I want to propose to you this evening a quasi-utopian vision of journalism’s future. It is utopian because it pictures a better array of public informational resources emerging now than we have ever had. As I will argue, this is in part a product of the Internet; but it is also in part a product of a surprisingly recent professionalization in journalism; a remarkable profitability of news organizations in recent decades; and a cultural presumption of public-ness that began to emerge in the 1960s.
The utopia I picture is only “quasi” because I do not have any faith in utopia or utopians. There is always a devil in the details, for one thing and often the details matter more than the grand visions. At any rate, what is emerging does not come out of any single grand vision – that is its beauty. Utopian visions tend to be totalizing and the virtues of a liberal society that I cherish are anything but. The informational future that is approaching is right for liberalism. The liberal society hopes for unity but only within a world that honors and makes safe diversity; the liberal society hopes for common values and collective action but only when personal liberty and individual privacy are respected and guarded under law. And the liberal society recognizes its own incompleteness, its own revisability, and its own contradictions. This is a recipe, I think, for a good society, which is to say, a messy one.
My vision is less than utopian also because one of the sorts of social heterogeneity that I believe useful for a society is a heterogeneity of competence based on specialization and expertise. In my world of universities, I like it that the social science faculty has the greatest role in appointing social scientists, the law faculty in appointing law professors. I would not want the sociologists to have a large role in appointments to the medical school or the medical school to have much say in appointing sociologists. If you feel otherwise, come to see me when you’re having chest pains – I have a Ph.D. in sociology.
I will get to the reasons why I think the emerging information ecology can and very likely will produce a better journalistic environment than we have seen before. But a necessary preface to this argument requires that we assess how good journalism has been to this point. As it turns out, we have few serious studies of journalistic quality over time. So what I have to say about this is speculative and opinionated but I will do my best to justify the conclusion that one reason that the emerging journalism has a chance to be better than the journalism of the near past is that past journalism, to put it kindly, did not set the bar very high. I say this with the greatest admiration for the best achievements of contemporary American journalism. You cannot read the Pulitzer Prize winning news stories without taking off your cap in recognition of remarkable writing, frequently remarkable courage, imagination, and fortitude, and often the kind of dogged research that deserves not just a Pulitzer Prize but a Ph.D.
Even so, most of the 40,000 or so journalists writing for daily newspapers most of the time are producing work that is routine and, more often than one would like, trivial. On the whole, so far as I can judge, journalism before the late 1960s was generally superficial, often servile, usually unambitious, narrowly focused on government, almost devoid of critical inquiry about business, inattentive to the professions, the universities, the environment, women, minorities, schools, the family. If there was a golden age of American journalism, it began around 1965-70 and lasted for a generation. There were plenty of problems with that journalism, too, but it was our best. In some publications, it has not stopped. It continues right into the economic crisis of 2008-09 and in complicated ways endures to this day. I would be very surprised to find studies of the content of the New York Times that would discover enterprise, investigative depth, or a cosmopolitan attitude to be more impressive on any date before, say, 1968 than it is in 2010. (Were more books reviewed in the Sunday book section? Yes. But I do not think this stands in for the increased quality of front-page news or, for that matter, an increased sophistication in reporting on culture and the arts.) And in 2008 and 2009 and 2010 there have been stories of extraordinary worth – difficult to have researched, shrewd in analysis, stunningly detailed, enterprising in going beyond the reigning public agenda politicians discuss, digging beneath and behind the conventional public declarations of the day.
I wish I could assert this story of journalistic progress over the past several decades with unimpeachable authority. I cannot. It is not so easy to assess change, not without major content analysis studies, few of which have ever been undertaken. But here are the bits of evidence that influence my own thinking:
1. All scholars and most journalists who have written about this see the
1960s as a major point of transition in which the American news media became significantly more critical of established authority. Meg Greenfield, who began her career in Washington journalism in 1961, before the transformations of the sixties, recalls in her 2001 memoir (published just after her death in 1999) that “We, especially some of us in the journalism business, were much too gullible and complaisant in the old days. Just as a matter of republican principle, the hushed, reverential behavior (Quiet! Policy is being made here!) had gotten out of hand. It encouraged public servants to believe they could get away with anything – and they did.” (88-89) In her view, what she calls “the great change” (83) began in the late 1960s. It broke down a “mystique” that said that “the people in charge in Washington knew best. They could make things happen if they wanted to. Almost all of them were acting in good faith. And they were entitled to both privacy and discretion to do what they judged necessary for the nation’s well-being.”
