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Monday, July 23, 2007

"Goodbye to Newspapers?"

This is Russell Baker with an analysis of the fate of newspapers in the internet age, the failure of the press in the run-up to the Iraq war, and other issues. This is part of a much longer essay:

Goodbye to Newspapers?, Book Review by Russell Baker, NY Review of Books: ...The American press has the blues. Too many ... good newspapers are in ruins. It has lost too much public respect. Courts ... now taunt it with insolent subpoenas... It is abused relentlessly on talk radio and in Internet blogs. It is easily bullied into acquiescing in the designs of a presidential propaganda machine determined to dominate the news. Its advertising and circulation are being drained away by the Internet, and its owners seem stricken by a failure of ... entrepreneurial imagination...

Then there are the embarrassments: hoaxers like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass turn journalism into farce. The elite Washington press corps is bamboozled into helping a circle of neoconservative connivers create the Iraq war. What became of heroes? Journalists used to dine out on the deeds of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate; of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Malcolm Browne in Vietnam; of "Punch" Sulzberger and Kay Graham risking everything to publish the Pentagon Papers. Instead of heroes, today's table talk is about journalistic frauds and a Washington press too dim to stay out of a three-card-monte game.

Rupert Murdoch of course has long spread melancholy in newsrooms around the world, but it was the disclosure in May that the Bancroft family, which controls The Wall Street Journal, might be ready to sell him their paper ... that really struck at journalism's soul. ... The Wall Street Journal is not another newspaper. It is one of the proudest pillars of American journalism. Like The New York Times and The Washington Post, it has for generations been controlled by descendants of a founding patriarch.

Family control has sheltered all three newspapers from Wall Street's most insistent demands, allowing them to do high-quality—and high cost— journalism. It was said, and widely believed, that the controlling families were animated by a high-minded sense that their papers were quasi-public institutions. Of course profit was essential to their survival, but it was not the primary purpose of their existence. That one of these families might finally take the money and clear out heightens fears that no newspaper is so valuable to the republic that it cannot be knocked down at market for a nice price. Murdoch at the Journal is a dark omen for journalists everywhere. ...

Papers everywhere [feel] relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing, or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country, and the local community. ...

2. ...Neil Henry's ... book is concerned with...: How does the Internet affect what we still call "the press"? Is "blogging" the journalism of the future? How can the journalist avoid being manipulated by the vast and deadly effective propaganda machinery of government and business? ...

Blogging is ..[an] interesting development, perhaps because bloggers are so passionate about it. It is a valuable restraint on careless and sloppy journalism, for the vigilance of the bloggers misses not the slightest error or the least omission, and the fury of their rage is terrible to bear. Committed bloggers insist that they are practicing journalism... Anyone wishing to debate the point must be ready to argue all night and well into next week. What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.

Like so many who comment on journalism these days, the authors of When the Press Fails—three journalism professors—are angry about the press's flabby performance at the time when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co. were stoking public appetite for war in Iraq. Everyone, including most journalists, seems to agree that the press did a rotten job, but whether a superb job would have defeated the neocons' determination to have their war is another question. Following events fairly closely at the time, I thought nothing could stop them. For one thing, the lust for war had the public in its grip. For another, Congress, the one force powerful enough to resist presidential follies, though not always to prevent them, had ceased to function as an effective arm of government and was utterly useless for much of anything beyond cheering the President on...

Finally, credit the administration with a masterful job of deception. ... Despite Congress's humiliating performance, the idea that the press could have averted the disaster is slow to die. ... [T]he book's authors expect more of the press than it is built to deliver. ...

While the authors may overestimate the press's power, their analysis of the weaknesses of Washington journalism deserves close attention. Assignment to Washington is one of the highest prizes a newspaper has to offer, and not surprisingly the Washington press is an elite group: well-educated, well-paid, talented, at ease among the mighty, a bit smug perhaps about knowing secrets others don't, but for the most part sensitive to an obligation to keep the public informed without fear or prejudice. Yet they failed this obligation during the Bush years, the authors of When The Press Fails contend, partly because of their tendency to defer excessively to power.

Their "deference to power" was not a newly hatched product of the Bush era, according to the authors, but a habit "deeply ingrained and continually reinforced in the culture and routines of mainstream journalism." It is a habit that makes Washington journalists vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful and indifferent to dissent and protest. Dissenters and protesters are often dismissed as "mavericks," suggesting they are not to be taken too seriously. ...

At its most damaging, deference to power means a readiness to tell the narrative of government as the powerful tell it. ... The writers of When the Press Fails refer to this Bushian "reality" as a "script" and criticize the Washington press for accepting it as reality, even when, as during the Iraq war, "that script seemed bizarrely out of line with observable events."

Contrary to popular impression, there was some very good journalism as the administration rushed toward war. There was articulate dissent, too, even at the Capitol when the war resolution was being rushed through Congress. The press simply did not give it much attention since, for one thing it came from people out of power—Senators Kennedy of Massachusetts and Byrd of West Virginia, for instance, both Democrats. ...

Contrary to the impression that the entire Washington press was sleepwalking, there was also some good investigative reporting. ... But too often ... their reports were tucked discreetly inside the paper. Walter Pincus ..., for example, ...[said] the Post's editors "went through a whole phase in which they didn't put things on the front page that would make a difference." ...

Walcott of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau ... never accepted the administration's "script." But here was another flaw in Washington journalism: Knight Ridder's reporting ... had no influence at all on the rest of the press; because Knight Ridder had no paper in Washington, its reporting was not read there.

This may reflect something worse than a Washington press corps asleep at the switch. John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder, ... said the Washington press had had a problem worse than timidity and too much coziness with power:

There was simple laziness: Much of what the administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, simply made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out.

It also took a little courage to irritate [the] White House... Challenging the "script" invited punishment by White House enforcers. Knight Ridder reporters were barred from traveling on the secretary of defense's airplane for three years because their coverage had differed from the "script." ...

Through the conservative right's vast talk-radio amplifier, journalists who challenged the "script" were accused of bias, unpatriotic motives, indifference to the lives of American soldiers, and even treasonous intent. Talk radio can now deliver casual round-the-clock slander with impunity since, for one thing, there is not much public support for aggressive reporting anymore. For years, there has been an effective campaign by political conservatives to depict the press as a false messenger spreading negativity and poisoning minds with leftist bias. ... Political "hosts" on round-the-clock news stations repeat the message tirelessly.

One result has been a widening disconnection between public and press. It is evident in the public's changed view of the working journalist. ... To the average person today, Henry writes, "a Journalist is the television talker who is paid a considerable retainer to regularly make noise on cable news programs." The person hosting the program is a Journalist, too, drawing down big money "not to seek out and report the news but to entertain an audience with a certain glibness and an argumentative personality." ...

Whether the press "could have averted the disaster" or not, and as it stands we'll never know, I think we should have expected and received far more from the press than Baker believes it is "built to deliver."

    Posted by on Monday, July 23, 2007 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (15)

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