How Stupor Killed the Fourth Estate
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, September 1, 2006
The Economist this week flashingly declares the demise of newspapers, but only to catch our attention. The Economist is never that bleak. Nor would it even be when it’s itself concerned: The Economist has always proudly referred to itself as a “newspaper.” It’s not about to project its own funeral, except as a selling device. Its arresting cover does the job. Nevertheless it cites Philip Meyer’s “The Vanishing newspaper,” where Meyer predicts that newsprint will actually die in 2043 (isn’t that the year Social Security is due to go into deficit?). It mentions that the newspaper industry lost 18 percent of its work force between 1990 and 2004, that the readership is dying off throughout the West (but not in Asia), and that newspapers are themselves reducing their investment in journalism, going for more fluff and freebie stuff, and creating side and silly businesses to survive. None of which is news. All of which spells doom. The Economist begs to differ: “Democracy, remember, has already survived the huge television-led decline in circulation since the 1950s. It has survived as readers have shunned papers and papers have shunned what was in stuffier times thought of as serious news. And it will surely survive the decline to come.”
It’s true that “Anyone looking for information has never been better equipped. People no longer have to trust a handful of national papers or, worse, their local city paper.” But it’s just as true that personal time has diminished, the time to read, the time to aggregate news on one’s own, the time to reflect on it has also diminished, leaving it even more in the hands of the frilly and the fluffy to fill the news vacuum. Think Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, Anderson Cooper. Think about that bland salt substitute anchoring NBC Nightly news (did you see him pretend to be interviewing Bush in New Orleans, and Bush pretend to be answering?). Think Time and Newsweek, whose content approximates the density of helium without the laughs. Think the zoologically minded intelligence quotient of talk radio, and then wade through the internet’s explosion of self-indulgence. Sure, valuable information is there for those who seek it. But that’s the wrong measure. What matters in our selectively open society isn’t what’s available, what’s accessible, what’s “allowed” to be said. What matters is what dribbles into the mainstream, that placid middle mass where all relevant opinions are formed (those opinions that decide our elections), where information is translated into the acceptable, the conventional, the sanitized. In other words, the censored and the Good Housekeeping-certified. The information was there in 2002, for anyone who sought it out, about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs and the Bush administration’s all-too persistent compulsion to lie. Those who did seek it out found it.
But who really sought it out? What passed for news on the mainstream outlets parroted the vacuity of the administration in cheap, low-production and uncritical reporting that has come to represent the paradox of today’s audience: it is saturated in information; it is in a near desert of critically valuable news. (This isn’t new, either: “One thing is clear,” Camus wrote in 1944, well before the advent of television and the allegedly, exclusively stupid American public, “the news that is fed to our newspapers today—news which they print as they receive it—is useless without critical commentary.” He would have been, he actually was, a terrific blogger. Wasn;t that what his work was about at Combat?) The Economist is confusing bulk and choice with value. The gulf between the two is proportionate to the deficit in civically minded, constructive, instructed public discourse. Oprah and Tom Cruise aren’t it. Knowing when you’re being snowed by Dick Cheney is. But that knowing has been eroded and dispersed—by media more interested in obscenely large-margin profits (who has ever heard of a standard profit margin of 22 to 25 percent except in the newspaper industry?), by a public too hassled and overworked to demand better, by public schooling too mediocre to produce more critical readers and viewers, and, let’s admit it, by journalism schools that have been producing reporters as dull, dumb and incurious as writing workshops have been graduating indigestible short story writers.
But let’s not pine for a non-existent golden age, either: “In the town where I began there were five papers,” Mencken wrote in the mid-1920s, “and four of them were cheap, trashy, stupid and corrupt. They all played politics for what there was in it, and leaped obscenely every time an advertiser blew his nose. Every other American city of that era was full of such papers—dreadful little rags, venal, vulnerable and vile. Not a few of them made great pretensions, and were accepted by a naïve public as organs of the enlightenment. To-day, I believe, such journalistic street-walkers are very rare.” Nevertheless, he added, “American journalism suffers from too many golf-players.” Plus ça change.
The Internet is bringing out talent in droves, upending assumptions and presumptions, redefining information with every byte. But so are the mainstreamers and their pandering, thus returning us to the days of journalistic street-walkers with presumptions of gloss for a difference. The question is more relevant today than in Mencken’s time: no matter how good your quality, where is it getting society if there’s no one, no critical mass, to see it? If the news as the mass understands it is elsewhere, and nowhere near what “news” as a civically responsible engagement with society—as something Camus would have been proud of—should be, then what’s the use? It’s not as if the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal at their investigative best—and they’re damn fine newspapers day in and day out, no matter how fun it is to use them as target practice—haven’t broken every necessary story even in the past five years. Paul Krugman called George Bush a liar on the campaign trail in 2000, when he added up Bush’s numbers about tax cuts and paying down the debt and ensuring Social Security’s solvency. Krugman was called shrill or ignored. James Risen of the Times (an eventual Pulitzer winner) called out Bush on his Iraq lies before the invasion. He was relegated to the inside pages. What’s her name, the Miller one, was given front-page treatment and credence. The Post exposed the black sites. Every other newspaper exposed the folly of Guantanamo, not to mention a few Supreme Court judges along the way. To what end? We’re still where we were four and three years ago. The president is still going around, banging his war drums and revisiting his electoral scripts from 2002 and 2004. And it’s working. The information is out there. The critical ears aren’t.
That leaves us with the dispiriting notion that even if this were newspapers’ golden age, it’s not as if we’re better off with them—or rather, that democracy has been better safeguarded by them, now that the general public and its mainstream stand-ins for news have made clear that what matters isn’t democracy or being civically minded, but a good dose of bread and circuses, a good dose of reassurances, no matter how deceptive, and nothing too bothersome otherwise. The fringes can always have their say. And the final truth is that even the nation’s best newspapers are now at the fringes of what the mass market wants to hear. The Times, the Post, the Economist: they’re glamorized bloggers, as fantastically talented as they are marginal. That, in reality, is the real death of the newspaper: Democracy’s moment as a functioning, critical civilization is over. Tinker with the newspapers all you want. The medium isn’t the problem. It’s the message. And the message is: Most people just don’t want to bother. Most people disdain serious news. Most people disdain any medium that presumes to make them think. Mass-market anti-intellectualism has always been a norm in American society. Mass-market anti-reflection is now the new normal. News as critical reflection, news as change agent, as the fourth-estate, is not just irrelevant. It's dead.