Greenfield adds that no one believes that anymore and “practically no one admits to ever having believed it – which is a bald-faced lie for hundreds or thousands of people in Washington. So I’ll confess: I believed it. My approach to the public people I covered was that they were basically honest, competent, and usually effective.”
Other journalists recall similar things. And it is very easy to provide examples from the 1950s of journalists showing extraordinary deference to politicians or even colluding with politicians they were presumably reporting about. For my purposes here, I will simply let Greenfield’s recollections stand in for all the others. And I will tell you on another occasion how, in 1945 when James Reston for the New York Times and Walter Lippmann in his syndicated column covered a path-breaking speech of Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg that, as it happens, Reston and Lippmann had written for him.
2. Some longitudinal studies demonstrate in quantitative terms what
Greenfield recalls anecdotally: journalism grew more critical over time. Steve Clayman and John Heritage at UCLA examined a sample of presidential press conferences from 1952 through 2000 and did a close analysis of the questions reporters posed at those conferences. Over this half a century, questioning grew more critical, more persistent, and more aggressive. Surely this is in part a matter of style rather than substance, but style matters and a style/substance divide is not a hard and fast one. Yes, journalists had to demonstrate to their colleagues that they were tough – but why did they not have to do so in 1952? The questions at the very least show the growth of a norm among journalists in Washington that their job was to be critical, that they were to be watchdogs of government and not a part of a governing operation. If “watchdog” journalism or “accountability” journalism is the center of journalistic merit, there was more of it or at the very least more of a performance of it in 2000 than in 1952.
This research is supported by independent studies by Thomas Patterson that also find journalists growing more critical, more skeptical, tougher, and less cooperative over time in covering Washington. For example, he found that presidential candidates have been treated more and more negatively from l960 through l992 in Newsweek and Time coverage. Newspaper and television coverage of candidates gravitated from reports of candidate speeches to analysis of the political strategy behind the speeches – implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, communicating the message that politicians take the stands they do only in order to get elected. This may be a pat and prissy oversimplification itself, but it is one clearly encouraged by the growing legitimacy of critical and aggressive reporting since the late 1960s.
Spurred by the experience of Vietnam and Watergate, and encouraged
by obliging younger government officials who were also deeply affected by Vietnam and willing to provide reporters inside information, journalists in the l970s sought multiple sources for stories than earlier would have been covered by just citing a high government official. A new skepticism flourished and received blessings from the news establishment. Newspapers developed special teams for investigative reporting; even the Associated Press in l967 created a “special assignment team” to report on “the submerged dimension” in government. Investigative Reporters and Editors (I.R.E.) was organized in l975 and still exists as a professional association to advance the cause of investigative journalism
3. A study by Carl Sessions Stepp in the American Journalism
Review shows that between 1964 and 1999, in a sample of ten leading metropolitan daily newspapers, the news hole doubled. The percentage of total news represented by international, national, and local hard news declined (while sports coverage and business coverage grew significantly), but the absolute quantity of this hard political news increased by 25%. Stepp also found that there were fewer very short stories – stories of six inches or less; and there was a growth in the number of stories that ran 20 inches or more. Granted, there were fewer newspapers in 1999 than in 1964 in the ten cities examined, but it is not clear how much of a loss that was; overlap between two papers would have been quite high, particularly on national and international news.
Stepp’s own judgment is that the 1999 newspapers were “by almost any measure, far superior to their 1960s counterparts: better written, better looking, better organized, more responsible, less sensational, less sexist and racist, and more informative and public-spirited than they are often given credit for.” The bad news, in Stepp’s judgment, along with this good news, is that the 1999 papers are “less flavorful, less surprising, and – distressingly – less imbued with a distinctive sense of place.”[i] To me, this sounds like: “The cake is much better than it was, and there’s more of it, but the frosting is missing here and there.”
