W. Joseph Campbell

News media indispensable to democracy? Some evidence would be nice

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on May 1, 2011 at 9:49 am

The Washington Post ombudsman invokes in his column today the defining conceit of American journalism: That without truth-telling reporters and editors, democracy would be imperiled.

Or, as he puts it, rather simplistically:

“What we do is report, write and edit stories. We take and publish photographs (and now video, too). We publish the stories and images as news through compelling design and graphics. And, in columns and blogs, we analyze the news. Through this painstaking process, we reveal truths. The country cannot long survive as a democracy, or as a capitalist economy, without this kind of independent journalism.”

But how does the ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, know that? What evidence does he offer to buttress the notion that the news media are indispensable bulwarks of democracy and capitalism?

None. He presents the self-congratulatory claim about journalism’s value as self-evident.

It is true that robust journalism and media pluralism are hallmarks of democratic governance.

But democratic rule typically enables independent journalism rather than the other way round.

We see this phenomenon across the world: Whenever the heavy hand of authoritarian rule is lifted, non-official news media flourish, usually as partisan platforms. It’s a point I made in my first book, The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, which examined the rise of media pluralism in two states in Francophone West Africa.

But emergent independent journalism, or well-established journalism, isn’t a variable essential to a thriving democracy. I’m reminded of a superb essay on this topic that the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009 for slate.com.

As Shafer correctly pointed out:

“Democracy thrived in the United States in the 1800s, long before the invention of what we call quality journalism. Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections. Compare that with the 55.3 percent and 56.8 percent turnouts in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.”

And party-oriented journalism lasted well beyond 1888. It stretched through the period of the yellow press at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. The leading newspapers of those days were often overtly partisan.

The leading practitioner of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst, turned his newspapers into a platform for his mostly unfulfilled political objectives. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president and the governorship of New York, ambitions that were boosted by, but not contingent upon, his activist-oriented newspapers.

Shafer’s column also noted:

“Could it be that deep-dish reporting that uncovers governmental malfeasance and waste … doesn’t promote activism or participation? Could it be that such exposés end up souring the public on democracy and other institutions?”

It’s an interesting point. Aggressive, searching journalism that offers a stream of reporting about the flaws, shortcomings, and corruption in democratic institutions also may be a reason many adult Americans have tired of the news and have turned it off completely.

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center and released last year, 17 percent of adult Americans go newsless on a typical day. That is, they eschew the news despite ready access to a variety of news-delivery options and platforms, both traditional and digital.

The going-newsless phenomenon in a news-drenched society is highest among 18-to-24-years-old; 31 percent of those young Americans go without the news on a typical day.

“Large numbers of Americans are beyond media influence,” I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

So how are news outlets so vital to American democracy when so many Americans ignore them completely? Pexton’s assertion about the indispensable character of the media ignores such complexity.

Pexton’s claim is the kind of thin platitude that serves to reassure journalists in a time of great upheaval in the field, a time when the direction of the profession is uncertain, when the longevity of once-superior newspapers like the Washington Post is in doubt.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds, and Little Miss Attila,
for linking to this post

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