Until and unless the press understands that its mission is to be the champion of the people’s welfare, nobody can plan for its recovery.
By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / June 30, 2009
As almost everybody knows, the outlook for the mainstream press is bleak. Metro dailies like the Austin American-Statesman are likely to shutter within a decade. National newspapers like The New York Times may survive as ink-on-paper publications, but even the future of their electronic versions is uncertain because nobody has figured out how to “monetize” the web. Trembling before this scenario, friends of the press holler that “if the press dies, democracy dies!”
While nobody can dismiss any of the troubles facing the press, I think that the usual worriers have got the cart before the horse. Changes in technology will not bring about the downfall of the press. Buggy whip makers were sidelined, it is true, but the last buggy-chassis builders were the first auto chassis builders, and the last buggy upholstery workers were the first auto upholstery workers. The same is already true in the press: paper-newspaper editors have become web editors.
But civic life, which provided the content of the front-page sections of newspapers, is ailing, even moribund. If American democracy withers, newspapers that cover its life (usually with reverence and decorum) will wither, too — and that notion is far more menacing to newspapers than anything about the web.
The idea that democracy might die is by no means new with me. I found it several years ago in Robert Putnam’s 2001 book, Bowling Alone, a catalog of the decline of unions, political clubs, PTAs, even bowling leagues — of democratic institutions in the broadest sense of the term. (The book gets its title from the observation that during the 1950s, most bowlers played on teams; today, most bowl alone.) The problem with Putnam’s book isn’t that it isn’t seminal, but instead, that if Karl Marx wrote Capital today, it would be a sensation for six weeks. All of our media are now geared to the pace of talk-entertainment shows. Everything published is a fad.
When I first read Bowling Alone several years ago, my impression was, “Oh, so the U. S. is catching up with Mexico.” Our southern neighbor has long been a country where only 15 percent of households buy newspapers, and in which, as a consequence –as will soon be the case here — carrier delivery is unknown. It is fair to say that at least until 2000 — and things haven’t changed greatly since then — Mexican democracy was an affair of those who had a financial stake in its doings, roughly, the 15 percent who read newspapers. Even today Mexican commoners neither believe that their nation is in good hands, nor that they can do anything about it. For them, the news might as well be a record of hurricanes and tornadoes, of natural forces, acts of God.
It isn’t that Mexicans can’t, or don’t read. They do. For decades, the nation’s leading newspaper has been a soccer daily. Feeling powerless as citizens, Mexicans turn their attention to sports, the music stage, the telenovelas and currently, to cop-and-narco jousts.
American democracy is not as far removed from the Mexican version as Americana buffs would like to think. Hollywood, Nashville and the NBA are the real plazas of our public life, Facebook, our most democratic periodical. Our villains come from the realm of pop culture, more than from public life: while millions clamored for O.J., Michael Jackson and Michael Vick to be brought to the bar, almost nobody clamors for the indictment of Yoo, Cheney or Bush, in part because they are minor-league celebrities, unworthy of spectacle or awe. Our heroes are mostly pop, too. If Obama was the presidential choice of collegians, that was largely because he was cool: had Biden headed the ticket, Salin Palin would be vice-president today.
American newspapers were failing long before the Internet was born. In 1952, the average American family read 1.3 newspapers per day. That figure has steadily declined to below .4. “Readers” of web publications, though more numerous with every count, spend about 20 minutes a week with online newspapers. Twenty minutes per day was the usual time in the heyday of print and public involvement. Older generations still read more than younger ones, but the most recent figures show a drop in all age categories. Joe Six Pack has quit reading and Joe College mainly reads headlines, probably about sports and entertainment stars.
People who consider themselves friends of the press are now spinning ideas to save it. But it may be too late. A new format, tax-supported subsidies or foundation grants won’t revive the press because those measures can’t revive democracy, which was never in the best of health, anyway.
Perhaps the problem is best explained, as everything today, by a sports analogy. Front-page news has essentially been a report on the fortunes of the home team — our representatives in government. The news is as interesting as the scores. Not long ago, students at Sacramento State voted down a fee increase to support campus athletics. A New York Times story on their referendum quoted the student body president as explaining that “I just don’t think that students care too much about it, because they’re not winning the big games.” It’s a fair guess that students at Sacramento State don’t read about their Hornets, either.
It is the same with our government. The disasters that even the youngest of us have witnessed, including the Afghan and Iraq wars and the ongoing financial collapse, were in part the work of the players we put in office to catch special-interest fly balls and to hit home runs. Before Tet, did our press print even the facts about the war in Vietnam? Did it decry the outsourcing of our industrial base, the dismantling our unions? Did its business sections tell us that the housing boom was a looming bust? Reporters at the New York Times won Pulitzers for promoting the myths that justified the war in Iraq, and as Bill Moyers has pointed out in a documentary, Buying the War, most invasion shills are still at work as columnists, telling the nation what is wise.
Our government, the citizenry’s home team, has been failing its fans, and hasn’t hit a homer, by my estimate, since at least 1964, when Medicare was passed. Who wants to read about chronic losers? Who wants to read their apologists? Instead of using the colorful and partisan languages of the sports pages, the front-page press tried to report political affairs in a neutral, “objective” and detached way — as if readers had no home team, nobody to bat for them, nobody who deserved a cheer. Of course, most politicians had been bought to throw the games they played for the people’s team — but the newspapers weren’t leading the fans in any rounds of booing.
The survival of the mainstream press now depends upon the detachment and indifference that it took such pains to cultivate in its readership. It is improbable that readers will rise to save it, in which case, even to talk of its salvation is beside the point. Until and unless the press understands that its mission is to be the champion of the people’s welfare, nobody can plan for its recovery. When Mickey Mantle lay dying, when Barry Bonds was discredited, smart managers didn’t wring their hands and moan. They looked for replacements — or transferred their talents to other teams.
[Dick J. Reavis is an award-winning journalist, educator and author. He wrote for Austin’s underground newspaper The Rag, and was a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine. Dick Reavis’ book, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, about the siege and burning of the Branch Davidian compound, was published by Simon and Schuster and may be the definitive work on the subject.]