I am always on the lookout for symptoms of increased deterioration in the information-for-pay business, otherwise known as the news. It’s a weakness of mine. Yesterday, while I glanced at the online site of my hometown newspaper, I was startled to read this headline: “Bush’s ‘War’ on Terror Comes to a Sudden End.” What did it mean? Had President Obama, in a single day, managed to capture Osama bin Laden and his cohorts? Or had we surrendered?
Nothing quite so dramatic. In fact, nothing at all. The president closed down Guantanamo as a holding pen for detainees. That was going to happen with either candidate to the presidency. The winner’s decision allows for a year’s lag before the closure, in the hope that security and legal problems can somehow be disentangled in that time. As the first President Bush used to say: a prudent policy.
The article is by Dana Priest, one of the more surface-bound bits in the shallow puddle that is journalism. Dana is breathless with excitement. We are told that “with a stroke of the pen,” the president “effectively declared an end to the ‘war on terror,’ as President Bush had defined it.” Of course, no statements to that effect were made either by the president or his spokesmen. Such a change in policy would be real information: this was just a sizzle inside Dana Priest’s head.
The war on terror, alas, may not even be ours to end, so long as terrorists who wish to kill Americans still roam free. After my morning surprise care of WaPo, I read, in the afternoon version of the same site, the following headline: “Suspected U.S. Missile Kills at Least 20 in Pakistan.” The subhead noted that the drone attacks on suspected terrorists were the “first since Obama’s inauguration.” It was authored by someone with the spectacular journalistic name of Candace Rondeaux.
Candace, meet Dana. Dana, meet Candace. WaPo, meet WaPo. The same conveyor-of-information-for-money pays the salaries of two people, one of whom writes that the war on terror has suddenly ended overnight, the other, on the same day, who reports that U.S. missiles have struck a foreign country against that country’s wishes, and killed at least 20 persons, in an attempt to eliminate terrorists.
Rarely have the news felt more like a bipolar disorder.
Naturally, fewer and fewer people waste their precious time consuming this dreck. Loss of readership, together with Web alternatives, has scattered advertisers. Throw in a collapse in the stock market value of newspapers and the current financial crisis, and one can pretty much predict the moment of death.
Even the mighty NYT totters. It might be out of business by May. That probably won’t happen, but only because shadowy people want to sink their fangs into this old and famous agenda-setter. I read that a Mexican with the delightful name of Slim is about to plug $250 million into the NYT. Who is Mr. Slim? His photos don’t resemble his name — other than that, no clue. What’s his agenda? All the news that’s fit to print, I feel certain. Journalism uber alles.
All this might be considered a sign of mental health. And it mostly is, but not in France.
Nicolas Sarkozy, ruler of that mighty nation, has announced a billion-dollar bailout of French newspapers, which already receive around $3 billion in state subsidies because nobody reads them. In another bipolar moment, Sarkozy invoked press freedom to defend the massive intervention of his government in the press business:
“I don’t understand how anyone could doubt the legitimacy of the state in this process,” he said, adding that without a good business plan, the free, independent press would disappear.
Since even young French people have given up on the news entirely, Sarkozy is going to save their souls by giving them free newspapers.
Sarkozy’s measures included a year’s free, state-subsidised newspaper subscription for all teenagers from their 18th birthday. He said: “The habit of reading a daily paper takes root at a very young age.”
With a stroke of the pen — as Dana Priest might put it — Sarkozy officially became the most unintentionally comical political figure in the world, beating Al Gore by a nose. I used to receive free newspapers on my driveway every morning, and I developed the habit of walking them to the trash bin. But never mind. No doubt, only lack of money keeps those French teenagers from being voracious readers of the free and independent (but bankrupt and state-subsidized) press.
Laurent Joffrin, an old French political hack who now edits a paper even his immediate family won’t read, said the bailout made “good sense.” What can one say? “It is bizarre,” Joffrin shrugged, “but this is France.”