Newspapers, in the English-speaking world, began as the docile handmaidens of powerful political gentlemen. In Britain, they reported the gentlemen’s speeches before Parliament, word by excruciating word. In the US, they were turned into the print equivalent of attack dogs by gentlemen – like Thomas Jefferson – too refined to stoop to such behavior themselves.
In in their small, servant-like way, those who published newspapers felt close to the sources of political power. They were – in their small, servant-like way – both players and announcers in the great game.
A funny thing happened when, thanks to mass literacy and improved printing technology, newspapers suddenly became a highly profitable industry late in the nineteenth century. Publishers were freed from their old dependency on gentlemen patrons, but retained a vision of politicians as supremely important people, and of themselves as hobnobbers with the rich and powerful.
Political news became the token of moral superiority for an otherwise grimy business. The “A” section was for current events – meaning those events that might be of interest to someone in government. In fact, many of the events were – and still are – filtered through some politician’s perspective, whether quoted or veiled. Nonpolitical events, such as new schools of painting, medical breakthroughs, or developments in technology, made it to the back of the paper – or, more frequently, not at all. Even a disaster like the Titanic‘s seeemed newsworthy mainly because people with “noted names” died.
Political news made publishers and journalists feel important; and their importance, they came to think, was derived from their moral nobility. Soon an ideology of news was elaborated. Someone called the “educated citizen” – defined as “devourer of political news” – was suddenly found to be essential to the survival of democracy. Kids were taught the cathechism of current events at school, illustrated by Junior Scholastic.
The ideology of news was Lippmannism without Lippmann. Walter Lippmann, I have noted elsewhere, believed the mass of American citizens to be dupes and fools, distracted by trivial, ephemeral things. However, he equally despised journalism, having worked at the trade. Lippmann, a Platonist, instead proposed that an elite of brilliant technocrats should direct, like good shepherds, the human herd.
Journalists accepted Lippmann’s description of the public, and usurped, in their imaginations, the place of his brilliant agenda-setters.
Political news were the front page, the first section, the commanding heights of power, the mantle of moral authority for Platonic guardian-journalists. The problem was that few people cared – in that regard at least, the judgment on the public was correct.
Newspapers were an industry. They didn’t sell information, political or otherwise: they sold wall space for advertisers. To make money, they needed readers. To get readers, publishers from the first bundled news with a mishmash of unrelated stuff – sports, comics, horoscopes, advice to the lovelorn, crime stories, Hollywood gossip, crossword puzzles – and it was this stuff, all discreetly tucked in the back, that the public paid a few pennies to read. This bargain with the devil was possible because newspapers held near-monopolies in the dissemination of information. Implicity, readers accepted the moral supremacy of political news when they bought a paper to keep up with Little Orphan Annie.
The great age of the news ideology arrived with Watergate. Suddenly, journalists were the story. Their moral pride reached impossible heights, as politicians bowed before the righteous fury of the press, and a presidency collapsed under a mountain of accusatory newsprint. Political news was now political power. Purveyors of news were now heroic figures. A new style of movie began, in which journalists played the part formerly reserved for Humphrey Bogart-style detectives.
Pride goeth before the fall. The twenty-first century brought in tow technologies which liberated information from overhead. Anyone with access to a computer could be a journalist, whether print or broadcast. The public’s choices multiplied, as virtually infinite amounts of information – text, video, still images, music, games – flooded the marketplace. Bundling became a financial drain rather than a business strategy.
I have told the story before of the death of news. Here I want to remark that it began with a question: What exactly is news? The answer seemed to be: that which is in the “A” section of the newspaper. But what was that? The answer seemed to be: that which publishers and journalists find important to their self-esteem. And that, in turn, tended to be political news, arbitrarily selected.
Unbundling allowed each informational niche to find its true market value. Political news settled near the bottom. The dirty secret of journalism stood exposed: people prefered Little Orphan Annie or I Love Lucy – or “The Evolution of the Dance” or strange-talking kittens – to detailed examinations of the latest Washington policy obsession, or blow-by-blow assessments of which politician is up or down.
It follows from this that the angry sputterings of journalists today aren’t inspired entirely, or even primarily, by the loss of their livelihood. It’s the sound of an outraged morality and a failed ideology. They don’t accept, in their hearts, that something is wrong with their business: they believe something is wrong with us. We are selfish to deny their importance. Without their guiding hand, we will slide into a “daily me” of smug self-confirmation. The last educated citizen will disappear along with the last journalist. Then we’ll be sorry.
As with Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, the anguish and the anger we hear from journalists is really a heartfelt plea that we believe in them, so they can again fly high to hobnob with the great and mighty of the world.
Journalists worshipped politics, because it brought them near powerful people – and, during the journalistic Camelot that was the Nixon administration, raised them above mere wheelers and dealers in power. Yet the American people are indifferently political. That was true before the advent of mass news, and remains true after their death. Further, we take our moral education from family, community, and church, not journalists or editorialists, even of the Hollywood kind.
The ideology of news was predicated on the certainty that we, the public, needed a steady diet of political news for our moral edification, and that they, the publishers and journalists, were the only legitimate source of this information. Things came apart when, after the rise of the Web, it became painfully clear that no, we don’t, and no, they’re not. In plainer terms: the ideology rose with monopoly, and fell with freedom of choice.