Journalism in decline

Yeah, they’re always saying that, but the ways in which they get it wrong are fascinating.

Someone posted to the list serve for the National Conference of Editorial Writers a link to a screed by Chris Hedges in the declinist genre. He said:

Subject: Newsrooms Article
This is a terrific, if scary, commentary about our business.

Erm, “terrific” isn’t the word I’d choose. “Terrible,” yeah. I wrote:

This is a piece of meretricious claptrap, endless cliches tossed together without thought, all in order to lead up to the concluding line, a ringing affirmation of the author’s Bush Derangement Syndrome:

“And the citizens in these degraded societies, [Cicero] warned, always end up ruled by a despot, a Nero or a George W. Bush.”

This deserves a full fisking, but I’m taking a break from deadline so this’ll have to do (still long, though).

The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.

For those of you who missed the memo, Noam Chomsky has been mewling about the rise of the corporate state for decades. Hedges never minded that at all because the corporate state’s agenda was aligned with his. What needs explaining is why the corporate state, in the form of big media companies, used to coin money and now is hemorrhaging it. To dismiss the relevance of the Internet in this context is obtuse.

The loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world.

As far as I can tell, Rupert Murdoch is every whit as driven by civic and public responsibility as Pinch Sulzberger. He’s certainly a more successful entrepreneur. (Which direction they’re driven, and whether you like it, is a separate question.)

Some 6,000 journalists nationwide have lost their jobs, news pages are being radically cut back and newspaper stocks have tumbled. Advertising revenues are dramatically falling off with many papers seeing double-digit drops.

Indeed, compelling evidence of rising influence.

Newspapers, when well run, are a public trust.

If newspapers are a public trust, they are so without regard to whether they are “well run.”

They keep citizens engaged with their cultural, civic and political life.

They can, I suppose, though the extent to which they ever did is debatable, but so can other media, including the Internet, where even non-citizens can be engaged.

When I began as a foreign correspondent 25 years ago, most major city papers had bureaus in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Moscow.

I can’t claim Hedges’ antiquity, having first walked through a newsroom door as an employee on the last day of 1988. But I doubt this was ever true to any significant degree. Because of the vast distances in America, newspapers moved toward reliance on wire services for coverage of international, national, and often state news in the middle of the 19th century — the AP dates from before the Civil War. Such “major city papers” as had foreign bureaus were mostly the flagship papers of chains that financed them through their wire services.

Reporters and photographers showed Americans how the world beyond our borders looked, thought and believed.

Some of them, sometimes. Others, not so much. Consider Duranty on the Soviet Union, or the remaining American reporters and photographers in Iraq, who’ve stopped reporting or come home now that there’s good news to report.

Anyway, why would we need them there now? You want to know how the world beyond our borders looks, thinks and believes, read the Economist or the Guardian or both. Not to mention Al-Jazeera and Xinhua. Put your subscription money in a tipjar for Michael Yon, or Michael Totten. You want engaged, you’ve got it.

News-gathering will continue to exist, as it does on this Web site and sites such as ProPublica and Slate, but these traditions now have to contend with a new, widespread and ideologically driven partisanship that dominates the dissemination of views and information, from Fox News to blogger screeds.

Nothing new about “widespread and ideologically driven partisanship,” he merely notices now because his ideology no longer has a monopoly. Otherwise, why cite Fox News but not CBS and 60 Minutes?

The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting. Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn’t care what you think.

Ideally, yes, but unfortunately it is very difficult to perceive information that contradicts what you think. Opinion journalists who know that can be far better reporters than journalists who imagine themselves above bias.

To this crowd, I think I can safely observe that people whose job is putting opinion into their writing are better at keeping it out than people who fondly believe they never do that.

Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors. . . . Facts, for many bloggers, are interchangeable with opinions.

Established reporters, and their editors, and their publishers, have to be dragged kicking and screaming to admit errors. Case in point: the Rocky Mountain News, where I used to work, has said at least five separate times this year that the Republican National Convention will be in Minneapolis. No, it’s St. Paul, and yes, I told them. They’ve promised not to do it any more, but I don’t think any of the stories have been corrected.

The line between fact and opinion is not so bright as people think, and when you spend all your days in the company of people who share the same opinion it comes to look very much like a fact. (Is it a fact, or an opinion, that the Earth is 6,000 years old?)

When there is a long piece on the Internet, most of us have to print it out to get through it.

By “most of us,” Hedges means “I.” Even if what he says is true, how would he know?

Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., General Electric and Viacom control nearly everything we read, watch, hear and ultimately think.

“Whaddya mean ‘we,’ white man?”

And news that does not make a profit, as well as divert viewers from civic participation and challenging the status quo, is not worth pursuing.

“News that does not . . . challenging the status quo is not worth pursuing.” Let’s run that through the syntax machine one more time.

Corporations are not in the business of news. They hate news, real news. Real news is not convenient to their rape of the nation. Real news makes people ask questions. They prefer to close the prying eyes of reporters.

According to Hedges, supra, corporations’ turn away from what he thinks is “real news” is responsible for the free-fall in their stock prices. So which narrative is he plugging here?

A democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial sources of information, when it can discern lies from truth. Take this away and a democracy dies.

In what imaginary golden age did any democracy depend for its survival on “trustworthy and impartial sources of information”? The Roman Republic did not decay, nor the Empire fall, for lack of crusading newspapers or from the popular taste for spectacles in the arena. Ruinous taxation or the debasement of the currency contributed, but then as now those ills are to be laid at the feet of government. Not corporations, as none then existed.

And in conclusion, to return to my starting place:

And the citizens in these degraded societies, he warned, always end up ruled by a despot, a Nero or a George W. Bush.

Apart from the ludicrous anticlimax, it is improbable that Cicero warned anybody about Nero, as he died many years before that notorious emperor was born. He was, however, a defender of the Republic in its last days, and lost his head for picking the wrong side. They knew how to do despotism right in those days.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jim Miller for the link from his blog Miller on Politics

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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2 Responses to Journalism in decline

  1. Jim Miller says:

    Great post!

    I almost added that you wasted it on a dope, but then I remembered the positions this failed preacher has held, and the awards that he has won.

  2. Erich Martel says:

    Hi Linda,
    I was trying to find your email address. I take it you’re a journalist in residence at Carleton or researching the truth of Jesse James’ first heist.

    At any rate, I now know why my email to RMN was returned.

    I was one of the people whose comments you reported in your 7/1/05 column on advice to the new supt in Denver. I am a history teacher at Wilson HS in Washington, D.C. Our chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is proposing a contract that would give current teachers two salary track options. One, pay for performance promises up to $20,000 per year bonus for improved student achievement (based on an as yet unknown mix of test results and ???) in return for giving up tenure and seniority rights.
    Since Denver was offered as an example (which EdWeek recently described as being in trouble), I wanted to know if you had any insights or information or recommended sites/ed reporters, etc. that would help me inform my colleagues.
    Erich Martel
    Wilson HS
    Washington, D.C.