Our moribund newspapers
Newspapers in distress provide fodder for endless commentary, a good deal of it questionable.
Professor Jay Rosen drew my attention to a post by David Eaves, a Canadian blogger, “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy not a symptom of its death.” Let’s have a look at a portion of it:
A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”
Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?
This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted.
Hyperbole, indeed. But Mr. Eaves is not immune to challenge, either.
The Constitution does in fact protect newspapers. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Or of the press. Newspapers. Over the past couple of centuries, the legal understanding of the press has been expanded to include, for example, broadcast. But it is clear in the text that the authors of the Bill of Rights foresaw a need to protect the press — what we could now understand as organized journalism — in specific language beyond the protection of the individual right.
That gentleman on the street handing out those leaflets — single-spaced, no margins, copious citations from Scripture — is exercising a protected right of individual free speech. If he should set up a newspaper or magazine to further his views, he would enjoy a separate constitutional protection in that endeavor. And, Mr. Eaves, no one disputes that the Internet is also a medium of free speech.
But we’re not done. Mr. Eaves goes on:
Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes.
Oooh. Hierarchy and authority. Bad Things.
Well, the Bible-crazed gentleman on the street may be promoting what he prescribes to the reader, but newspapers set up as commercial enterprises making a profit tend to produce what they think the customer wants. And apparently what many customers want, to judge not only from still-vigorous print circulation but also from huge Web readership, is the sort of information that the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal set forth. If you change authoritarian to authoritative — that is, information that has reliability because it has been reported and verified — it rather alters the perspective.
As for hierarchy, I suspect that that can be found in Web operations as well, unless one imagines that, say, Politico.com functions as an anarcho-syndicalist commune in which the coffee can’t be brewed until a three-hour meeting has achieved consensus.
I’m not arguing that the Internet is a bad thing or bad for democracy. I’m on the Internet; I’m for democracy. But the Founders understood from classical and modern history that democracies are particularly vulnerable to demagogy — to lies. The thing that organized journalism has offered — not without ugly lapses — has been the kind of verified information that enables the public to make informed choices. Actually, despite their hierarchies and decision-making editors, newspapers performed that function reasonably well for the first two centuries of the Republic.
Lord knows I lived through the ’60s once already. Then, too, there were forms of authority that deserved to be challenged, and then, too, there was a great deal of gassy cant about the bold new world that would emerge when all the wicked old structures had been swept away. (Look at Mark Morford’s sweet little satire, “Die, newspaper, die?”) I didn’t learn the lessons of The Greening of America the first time, but am I condemned to repeat them?