4. Coverage expanded from politics to other phases of public life. Hobart
“Bart” Rowen, business editor of the Washington Post for many years, said in a 1992 interview that he came into his field in 1966 when “the paper’s advertising salesmen routinely delivered to the newsroom press releases from major advertisers, ‘a not-too-subtle way of making sure the handouts got into the paper.’” As he said, “the financial section of most large newspapers, The Washington Post included, was a dumping ground. The business editor…was there to rewrite the handouts, and in other ways to keep local advertisers happy, not to make waves. Payola at Christmas time was acceptable practice. In short, business news reporting was a true backwater of the news business.” The growth of business reporting from the 1960s to the 1990s was not only a quantitative increase in reporting but the production of at least some good and critical journalism in the 1990s when essentially none had existed in 1965.
Of course, Rowen’s experience was at the Washington Post and it
was not in 1965 anything like the distinguished national paper it would become in the 1970s. Still, Rowen’s remarks are significant, I think. They indicate in one newspaper what I strongly suspect characterized the vast majority of newspapers – a complaisance, an acceptance of a “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” set of routines. I picture a field of colorful characters, some clever writers, the occasional bright young man on the way up, but people mostly local rather than cosmopolitan in their orientation, not particularly well educated, not particularly knowledgeable or curious about whether there might be a better way or an alternative way to run their news operation or for the local politicians to run their city.
Business news, of course, was not alone in its growth. Nor was growth
in coverage generated so much internally as it was by a changing understanding in the broad culture of what counted and who counted in news coverage. Internally, there was for the first time in the history of U.S. journalism a recognition that the narrow demography of the newsroom contributed to a narrow focus in news coverage – there were few minority employees at all, and the relatively few women were largely confined to writing about fashion and high society. When Meg Greenfield came to Washington as the national correspondent for The Reporter magazine in 1961, replacing Douglass Cater, Cater took her to the National Press Club to show her where she could consult the Associated Press wire ticker. They were informed that women not only could not be members of the Club but could not enter its premises except on special social occasions that included them as guests. She would have to keep up with the wire service in some other way.
I am eager for more evidence on changes over time in the quality of
American reporting and solicit you for your best evidence. If some of the evidence runs contrary to what I am suggesting here, so be it. But at this point, everything I know suggests that American journalism before the late 1960s was less diverse, less critical, less investigative, and less thoughtful than it would become thereafter. All of this was produced by a mutually reinforcing mix of profit, professionalization, and publicness or what is fashionably called transparency.
Any of these developments could be revised or even reversed, but
none of them can be undone easily. This much said, I can now move from past to present. I have established, or at least have provoked you to consider, that the virtues we prize in American journalism of investigation and skepticism are of relatively recent vintage. If there is a decline in the quality and democratic value of American journalism over the past five or ten years, it is a decline from a higher state of performance than we have since at any time in U.S. history before the late 1960s. It should also be clear that the high quality of journalism I am describing for the period of the 1970s and after is an unevenly distributed quality. The legacy media survived and did honor to democracy by virtue of a happy accident, as Clay Shirky has put it: that advertisers were willing for their own purposes to subsidize quality journalism, that Wal-Mart was willing to pay for the Baghdad bureau. Shirky is right about this but he offers here a very partial view. It is also important to remember how little serious accountability journalism most American newspapers ever did. Or, to put it another way, there are today more than 1400 daily newspapers in this country. How many ever had a Baghdad bureau? Or any foreign bureau? Or a full-time statehouse reporter? There has been a lot of mourning for the declining statehouse bureaus with the number of full-time staff in state capitals receding from over 500 to the 300’s. But this means that at a time when American newspapers were remarkably prosperous and when newsroom employment was at historic highs, more than two-thirds of daily newspapers did not cover the state capital with their own staff.
Okay, back to quasi-utopia. Let’s begin with the looming and distressing fact that in 2000 there were something like 60,000 journalists employed in the newsrooms of daily newspapers and today the number is somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000. Craigslist and other competitors for classified ads have been devastating to newspapers that counted on the classifieds for 20 to 40 percent of their ad revenue, and ad revenue made up something like 75 percent of total revenue. Add to this that newspapers competed against themselves by providing their news free of charge online, inviting many people among their traditional readers to cancel their subscriptions, thereby cutting into that other 25 percent of their total revenue, and forcing further cuts in advertising income since you can’t charge an advertiser as much if your circulation shrinks. And then add a deep and prolonged recession that forced businesses across the board to reduce discretionary expenses – and that includes advertising.
