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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

I think the writers' perspective may be wrong. If you move the failing newspaper business from the center of the universe out to the periphery, as just one symptom of a larger disease, a much different picture comes to mind.

Last week David Brooks at the Times rather appropriately argued that the USA was the world's first "commercial republic." It was a simple lens to place in front of myriad disconnects we have come to accept without rigorous questioning. Are we really the democracy we pretend to be? Or, isn't it far more likely we are just an experiment in commercial development?

For more than fifty years a sensible majority of the public has wanted some form of universal healthcare. We still don't have it. Think of all the variety of administrations we've had since Truman. Don't you think there is something fundamentally challenging about beliefs in this republic? Too often we seek intellectual solace and comfort in romantic Founding Fathers historical dialogue. This merely serves to blind us ever more to the reality that evolved--Brooks's commercial republic.

In the commercial republic, then, CableNews, OctoMom, weather obsession and CNBC-style hype is precisely what you would predict from the model. In the commercial republic, Judith Miller and the NYT hyping the Iraq war is exactly what you'd expect to see. And closing down newspapers as unprofitable businesses would be no different to anyone than stopping production of the horseless carriage once the automobile was established.

Be very careful about advocating government involvement and subsidy of newspapers. They will be all too happy to accommodate. Think of the raw insanity of subsidizing the growing foodstuffs in Iowa to be used as automobile fuel in a world of starving people, and you will see how cleverly government-backed newspapers will fit the model.

Your documentation of the fall of journalism and newspapers is perfectly correct. It is your context that is dead wrong, and your cure. Let's make an attempt to look at this as an opportunity for correction, and see what might develop. First, this and the financial collapse, and the globalization collapse, might be signs that the commercial republic is a failed idea, an experiment gone horribly wrong. Maybe this leads to an entire re-boot of democracy. Messy, contorted, filled with missteps, but still a redefining moment?

How much more advertising can a person absorb in a day? Will expanding Cable to 10,000 channels really improve anything? How much more junk can people store in their home-warehouses before finding the total emptiness of this life? How much more job insecurity and outsourcing are people willing to accept? What if this whole thing just folds back on itself and collapses because "it" simply becomes a mirror which everyone sees into?

This moment might be the perfect moment to help the system crash and take part in a reset. The perfect time to stop romanticizing about Founding Fathers' long lost dreams and get with what really "is" and deal with it accordingly.

Mark Deneen

Eureka, CA

Mar 22 2009 - 10:59am

Web Letter

While this article has a few good ideas, the historical perspective is faulty, and maddeningly misleading. The article did not say, but strongly implied, that Thomas Jefferson might have used "Fourth Estate" to describe the newspaper industry. The term was coined by Macaulay after Jefferson died. Jefferson would not have used it anyway, since he was a republican, and the Estates-General were the bulwark of the ancien régime. Further, newspapers in Jefferson's day were nothing like what we have now, or what we had in the 1960s. They were usually organs of one party, or faction, or interest. The principles of journalism described in this article have historically been the exception, not the rule.

Peter Byrne

Rochester, NY

Mar 21 2009 - 11:31am

Web Letter

Here is another view on the same topic that is well worth consideration.

The government-support model doesn't seem to work too well in the present incarnation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; they know very well what side their bread is buttered on, and are careful not to offend their government and corporate masters. Matters seem much the same in the UK and Japan.

Alan D. Barbour

Fort Bragg, CA

Mar 21 2009 - 12:33am

Web Letter

I have been interested in journalism since I was a teen, and while I very much appreciate your analysis and suggested solution to the present media dilemma, I'm afraid you failed to take into account several other factors.

First, there's the problem of people (the public) not being all that interested in knowing what's actually going on. For the most part they're either not very interested in news in general or else they're quite willing to accept without question whatever version of news is dished out to them. Combine this with their desire to be entertained, rather than informed, and it's no wonder that TV news has become just another form of entertainment.

