In the world of letters, disdain for the popular press comes free of charge with an advanced degree. It's always amusing to see how academics diagnose the problems of the news industry and then offer solutions that look awfully like that well-known, profits-assured business model, the fully subsidized university.
The latest example of this condemnation-prescription combo comes in Commentary, from the esteemed Joseph Epstein.
Epstein describes a news nirvana that survives in his memory and is based on a reality that never existed, a utopia in which ink-stained, ill-educated drunks in newsrooms nationwide produced unbiased accounts of the events of the day that miraculously avoided the pitfalls of journalism--self-importance, political bias, and appeals to man's most base qualities.
Somehow, the entrance of college-educated folk into the news business undermined this era of good feelings and brought us into the world we inhabit, in which the so-called great newspapers are inaccurate, liberal, dumbed down, celebrity-obsessed and irrelevant.
Epstein's solution: smarten up the papers, lead the readers into what they should know instead of catering to what they want to know, and go back to the times when editors decided what people should know rather than letting a million bloggers decide what's important.
I don't know what planet the old man resides on, but I do know this: We live in a world of choices, and yes, many of those choices are false and illusory (Yahoo's news is the same as Google's news is the same as your local TV station's news and so on, because they're all reductions of the copy from your local newspaper, disseminated via the Associated Press), but the way people consume news has changed, and thereâ€™s no going back to the wonder days of the 1940s.
More important, those wonder days never existed. The news then was the real lapdog. Neither the left nor the right likes to hear it, but sorry folks, we live in the tail end of the golden age of reporting, which hit its peak in the 1970s and 80s. Go back and read any newspaper from the 1940s or 50s and you will be appalled by the lack of ambition and the unsatisfying prose. There's almost no meat on the bone. Yes, journalism has declined in the past 20 years, as wave upon wave of costcutting has eliminated many of the reporting resources, especially in broadcasting and at local newspapers owned by huge public companies. But even second-tier newspapers still attempt accountability and investigative reporting here and there. And every blogger knows just how heavily the blogosphere depends on original reporting from the declining world of newspapers.
Epstein is right that newspapers are vanishing before our eyes. But his solution is just plain silly. Of course, the answer is to be even more essential and ambitious and daring. But you can't begin to do that if you're laying off 40 percent of the staff every year.
The next phase of our news reality is very much in play. We could end this decade with Google or Yahoo owning vast networks of newsrooms in which reporters churn out more useful and effective local news coverage than anything we've seen before, or we could end the decade with pretty good-sized American cities having no daily newspaper at all and no dependable source of information on the public doings of their communities. It all depends on how the advertising, retail and corporate journalism worlds alter their business models and structures. More on that another time. What we do know now is that the glory days of 1940s journalism are not coming back, primarily because they never existed.
By Marc Fisher |
January 5, 2006; 8:40 AM ET
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