The result is surely a decline in the quality of American journalism. There are fewer reporters and fewer editors, fewer pages and fewer stories, more incentive to run stories that grab readers and less inclination to invest in stories that win more prizes than readers. So on what conceivable grounds do I believe that the emergent journalism is the best we have ever had, apart from the fact that the journalism of the past wasn’t all that great?
I’m placing my bets on low-profit and non-profit journalism, on collaborative journalism, most of it but not all of it online. Let me take as my model the online startups that already exist, from TalkingPointsMemo to ProPublica to MinnPost, VoiceofSanDiego, St. Louis Beacon, New Haven Independent, Rustwire, and many more. They are springing up, and growing, and providing effective journalism, including original reporting, and so providing effective models for the future. They are able to do so, with few employees and modest resources, for six reasons.
First, they do not have to invest in a printing press, in paper, or in delivery trucks. Newspapers spend about 70 percent of their budget on these items, another 16 percent on their own efforts at advertising and marketing, and about 14 percent on actual journalistic content. The Internet levels the playing field and nearly eliminates the established newspaper’s competitive advantage. If you need a printing press to make your business work, you need substantial capital – and once you get in, you have a substantial barrier to others entering after you. If you need only to put up a Website and can do that yourself or hire a consultant for a few thousand dollars, you can be up and running with the savings from your summer job.
Second, the productivity of an individual journalist is enormously increased by the Internet and the personal computer. Three months ago I heard the media business columnist of the New York Times, David Carr, at a conference. He went to the podium, lifted up his laptop up over his head, and announced, “There are more resources in this machine for me as a reporter than there have been in the entire newsroom in any newspaper I have ever worked at.” No one denies thisw. But few have really ‘fessed up to it or acknowledged that, even without the recession, the overleveraged newspapers, and the loss of advertising and circulation, newspapers would still be letting go hundreds of reporters because they do not need them to provide the same level of reporting quality they offered a decade ago. Online searching is more efficient than the newsroom hunt and peck; more information and databases are available online; more and more and more information proves to be just a few clicks away. If there had been no recession and if there had been no Craigslist, newspapers would still have cut hundred and likely thousands of jobs because they could have put only the same quality product with fewer people in the newsroom.
Third, most of the online operations have taken on an ethic of sharing rather than an ethic of exclusivity. Sure, they want credit for their stories. But they need and use other media to get the stories out. Voiceofsandiego editors appear regularly on commercial television and public radio in San Diego to disseminate their work. It’s advertising and public service all at once. Newspapers that once would have done everything in their power to avoid crediting a competitor or even mentioning a competitor, now trade news gathering tasks with former rivals, now mention the bloggers they read, accept stories from ProPublica, collaborate with Kaiser Health Fellows, take stories from education reporters at the Hechinger Institute at Columbia Teachers College or work on investigative projects with the California Healthcare Foundation project Michael Parks directs at USC.
Fourth, there is a growing availability of relevant data that make first-class journalism more accessible than ever before. You do not need to be the New York Times with 1000 people in the newsroom to go online and find out which foreign lobbyist contacted which Congressman regarding which bill; there is now an easily available database that provides you that information with a few clicks. Why does www.foreignlobbying.org exist? Because an open-government non-profit called the Sunlight Foundation and Pro Publica, an investigative journalism nonprofit, built it from 2007-08 foreign agent filings. Collaboration is not only in publishing news, then, but even in constructing the data sources that become the raw material that journalists from any news organization can work with.
As you know, there have long been complaints about congressional “earmarking”, but how does a reporter pursue the topic? It would be very difficult -- except that a conservative non-profit, Taxpayers for Common Sense, founded in 1995, compiles “earmarking” data and their database is the starting point for any Washington reporters on the “earmark” beat.
