can't or won't is a bit much ...

(BTW, I've done press in the UK for Wikipedia for the last four years. I don't think I've spoken to one journalist or researcher in that time who *doesn't* use Wikipedia as their handy universal backgrounder. A journalist's job, after all, may be described as getting value from unreliable but useful sources ...)

The lesson of Wikipedia is not that Wikipedia is obviously not "reliable" because it's just written by people - it's that the same applies to other encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines and everything that has a human writing it. Caveat lector.

By the way, it's a bit much for you to disparage Wikipedia's use of a content disclaimer, considering your own:,0,519637.htmlstory

I'd hope you could do better than the CAPITALISED TEXT on that link. What's your content warranty?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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