Saturday, January 14, 2006

Joseph Epstein and the Fall of the Newspaper

Media Nation points us to today's item of discussion, a medium-length essay from this month's Commentary magazine about the decline of the American newspaper written by author and Weekly Standard contributor Joseph Epstein. Things aren't like they used to be, says Epstein, who wistfully longs for the days when Walter Lippman accorded universal respect among the educated and a person's socioeconomic status and political inclinations could be surmised by his choice of newspaper. The American public has been abandoning traditional papers for other information sources over the past fifteen or so years for four main reasons, he tells us:

1) The overwhelming surfeit of information now available via television, the Internet and wireless devices has drawn (particularly young) people away from newsprint-based media.

2) The one-size-fits-all format of newspapers is ill-equipped to serve a public that wants and expects an individually-tailored flow of information that is delivered instantly, free of personally irrelevant material, and congenial to its existing opinions.

3) University-educated journalists use newspapers to foment unwarranted public anxiety and advance their own left-wing agendas.

4) Once the exclusive province of supermarket gossip-rags, lurid scandal- and celebrity-driven material has infected even the "serious" media in this country in their desperate attempts to boost readership at any cost.

Points 1 and 2 are well-taken if rather obvious, and I have emphasized both on several occasions; point 4 is also depressingly evident. As a liberal, I am ideologically obligated to argue against point 3, which in this case isn't very difficult. Epstein principally faults "investigative journalism" for"put[ing] in place among us a tone and temper of agitation and paranoia"—in other words, scandal-mongering for profit. But this is merely an extreme formulation of the newspaper's Fourth Estate role, which many papers were rightly pilloried for not fulfilling during the run-up to the Iraq war. And consider the alternative: a media that offered little more than government cheerleading would probably draw an even smaller readership than it does today.

The overuse of information leaks as raw material for investigative reporting, Epstein continues, degrades a paper's credibility, especially when the reported information turns out not to be true. Granted, I guess, but an administration that valued debate and dissent would allow its employees to speak on-the-record without fear of termination. As Jay Rosen has explained, the current White House has engaged in a concerted attempt to starve the press of the resources it needs to do its job properly, thus not only shielding its own inner workings from the public eye but also indirectly contributing to the media's credibility backslide by driving outlets to rely on secret sources.

Epstein also plays the standard right-wing "liberal media" card, arguing that because most university humanities departments are liberal, and because most modern journalists graduated from such departments, they must be pushing a liberal agenda on the job. These sentiments will surely ring true in the collective intuition of Commentary's conservative subscribers, but he offers no evidence that any one reporter or paper has consistently pushed any specific agenda, nor does he define which aspects of "liberalism" newspapers might be most likely to promote. Epstein also has this to say about journalism's halcyon days:
Pre-university-educated journalists did not, I suspect, feel that the papers they worked for existed as vehicles through which to advance their own political ideas. Some among them might have hated corruption, or the standard lies told by politicians; from time to time they might even have felt a stab of idealism or sentimentality. But they subsisted chiefly on cynicism, heavy boozing, and an admiration for craft. They did not treat the news—and editors of that day would not have permitted them to treat the news—as a trampoline off which to bounce their own tendentious politics.
A little hard data would have gone a long way toward validating this opinion as more than just a sentimental slice of nostalgia. To my knowledge, it has never been conclusively demonstrated that the median political bias of American newspapers has shifted left over the past 50-odd years. And even if such a shift could be proved, there's no evidence that many or most journalism schools routinely indoctrinate their students with a liberal viewpoint. Of course, all of this could very well be true, but it'll take more than some old coot's say-so to prove it.

In his conclusion, Epstein concedes that he doesn't have a cure in mind for newspapers' persistent case of malaise. He describes his ideal journalistic preferences thusly:
for a few serious newspapers to take the high road: to smarten up instead of dumbing down, to honor the principles of integrity and impartiality in their coverage, and to become institutions that even those who disagreed with them would have to respect for the reasoned cogency of their editorial positions.
But even he's pragmatic enough to see that general-circulation papers pursuing such a course would quickly crash and burn in this day and age. The bold and skeptical "impartiality" to which Epstein and most American media critics on the left and right pay so much reverence has unfortunately been obsolete for years. In its place we find in our papers a journalism rendered toothless and exhausted by constant allegations of bias and online a near-total information polarization between adverse ideologies. I can't predict the future any better than Epstein, but judging from what I've seen, news objectivity doesn't look to be in the cards.