This is not to mention that essentially all the public information about campaign contributions in federal elections that we have has existed only since the campaign reform acts of 1971 and 1974. This is basically the year zero for all news coverage of campaign financing – there simply was no data before then. Are you trying to cover your local Congressional delegation’s voting record? Until quite recently, this was a time-consuming task. U.S. government online records did not make it possible to download a legislator’s roll-call votes by the name of the legislator. You could go online for every bill that came for a vote and scroll down and find Rep. Jones and keep a tally on your own, but you could not search for “Rep. Jones” and get the good Congressman’s voting record for each bill before the House. But now you can at OpenCongress.org or GovTrack.us or WashingtonPost.org.
The San Diego Union and Copley News Service won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting that sent Rep. Randy Cunningham to prison for eight years for the largest bribery scandal in the history of Congress. Reporting the story took a lot of work and a lot of digging. But the reporting, as Marcus Stern explained in Nieman Reports, relied heavily on three sources, at least two of which would not have been available to reporters in the 1950s or 1960s. This included disclosure forms of lobbyists (including former San Diego representative Bill Lowery) and campaign finance records that a non-profit, the Center for Public Integrity, had compiled that enabled the reporters to follow up Lowery’s contributions to different candidates’ campaigns.
Great claims have been made for this new transparency – claims that are perhaps overdone. But the new databases and the organizations that demand greater accessibility of government databases – and have been prepared to provide that accessibility themselves if the government will not take its own steps – is all part of the presumption of publicness that began in the 1960s. And Internet activists and government reformers have taken this presumption and run with it.
Fifth, the new online operations remind us how important is the resource of obsessive, endless, gritty enthusiasm. Yes, somehow there has to be a way for these individuals to pay their bills – ultimately. They don’t have to dine on expense accounts. What they have to do is pursue work that gets their adrenalin going and makes them feel that they are doing something that matters. If they can make money doing this, that’s good for them and that’s good for society and that’s good for democracy. But many worthwhile pursuits endure without a so-called business model. Artists, musicians, dramatists have been doing it for centuries. And so have some journalists, those who set up their alternative weeklies in the sixties, those who worked for political magazines or started vegetarian newsletters or pieced together a living as free-lance foreign correspondents. They lived on a combination of passion and lowered expectations for comfort. With just about everyone I have talked to at the new start-ups, whether twenty-somethings at one of their first jobs or 50-somethings who had been let go or had taken buy-outs. One top editor from a major daily newspaper, now working at Pro Publica, told me she felt she had died and gone to heaven, that she was doing more of the work that had led her to journalism in the first place than at any other time in her career.
This brings us to a sixth point and a key point: there are non-market ways to assure the survival of worthwhile practices that the marketplace itself can no longer protect. Whether we are talking about the delivery of social services to the ill or the indigent, the elderly or children, or are discussing the survival of live theater, opera, symphonic music, chamber music, poetry, serious fiction, museums, higher education, most K-12 education, and much more, there is no business model. There is no business model for a string quartet, no balance sheet for poetry that doesn’t bleed red, no income streams that can support LACMA without philanthropic donations. There is no market solution. There are tax-supported solutions and there are philanthropic solutions and there are various blends of government support, philanthropy, and bake sales.
I would add that – as with culture and the arts – the universities have and should have a growing role in supporting journalism. Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe for several decades, returned to his alma mater, Northeastern University, two years ago and began teaching an investigative reporting seminar to both graduate and undergraduate students. In two years, those students have produced twelve front-page stories in the Boston Globe. Robinson proudly told me “In all the stories so far we’ve not had a single correction or substantive complaint.” More journalism schools are going into the business of actually producing journalism. Here at USC, integrating the California Healthcare Foundation’s impressive health reporting initiative into a university has not, Michael Parks told me, been a piece of cake and maybe he will one day produce a handy guide for others moving in the same direction. At any rate, his effort is part of a movement that is changing journalism.
Why should anyone support these professional, skillful, but small operations? Here let me just throw out the challenge that comes from the powerful assertion of Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen: “No substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.” China has had substantial famines killed millions since World War II; India, a country as poor or poorer, has not, despite crop failures. Famine, Sen shows, is a product of distributional failures more than production failures; electoral democracy with the support of publicity cuts short the corruption and neglect that produces famine.
