The purpose of mainstream newspapers, if there still is a purpose, is that they provide a shared social reference point. Readers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or, for that matter, The Boston Globe and other regional papers are looking not just for accurate news. They also seek the considered judgment of experienced journalists as to what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what can safely be ignored.
“A newspaper is a theory of what constitutes an informed person,” the late media observer Neil Postman said in 1995. “A newspaper can make an essential contribution to the polity by functioning as a filter.” Postman was pessimistic, though, saying the driving thrust of technology, even in those early days of the internet, was to isolate people from each other, allowing us to indulge our personal interests and thus undermining any notion of a common culture. “Everything is moving us away from a sense of co-present community life,” he said.
What Postman lamented is now celebrated. Who needs filters when we can decide for ourselves? And so the authority of mainstream newspapers and analogous mass media such as network television newscasts has given way to a multitude of niches, from narrowcast cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News to even narrower digital outlets of the left and right, including conspiracy-minded operations such as Alex Jones’ Infowars.
The latest celebrant at the altar of DIY media consumption is the writer Antonio García Martínez. In a piece for Wired.com headlined “Journalism Isn’t Dying. It’s Returning to Its Roots,” Martínez observes that the current economic travails of journalism and the accompanying decline of objectivity are simply a reversion to the norm — that partisan, financially perilous propagandizing would be far more recognizable to founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams than the establishment press that dominated American society during the second half of the 20th century.
“Journalists pining for a return to their golden age of advertising-supported journalism are disturbingly similar to aged Midwestern factory workers seeking a return to the time when high-school-educated labor could afford middle-class lives with total job security,” Martínez writes. “Both golden ages resulted from a unique set of economic and political circumstances that are now gone and impossible to reproduce. Those who claim democracy requires the precise flavor of journalism we’ve known for a century or so will have to explain how our republic survived the century preceding.”
This is all true, but it is also beside the point. We’ve lost a lot. At its best, the mainstream press held (and still holds) government and other large institutions to account in a fair and unbiased manner. If we lose that entirely, then we’ll lose one of our most fundamental tools for governing ourselves.
Martínez offers us a history lesson, but there’s much that he leaves out. Yes, the nonpartisan model did indeed grow out a desire to cash in on the rise of department stores and other new forms of capitalism that could transform once-struggling newspapers into money machines full of advertising.
But at the same time that newspapers were becoming wealthy, they were also embracing the idea of public service. I’m not the first to make the observation that, starting in the early 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of landmark rulings that helped transform the press into a powerful institution in its own right — power that served as a crucial counterweight to enormous influence wielded by modern government and industry.
The protections of the First Amendment, once guaranteed only in federal matters, were extended to the states. Prior restraint was forbidden in nearly all circumstances. Government records were made public. Public officials and public figures were constrained from using the libel laws to silence their critics. These were all essential developments in guaranteeing democratic self-government. The scandal sheets that Samuel Adams printed to spread falsehoods about the Boston Massacre would hardly be a match for the gigantic forces that rule our lives in a modern industrial (or post-industrial) society.
Martínez also lampoons “fact-checked both-sides-ism and claims to ‘objectivity.’” Well, I hope we can all agree that fact-checking is a good thing. But his equating both-sides-ism with objectivity ignores what the term really means. As conceived by the journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann nearly 100 years ago, objectivity was intended as a fair-minded, rigorous pursuit of the truth, not as a mindless recitation of what “both sides” say. We need more Lippmann-style objectivity, not less. (Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain this well in their book, “The Elements of Journalism,” but you can get an overview of how they describe objectivity by clicking here.)
“The path to the next golden age in American journalism,” Martínez concludes, “isn’t nostalgia for a vanishing past but the same way that led to the previous golden age, namely, that of profit. More than likely, given the new business models, this will mean some partiality from journalism as well. That’s just fine too. It’s what Ben Franklin would have done.”
Now, some partiality is fine. Opinion journalism — truthful, fact-based opinion journalism — can be as valuable as that based on the neutrality model. But that doesn’t mean we should cheer the demise of mass media aimed at informing the public rather than indulging their pre-existing views. We need it all — a mainstream press and opinionated niches.
The scattered, nichified media of the past several decades are partly responsible for the rise of Trumpism. There is no truth — or, rather, we all have our own truth, mediated and reinforced by social media algorithms that we don’t understand.
What we need is not a return to the past, but progress toward something better. A mainstream press that is truly digital, that listens to its audience, that is less arrogant and more willing to embrace change than the print giants of the past century, isn’t just something to be desired — it’s essential.