Monday, March 30, 2009

blodder fog

In a somewhat refreshing, if not just a little bit cranky, twist, Slate's Jack Shafer proposes that it's time to lose the idea that newspapers are "essential for democracy". He also points out the irony in the fact that, suddenly, newspapers' impassioned champions are some of the same folks who formerly wrung their hands in despair over the industry's failings. He writes:

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.

And, somewhat related, but not really: Today's Chron has a review, by Saul Austerlitz, of a collection of pieces by the late A. J. Leibling, who wrote for The New Yorker for several decades. Austerlitz finds Liebling's "The Wayward Press" columns especially timely right now. From the review (yep, the Chron still prints them...):

Astute readers will find much to enjoy here, but it is "The Press," Liebling's collection of pieces written for the New Yorker's "Wayward Press" column between the late 1940s and early 1960s, that is of the utmost interest in this time of media uncertainty. "The Press" is a reminder, above all, that the purported Golden Age of journalism was never all that golden. Liebling bemoans the state of his profession, ridden with money-hungry publishers, newspapers providing everything except news, and journalists living in mortal fear of losing their jobs. (If any of this sounds remotely familiar, by all means stop me.) Publishers, in Liebling's estimation, are like saloon-keepers, thinking of news as "a costly and uneconomic frill, like the free lunch that saloons used to furnish to induce customers to buy beer."

Ever the master of the pungent metaphor, Liebling cunningly defines the media as an industry poised halfway between the gleaming future and the creaky past. "The American press makes me think of a gigantic, super-modern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats."

Today, the fish cannery has been repossessed, and the machines are every bit as leaky as the rowboats, but the fundamental principle remains the same. Newspapers - the media - are our first resource, and our last line of defense.

"A large number of competing newspapers," Liebling observes, "permitting representation of various shades of thought, are a country's best defense against being stampeded into barbarism." Having only recently returned from covering the North African front, where American soldiers fought Nazis, Liebling did not use the term "barbarism" lightly.

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