But the voiceofsandiego and its counterparts in New Haven, St. Louis, Minneapolis are not going to save the world, are they? If you add up the employees at all of the 50 or 100 startups – I have no good estimate of how many there are or how many of the people at them actually earn a modest living at them – but I would be surprised if there are more than 500 people at these organizations drawing some sort of salary. (There are about 3000 people employed in online journalism but overwhelmingly these are individuals who are working at websites operated by and for the leading broadcast and newspaper organizations, not by the independent start-ups.) If you look at the big picture, newspapers still employ some 40,000 journalists; the online startups are a drop in the bucket. So why emphasize developments that on Feb 11 2010 provide so small a percentage of the total news output?
For all the reasons I have already mentioned. The journalism of the future is going to be partly commercial, partly non-profit, partly publicly-supported, partly university-fueled. The journalism of the future is going to blur across economic sources, across styles of work, across the divide between professional and amateur. Each of these organizations needs to learn to work with the others.
Last fall, Leonardie Downie and I produced a report for Columbia Journalism School called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” Our report recommended changes in tax laws to make it easier for news organizations to convert to non-profit status or to become low-profit limited liability corporations with an “L3C” status of their own; it recommended significant new investment in local news reporting by NPR-affiliated radio stations; it urged philanthropists to support news organizations committed to local accountability reporting; it recommended that universities become ongoing sources of accountability news reporting; it recommended the development of more accessible and comprehensive public information databanks; and it recommended, finally, that the federal government institute a fund for the direct support of innovations in local news.
Our report was well received in many quarters but, as we should have been able to predict, our critics ignored most of the report and ignored five of our six proposals, concentrating their fire on the proposal for federal funding of local news. Our critics came from two places – conservatives who oppose essentially all new federal programs (but learn to defend the old ones like social security or Medicare); and journalists. Journalists left, right, and center. Journalists young and old. Why?
Well, I should acknowledge first that it is not a stupid response. Government funding does open the door to government control. But I found it amusing when a senior reporter for Newsweek, asked me, “Don’t you know that government funding means government control?” What is amusing is that he asked it of me on-camera as we were taping a show for public television. My come-back was obvious: “Are we or are we not on a program for public broadcasting? And are you or are you not able to say here what you think?”
To offer the knee-jerk and often smug assertion that any government funding for the media is the beginning of the end of press freedom requires that you ignore a great deal of the established facts of the world. You have to ignore National Public Radio and PBS. You had better ignore all of American medical and scientific research and no small part of social science research too. President Obama hosted a reception for his fellow 2009 American Nobel Prize winners, and noted the federal grant money that had supported their research – millions of dollars in some cases, hundreds of thousands for nearly all, including Elinor Ostrom who won the prize for economics.
It is reasonable to be concerned about federal control of the news media, but it is not reasonable to dismiss it out of hand. It ignores that PBS and NPR have operated for 40 years without turning America into a slave state. You have to ignore the federal postal subsidies to newspapers that have been instrumental from 1792 on in promoting the industry. This includes the provision, centrally important to newsgathering in the early 19th century, that newspapers could mail copies of their newspapers to other news organizations free of charge. You have to ignore the role the federal government played in financing the very first telegraph line in the country and making the Associated Press possible.
And of course you hve to ignore the rest of the world. That’s fine, according to a recent statement by Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a former FCC commissioner and one-time chief economist for the House Committee on Commerce. “Direct government support of journalism is a foreign concept,” he wrote. “The Soviet Union had Pravda and Izvestia, news outlets that supposedly competed with one another to add insult to the injury of the absence of a free press. Every repressive regime in the world today controls some part of its national media and censors the rest.” But the question is not what repressive regimes do but what democracies do or can do. Mr. Furchtgott-Roth reached immediately to Pravda, now defunct. He did not think to mention the $6 billion government subsidy that fuels the BBC and makes it far and away the largest, most ambitious, best funded news operation in the United Kingdom. He ignores the CBC. His argument ignores the direct subsidies to newspapers in liberal democracies in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France and it ignores the studies (from France and Sweden) that the subsidized newspapers are as or more critical of government than those that receive less or no subsidies. Government funding does NOT mean government control in strong liberal democracies in Europe or in North America.
But we never proposed government funding as a solution to the crisis in American journalism. We proposed a package. We offered a model of mixed funding – commercial, non-profit, tax-supported, and university-embedded. Could American journalism be supported more in the way we support the sciences? Could it be supported more in the way we support the arts and the sciences? I think so. I think it should be.
