Last week, Jack Shafer called out the idea that newspapers are essential to enlightened democracy as a big bunch of self-deluded hooey:
Until the current newspaper crisis, you rarely heard politicians or activists bleating about how important newspapers were to self-government. They mostly bitched about what awful failures newspapers were at uncovering vital data. The only group that holds a consistently high opinion of newspapers is newspaper people. They’re the ones who do the bragging about how newspapers enrich democracy by uncovering pollution, malfeasance in office, abuses of power, and unsafe consumer goods…
The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.
Me, I think journalism is (among other things) good for democracy, and newspapers are a pretty good way to read things in print. So I took Shafer’s rant as half a useful corrective and half an enjoyable self-contained bit of contrarian crankiness.
But then I read this striking juxtaposition in LISNews, and I thought — hmm: maybe something less wholesome is going on with all this hymn-to-democracy talk:
At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.)
See also Brian Tierney, publisher of the now-bankrupt Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, who made a whole lot of noise about the virtues of a locally-owned paper while taking on a ton of debt, extracting pound-of-flesh concessions from labor, and awarding himself raises and bonuses before it all kinda fell apart.
So to review:
- Sometimes when people are going on-and-on about how virtuous and essential their industry is, they’re actually trying to Mickey-Finn you into letting them do whatever they want;
- A lot of people who really like the idea of good local journalism and even really like newsprint in their hands really don’t like their local newspaper — either because of what they read (or don’t read) or because of what they know the paper is doing or has done, in many cases to people they know. We can’t lose sight of that.