W. Joseph Campbell

Newspapers vital to democracy? Where’s the proof?

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on June 28, 2011 at 11:19 am

It’s a truism — a media myth, even — that independent-minded newspapers are “a vital bulwark” to democracy. It’s a claim easily made but supported by little persuasive evidence.

Hedges

Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the latest commentator to invoke the “vital bulwark” conceit, offering it up in a lengthy essay posted yesterday at Truthdig.com.

Hedges’ is an angst-ridden ode to newspapering. He writes: “The day The New York Times and other great city newspapers die, if such a day comes, will be a black day for the nation.”

Why is that?

Hedges claims that a “democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial sources of information, when it can discern lies from truth, when civic discourse is grounded in verifiable fact.”

But in saying so, Hedges offers more assertion than evidence.

Media pluralism is a marker of democratic governance, not its essential precondition.

The countries that New York-based Freedom House ranks highest in measures of press freedom are functioning democracies.

Democratic rule enables media pluralism, not the other way round.

What’s more, the American experience with even nominally impartial news media has been relatively brief. Democratic governance emerged, evolved, and became consolidated in America despite the absence of “trustworthy and impartial sources of information” that Hedges extols.

American media history has been defined mostly by a vigorously partisan press.

And of course, unabashedly partisan newspapers still characterize the media landscape of such well-established democracies as Britain.

The ethos of detached impartiality news coverage began to emerge in the United States in the late 19th century, as I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism. But that approach to newsgathering took years to develop, years to become the normative standard in American journalism.

Detached impartiality is taught nowadays in journalism schools. It is the dominant professional paradigm. But that doesn’t mean it’s rigorously respected or routinely practiced.

Nor is much of the content of American newspapers necessarily vital to the functioning of a democracy. As Jack Shafer pointed out in a memorable commentary a couple of years ago:

“Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. Car bomb in Pakistan? Drug war in Mexico? Flood in North Dakota? Murder in the suburbs? Great places to get Thai food after midnight? A review of the Britney Spears concert? New ideas on how to serve leftover turkey? The sports scores? The stock report? Few of these stories are likely to supercharge the democratic impulse.”

A little-studied phenomenon of American democratic life is that of going newsless, of choosing to avoid the news, impartial or not.

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center and released last year, 17 percent of adult Americans  receive no news on a typical day. They eschew the news despite ready access to a variety of news-delivery platforms, both traditional and digital.

More than 25 percent of American of adults younger than 30 say they go newsless, according to Pew. In the 18-to-24 age cohort, 31 percent say they go without the news.

And yet American democracy functions, if not flourishes, in its messy, often-frustrating ways.

No doubt some slice of “newsless” population is turned off by perceived distortion in the content offered by the nominally impartial, even-handed news media.

Just 20 percent of respondents in the Pew study said they believed all or most of what they read in the New York Times; 25 percent said they believed all or most of what they read in the Wall Street Journal.

That figure for “your daily newspaper” was 21 percent, Pew reported.

So even if they nominally strive for even-handedness and impartiality, leading U.S. newspapers face steep believability problems.

Hedges, it’s interesting to recall, is no model of the impartial journalist.

He notes in his essay that he left the Times because of his “vocal and public opposition to the war in Iraq,” saying he “cared more about truth than news.”

WJC

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