Remember, once more, as we mourn the decline of a vital, vibrant commercial journalism, that it has long had severe limitations. That Walter Lippmann in 1920 thought it could not be reformed and would succeed, to the extent that it succeeded at all, only if other institutions of information-gathering should arise to substantially help it out; that H. L. Mencken talked about the journalism of Baltimore when he was starting out in the 1890s – “there were five papers, 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.” He found great improvement in the papers of his own day largely because a few newspaper barons had bought up the worst of the lot and consolidated them.
In the midst of the present crisis in news are the birth pangs of the kind of public information that Walter Lippmann sought for journalism and democracy nearly a century ago.
In the midst of a crisis in which talented and skillful journalists are being let go every hour, ten or a hundred amateurs replace them in minutes. I am not persuaded that this is a good trade; we lose something important when we lose the old pros. But do not make the mistake of thinking that we are gaining little by the new ways for incorporating the amateurs. There is something to be said for the wisdom of crowds, something to be said for the power of wikis, and something profound in the computer software executive’s claim that no matter how many smart people he assembles in a room for making decisions, he can be sure that the person who knows most about the topic at hand is not there. And that that person just might announce himself or herself if decision-making were done more publicly or more in a wiki format.
We did not need the Internet for the rapid proliferation of wild rumors in our political life. There was a widespread belief in the 1930s and 1940s that black domestics in the South were conspiring in Eleanor Clubs to stop working for white women, inspired by the civil rights advocacy of Mrs. Roosevelt. The 1950s saw a widespread belief that the fluordination of municipal drinking water was a communist plot. The rumors of razor blades in the apples and candy given to children trick-or-treating on Halloween were widely believed without a single verifiable instance ever turning up. And in the 1980s milk cartons featured the faces of children believed kidnapped aand there were widespread fears about an epidemic of child kidnappings. It took some effort for a journalist to determine that the vast majority of the alleged kidnappings were cases of non-custodial parents after divorce keeping a child with them in violation of the divorce decree. Kidnapping? In a sense, yes. But not the random kidnapping that millions of people believed to be a plague on the nation.
Does the Internet spread rumors faster? Absolutely. It corrects misinformation faster, too. What difference does all of this make? I take that to be a perfectly good question and someone should study it.
We are not going to get utopia out of this, no. But a quasi-utopia? I think so. If I’m right, we’ll learn again that information is not enough to build a good society. Sound storytelling is not enough. Actions still speak louder than words. The problems we have in building a good society are in some measure problems of communication but they are not only communication problems but problems of limited resources and competing values and interests, and incompatible world views. But if communication can help, as I believe it can, we cannot turn away from the remarkable openings that the new communication technologies, in the context of the professionalism and presumption of public-ness that brought American journalism to its highest achievements in the 1970s and since, can extend and revise. This is a tremendously difficult time for journalism when the great engines of its finest achievements, particularly the metropolitan daily newspapers, are in crisis. Some of those great redwoods will fall, some of them will survive. But pay attention to the saplings far below them that are replenishing the soil in ways that will transform the informational forest in ways that may make it more nourishing for us all.
President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law and made a few surprisingly interesting remarks upon doing so. Not only did he harken back to the $30,000 the government provided for the first telegraph line in the country in 1844. He called for not just a broadcast system but urged the country “to build a great network for knowledge…one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.” He imagined a system in which a country doctor could get help from a distant laboratory or hospital and a scholar in Atlanta could draw instantly on a library in New York. He imagined creating an “electronic knowledge bank” and it would be not just national – it could involve other nations to “in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.” He even remembered how skeptical Henry David Thoreau had been about the telegraph and his remark that it is all very well to be constructing a telegraph to connect Maine to Texas but it could well be that Maine and Texas have nothing to communicate to each other. . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic . . . ; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
Don’t be skeptical, President Johnson counsels. “I do believe that we have important things to say to one another – and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius.”
I hope he was right about that wisdom. And I hope we have the confidence to find out.
[i] Carl Sessions Stepp, “The State of the American Newspaper: Then and Now,” American Journalism Review, September, 1999, pp. 60-75, all quotes from p. 62.