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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

All The News Fit To Print?

Yesterday, the NYT saw fit to link to SC&A. Far be it from us to question the Times editorial policy, but an article in Commentary, Are Newspapers Doomed?, does shed light on newspapers in today's changing world.
"Clearly," said Adam to Eve as they departed the Garden of Eden, "we’re living in an age of transition." A joke, of course- but also not quite a joke, because when has the history of the world been anything other than one damned transition after another? Yet sometimes, in certain realms, transitions seem to stand out with utter distinctiveness, and this seems to be the case with the fortune of printed newspapers at the present moment. As a medium and as an institution, the newspaper is going through an age of transition in excelsis, and nobody can confidently say how it will end or what will come next.

The article, by Joseph Epstein, goes on to talk about declining newspaper readership, worldwide (so much for the myth of the better informed Europeans).

For those of us who grew up with newspapers in our daily regimen, sometimes with not one but two newspapers in our homes, it is all a bit difficult to take in...

The degree of respect then accorded the syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann is hard to imagine in our own time. In good part, his cachet derived from his readers’ belief not only in his intelligence but in his impartiality. Lippmann, it was thought, cared about what was best for the country; he wasn’t already lined up; you couldn’t be certain which way he would go.

I do subscribe to the New York Times, which I read without a scintilla of glee... I rarely give the daily Times more than a half-hour, if that...

The arts section, which in the Times is increasingly less about the arts and more about television, rock ’n’ roll, and celebrity, does not detain me long...
And so it goes. Readers of newspapers once demanded thoughtful and deliberate reporting, so that they might be better informed. Now, readers demand 'egocasting,' on demand entertainment and even news. Where the source of information originates has become less important. This is important because rather than set a higher bar, newspapers and other purveyors of information have chosen to compete with dumbed down, entertainment oriented media.

Simply put, the New York Times doesn't compete with the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post. The competition today is The Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken. Commentary on culture competes with Entertainment Tonight, Extra TV or Inside Edition. These programs are often aired just after network news, as if they were a natural successor to the hard news of the day.

"Instead of beginning their day with coffee and the newspaper, there to read what editors have selected for their enlightenment, people, and young people in particular, wait for a free moment to go online. No longer need they wade through thickets of stories and features of no interest to them, and least of all need they do so on the websites of newspapers, where the owners are hoping to regain the readers lost to print. Instead, they go to more specialized purveyors of information, including instant-messaging providers, targeted news sites, blogs, and online “zines."
Readers do not afford newspapers any special credibility. Why should they? Of course, the conversation would be incomplete without mention of the blogosphere.
"The only place to get a reasonably straight account of news about Israel and the Palestinians, according to Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, is in the blogosphere."
Newspapers aren't even in the same loop when it comes to reporting on the Middle East. Why? Because the issues of the Middle East reflect a wider agenda, played out in domestic politics at home and in Europe. Apparently, those agendas trump reporting and honesty in the Middle East. While it is clear that the same biases can be found in other media, it is just as clear that the printed media considers itself a more reliable and thoughtful source of information.

In fact, it isn't just Middle East politics that are fodder for an agendized media.

Another argument appears to have been won, too, and again to the detriment of the papers. This is the argument over politics, which the newspapers brought upon themselves and which, in my view, they richly deserved to lose.

One could put together an impressive little anthology of utterances by famous Americans on the transcendent importance of the press as a guardian watchdog of the state. Perhaps the most emphatic was that of Thomas Jefferson, who held that freedom of the press, right up there with freedom of religion and freedom of the person under the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, was among “the principles [that] form the bright constellation which has gone before us, and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.” Even today, not many people would disagree with this in theory; but like the character in a Tom Stoppard play, many would add: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the damned newspapers I can’t stand...”

Besides making for a strictly adversarial relationship between government and the press, there is no denying that investigative journalism, whatever (very mixed) accomplishments it can claim to its credit, has put in place among us a tone and temper of agitation and paranoia. Every day, we are asked to regard the people we elect to office as, essentially, our enemies—thieves, thugs, and megalomaniacs whose vicious secret deeds it is the chief function of the press to uncover and whose persons to bring down in a glare of publicity.

All this might have been to the good if what the journalists discovered were invariably true—and if the nature and the implications of that truth were left for others to puzzle out. Frequently, neither has been the case...”

No wonder, then, that the prestige of mainstream journalism, which reached perhaps an all-time high in the early 1970’s at the time of Watergate, has now badly slipped. According to most studies of the question, journalists tend more and more to be regarded by Americans as unaccountable kibitzers whose self-appointed job is to spread dissension, increase pressure on everyone, make trouble—and preach the gospel of present-day liberalism. Aiding this deserved fall in reputation has been a series of well-publicized scandals like the rise and fall of the reporter Jayson Blair at the New York Times.

...Most contemporary journalists, by contrast, attend schools of journalism or study the humanities and social sciences. Here the reigning politics are liberal, and along with their degrees, and their sense of enlightened virtue, they emerge with locked-in political views. According to Jim A. Kuypers in Press Bias and Politics, 76 percent of journalists who admit to having a politics describe themselves as liberal. The consequences are predictable: even as they employ their politics to tilt their stories, such journalists sincerely believe they are (a) merely telling the truth and (b) doing good in the world.”

The article is better than a double espresso.