Second, given that capitalism reigns supreme, far outweighing values such as democracy and people's well-being, I don't think it reasonable to think that a journalism based upon such values would be any match for the forces of capitalism. That is to say, economic viability, including the need to provide substantial profits for publishers, out-trumps any and all virtuous motives.

Third, the people in power are highly motivated to limit the newsstream to information that serves their purposes. With so much deceit, corruption and collusion with the wealthy class, government leaders are likely to do whatever they can to make sure the public doesn't get an accurate picture of what's going on.

Add to this the fact that most people tend to rely upon whatever media source most aligns with their personal outlook, and it becomes highly questionable whether even a system that guarantees that all POVs will be readily disseminated would change our society into one where the populace becomes well-informed and political decisions are made more rationally than emotionally.

Glen Swift

Drain, OR

Mar 21 2009 - 12:16am

Web Letter

I agree completely with this article. Well, almost completely.

As the publisher of a tiny, struggling local newspaper--but a monthly--that provides in-depth news coverage not found in our corporate competitors' newspapers, I wonder why you think that a plan to limit subsidies to dailies is fair and unbiased?

We operate on a shoestring budget, literally almost, and usually provide more real news in our twelve to sixteen pages than our competitors (owned by the Tribune Company and Freedom Newspapers) do in their much larger community versions. (We're also online at www.ocvoice.wordpress.com.)

We barely have enough money to print and we are currently looking for new sources of financing so we can survive. Why should only those who are wealthy enough to get a five-times-a-week daily published get government support? You don't think that approach suppresses the views of poor working class in favor of the upper class?

John F. Earl

Huntington Beach, CA

Mar 20 2009 - 10:38pm

Web Letter

I've been an on-and-off-again reader of The Nation for a very long time. While I rarely agree with your politics, as a newspaper reporter for almost two decades since graduate school, mostly in smaller newspaper markets far from major cities, I find it very helpful to read your magazine, The New Republic and the New York Times. And yes, that's often articles that get e-mailed to me, which means I guess I'm one of those nastya Internet freebooters, because I want to understand what America's "progressive" or politically liberal leaders are thinking.

And I don't think it's any surprise or insult to say that people on the liberal side of the political spectrum often do a much better job of writing a detailed analysis of the problems than comparable publications on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

For that reason, I was not surprised to see you writing a detailed historical analysis of government encouragement of the news media in America through required publication of public notices, and suggesting that something could be done to indirectly subsidize newspapers via a $200 tax credit.

In theory, I can't see how conservatives who push for educational vouchers for private schools would have a problem with your proposed tax credit, and it might just work.

But I urge you to think very, very hard before promoting that step.

You mention legal notices as an example of government subsidies. In today's media environment where newspapers usually are local monopolies, we may have forgotten about the 1800s, when Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall could use public notices to reward friendly newspapers and punish those they didn't like. Even now, the Derby Reporter in Derby, Kansas, lost its publication contract to the much more expensive Wichita newspaper because the county commission didn't like its coverage. GateHouse Media (the company for which I used to work at the Waynesville Daily Guide outside Fort Leonard Wood) pulled the plug from the Derby newspaper, which is now the third newspaper they've shuttered in the state of Kansas.

Your proposed requirement of publishing five days per week with twenty-four pages and a 50 percent newshole would be a godsend to lots of small newspapers that could only dream today of returning to that amount of content. But newspapers need to be very careful of what's essentially a taxpayer voucher for newspaper subscriptions, for the same reason that some Christian schools are concerned about vouchers: because they believe with government subsidy comes government influence and eventually government control. And while requiring a 50 percent newshole would be good for journalism, the next requirement to keep the subsidy might be very different.

Darrell Todd Maurina

St. Robert, MO

Mar 20 2009 - 5:22pm

Web Letter

Well, after two pages of predictable excuses for the state of newspapers and an all-too-pathetic plug for real "journalism" of the left in both old and new "news," I finally came to the bailout part, the "well if the banks and AIG" part that really could have been summed up much sooner. Its just amazing how the left weaves conflicts of interest into even the most modest of gestures when its anybody else but can so earnestly rationalize government financial backing for themselves and journalism (or a Chávez-paid flight for Sean Penn) when the demands of real world resources are knocking at their door. It's as if Mr. Nichols wants to ignore the problem, ignore the resources needed and have someone else do that stuff because he's busy with the duty of Democracy. And that someone else is, well, those making over $250k.

