I read the anguished valedictories to our sinking newspaper industry, the calls for some sort of government bailout or subsidy, with mounting incredulity. It’s like hearing the witches in Macbeth evoked as if they were the beautiful Aphrodite and her rivals vying for the judgment of Paris. Sonorous phrases about “public service” mingle with fearful yelps about the “dramatically diminished version of democracy” that looms over America if the old corporate print press goes the way of the steam engine. In The Nation recently, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney quavered that “as journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark” and that “journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.”
I came to America in 1973 to the Village Voice, which Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer founded in 1955 to bring light to those whole sectors of civic life kept in darkness by the major newspapers of the day, starting with the New York Times. As a tot I’d been given bracing tutorials about the paradigms of journalism and class power by my father, Claud, who’d founded his newsletter The Week in the 1930s as counterbalance to the awful mainstream coverage. From Europe I’d already been writing for Kopkind and Ridgeway’s Hard Times and also for Ramparts, respectively a newsletter and a monthly founded–like much of the old underground press–to compensate for the ghastly mainstream coverage of the upheavals of the ’60s and the Vietnam War.
In other words, any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would be a negative verdict in every era. Of course, there have been moments when a newspaper or a reporter could make fair claims to have done a decent job, inevitably eradicated by a panicky proprietor, a change in ownership, advertiser pressure, eviction of some protective editor or summary firing of the enterprising reporter. By and large, down the decades, the mainstream newspapers have–often rabidly–obstructed and sabotaged efforts to improve our social and political condition.
In an earlier time writers like Mencken and Hecht and Liebling loved newspapers, but the portentous claims for their indispensable role would have made them hoot with derision, as they did the columnist Bernard Levin, decrying in the Times of London at the start of the 1980s the notion of a “responsible press”: “we are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”
But, of course, most publishers and journalists are not vagabonds and outlaws, any more than are the profs at journalism schools or the jurors and “boards” servicing the racket known as the Pulitzer industry. What the publishers were after was a 20 percent rate of return, a desire that prompts great respect for “the rule of law,” if such laws assist in the achievement of that goal. In 1970 this meant coercing Congress to pass the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, exempting newspapers from antitrust sanctions against price fixing in a given market. Nixon signed the law and was duly rewarded with profuse editorial endorsements in 1972.