Democracy and the death of news

The news are dying.  This development has been applauded by bloggers, who hope to become heirs to the deceased.  Others — traditionalists, media heads, academics — feel troubled and confused.  But nobody is questioning the facts of the matter.  For each medium, at every level of the marketplace, the audience for news is vanishing.  Because the trend is generational, it will accelerate with time.  When the last Baby Boomer is lowered to the grave, he will be clutching the last news report in his cold, dead hands.

Among the warnings raised by worriers, there is one I’d like to examine here:  the idea that the news buttressess democracy, and that its demise will undermine, dangerously, our democratic institutions.

The argument goes something like this.  Democracy requires an educated electorate.  Voters must obtain the information necessary to make wise choices among candidates, and to endorse realistic policies.  This is precisely the function of the news:  to provide voters with the information that allows them to make intelligent choices.

The news opens a window to parts of the world, like Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond the reach of the average citizen.  It plays watchdog to power, and exposes corruption and failed policies.  Without access to the news, voters become blind to events outside their immediate neighborhood, must remain ignorant of the character of political figures, and have no way of judging success from failure in political action.  Thus sheltered from reality, they can be misled by clever demagogues into believing black is white and up is down.

The first assertion is surely true.  But an educated electorate, one would think, must be educated, not fed a stream of disconnected reports.  The ideal citizen will read history and political philosophy.  He will develop the moral awareness to judge character accurately, and the critical faculties to decide among competing claims.  He will participate in the affairs of his community, and learn from experience.

At a minimum, the functional citizen must know the foundational documents of American democracy, and understand their meaning, their connection to our lives today.  The news provides none of this.  It lives in the present, and makes a hash of history.  It aims for attention, not understanding.

Nor is news a window to the world.  Arbitrary choices are made about what to select, what to ignore in the presentation of reports.  The rationales for such choices are never explained by news mediators — writers, editors, anchormen.  We are given what we are given.  Thus every death in Israel and the Palestinian territories attains cosmic importance.  But massacres in the Congo, home to the bloodiest conflict of the last 50 years, remain invisible to the news consumer.

Why so?  Impossible to say:  the mediators select, but don’t explain.

Ignorance presents another problem.  The citizen who wishes to learn about a recession will seek out an economist.  If the subject is war, he will turn to a military man.  If it is a proposed new law, to a lawyer or constitutional scholar.

But news are produced by journalists, who are trained in none of these disciplines.  Their motivation is economic — they get paid to produce reports — and their production environment is driven by competitive deadlines.  Consequently, their reports are riddled with factual errors, on occasion with fictions and plagiarisms, while their interpretations are at best skin deep, and more frequently misleading.  Journalists lack any special insight, and may in fact be poorly placed, to judge the success or failure of policies.

The ignorance displayed by journalists erodes the value of the watchdog function.  In the two great political crises of my lifetime — Watergate for Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals — the fixation of the news with government failings shielded from view more significant but less sensational developments.

Toward the end of Watergate, with the Nixon presidency weakened beyond hope of repair, the Middle East erupted into war, and the US found itself in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.  During the proceedings against Clinton, which paralyzed his administration, Al Qaida planned and began the execution of the September 11 attacks.  The news caught up with these deeper developments when the rest of us did:  after they happened.

Whatever the watchdog function was meant to be, in practice it has become an accusatory cynicism about political life.  The imperfections of democratic institutions are routinely magnified, and treated as symptomatic of pervasive corruption or ineffectiveness.  Elected officials are chided or sneered at by journalists.

The standard of judgment is never articulated, but appears innocent of history or comparative politics.  A safe bet is that government failure is news, while government success isn’t.  If taken seriously, such reports can only inspire in the citizen a contempt for the workings of democracy.  (In fact, the relentlessly negative tone of the news, a study shows, is one reason why its audience is vanishing.)

One more concern deserves examination.  Some academics have worried that, with the disappearance of the news, individuals will dwell in an informational bubble, amplifying pre-conceived attitudes and tuning out inconvenient truths: the “daily me.”  The American electorate, much like the audience for news, will then fragment into multiple, unconnected islands of self-reinforcing worldviews.

This assumes that the “public sphere” — the shared space for public discussion — is identical to the news.  News mediators have in fact dominated the public sphere, but there is no reason to doubt that events, ideas, and policies of common interest will survive the extinction of the mediators.  Public discussion will endure, propagated by different, more varied means.

It is also worth asking, from a theoretical perspective, what is preferable:  a citizen selecting his own sources of information, or having these sources filtered by groups acting in ignorance and driven by the profit motive.  The new information environment is overabundant, search-driven, and link-obsessed.  It can be accessed anywhere, and it can scarcely be escaped.  From a practical perspective, I find it hard to conceive of anyone so lucky as to live in a self-satisfied isolation bubble.  Little evidence exists this is taking place.

The news controlled the market for political information during a moment in time.  That moment is ending.  With the collapse of a 100-year-old information structure, something of value will inevitably be lost, but the gains, I strongly suspect, will outweigh the losses.  Certainly, democracy will outlast its demise.

UPDATE:  Several recent posts by the Blog Father add evidence in support of the proposition that the decline of news isn’t bad for democracy.  In fact, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t be cheering at the deathbed.

One:  A brain drain from mainstream media, by Webminded twentysomethings who find the news business firmly in the grip of crustacean Baby Boomers.

“In most organizations, the people with the most online experience have the least political capital,” said one mid-level online editor at a newspaper. “It seems like the pace of change inside media is slowing, tied up in politics and lack of expertise in managing technical projects — while the pace of change is continuing apace outside our windows.”

Two:  Deborah Solomon, interviewer for the New York Times Magazine, writes up questions she didn’t ask and rearranges responses to fit them.  Solomon has been exposed by the NYT‘s very own “public editor,” Clark Hoyt.

The [Ira] Glass interview was published last March, after the new safeguards were in place. Glass, who was just starting a television version of “This American Life” on Showtime, was stung by this printed exchange with Solomon: Q: “What do you think of the network?” A: “I don’t meet many people who are talking about shows on Showtime.”

He did not deny saying it, but he said he was sure it came during a long conversation about how the network marketed itself. “I don’t believe she asked me that question,” he said. “If she did, it certainly didn’t precede that answer.”

Glass said, “If I’m remembering this wrong,” the tape would establish what was said. But Solomon and the magazine editors can’t find it.

Three:  Newsweek — the very concept of a news “week” in our sametimed world boggles the mind — took all that leisure time to put together a photo page of six of Rudy Giuliani’s “right hands.”  The problem?  In bland “editor’s note,” the magazine admitted that it had gotten five of the six captions wrong.

Will democracy withstand the death of Newsweek?  I think so.

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