Mr. Nichols would be better off trying to save newspapers by figuring out what they need to do to gain back readers, consolidate and get costs down via technology and efficient sourcing. Stop assuming that readers are disappointed with today's newspapers because they're not the hard-hitters of yesterday. That's nonsense, things have changed because people have so many options compared to taking a lunch break and reading the newspaper these days. Web, blackberries, cell phones, ipods, Discovery, NGC, SciFi, Bravo etc. All are taking up valuable time and that's on top of two-income households, playdates (we used to play in the streets) and seeing after grandma because those darn statins are keeping her alive into her 90s. Do you think the paper catalog business is off because people don't like them anymore? No, its been replaced. Additionally, there are some secular changes. Young people are not reading the NY Times because it costs money. They like their news flashy, self-gratifying and free, just like their downloads. The playdate generation wont pay for content because they just got a new Mac and darn it if that didn't cost money and on top of that Internet access costs money (although they are trying to end that too).

Hugh Maguire

New York, NY

Mar 20 2009 - 4:17pm

Web Letter

I cannot believe someone would even suggest--never mind vigorously advocate--government support of newspapers. Never mind the constitutional separation issues, forget the whole concept of the government "sexing up" intelligence for media consumption, how about the fact that most of the mainstream media is blindly supporting the president already? Don't these daily conference calls between Stephanopoulos and friends bother anyone? Is this subsidy supposed to correct some imagined bias, or merely formalize the current arrangement?

It's also interesting to note how whenever liberals get in charge, they immediately set out to destroy and censor their opposition. I remember how the liberals got so upset when they learned that the Pentagon was actually providing "press packets" to reporters. That was just for convenience, but somehow paying journalist's salaries is less a conflict of interest? Amazing, the hypocrisy.

john robinson

Washington, DC

Mar 20 2009 - 3:19pm

Web Letter

With the exception of a few egregiously corrupt media corporations, like Gannett, the problem is not the evils of the marketplace. The problem is that people no longer believe what they read in the print press. The first time television showed a Congressional hearing and viewers were able to compare what they saw with their own eyes with what their local (or national) newspaper said happened, newspapers were doomed. Add to that the obvious: newspapers and magazines no longer print the news; they print their version of the news, and at least since Watergate the motivating factor in most news coverage is not informing the public but straight old-fashioned power. If a newspaper can cook up a scandal, force a resignation, or a change in policy it has exerted power which makes it as important as the subjects it covers. People in a democracy tend not to like an institution which invents its own power, and can only function well by keeping the public in a constant state of fear or anxiety. If the New York Times said the sky was blue, I would reach for my umbrella. Newspapers cannot die fast enough for me. Rather than subsidize them, Congress should raise their taxes to 90 percent.

Robert Holladay

Nashville, TN

Mar 20 2009 - 8:20am

Web Letter

Shouldn't journalists be skeptical of any form of subsidy from the government? Regardless of how small these are, couldn't these subsidies become bludgeoning tools by the government to keep media in check? Wouldn't there always be questions about bias and credibility?

I think it is better for the Fourth Estate to eschew any form of subsidy altogether. Which is worse: editing a story to keep your investors happy, or editing a story to keep your Congressmen happy? At least some newspaper investors have allowed their newspapers editorial and content freedom.

Given that the most important job of the press is to monitor our government, I think it is better for America if modern journalism finds a way to cope with a new era in which their old way of doing things no longer works. Every other American citizen has had to adapt their skills to a rapidly changing commerical environment. Why should journalists be any different? The lure of government help to maintain an old way risks the press becoming what many quacks on both the left and right have called it for years... a shill for the government.

Brent Lundberg

Dallas, TX

Mar 20 2009 - 7:52am

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