by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - May 4, 2009) Of all the crimes attributable to the Internet -- viz. rampant amateurism, mindless trivia, appalling egocentricity, lethal misinformation, outrageous rumormongering, etc., etc., the most fiendish is the part it has played in destroying journalism and the traditions associated with newspaper readership.
As press journals disappear almost monthly from every part of the country and even historically established news corporations sink or scarper for the lifeboats, we have to acknowledge the fact that the dominions ruled by the gargantuan growth of the Internet have been the most direct cause of these closures.
At the risk of sounding like a luddite, I feel the need to join the growing chorus bewailing the rapid disappearance of hard copy in virtually every part of the country.
What do we lose when we lose the tradition of the living newspaper? First of all, we eradicate the sense of community; the clusters of population that, for geographical reasons, rely on local news coverage to brief them on happenings in their own neighborhoods. Second, we lose the exposés of state and national wrongdoing, which are traditionally revealed by sharp-eyed men and women who have made it their job to expose malfeasance, graft, cronyism, larceny, or worse. Third, we forfeit the professional commentary in Op Ed pages and personalized columns that elucidate political, international, and local crises; journalistic minds that by elucidating the shadow areas of every story produce a running sub-text, which is often where the real truth lies sequestered. Fourth, we jeopardize all the journalism courses being taught in colleges and universities throughout the country. Who is going to sign up to pursue an occupation that appears to be incapable of providing a future livelihood and whose survival is unpredictable?
Every investigative journalist is a whistleblower of sorts and in the past we have relied on such vigilantes to safeguard what is left of our tattered and crime-infested democracy -- reporters like those who exposed the crimes of varlets such as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Journalism is essentially an independent branch of government -- a Fourth Estate -- that monitors those malefactions and mendacities to which the nation has been prone ever since it came into being in the l8th century.
Imagine a society that never had the services of writers such as Heywood Broun, Walter Lippman, Molly Ivins, Franklin P. Adams, H.L. Mencken, I.F. Stone, Joseph and Stewart Allsop, James Reston, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Tom Paine, Joseph Addison, or Samuel Johnson -- journalists who, utilizing humor and insight, bounced off of contemporary events in ways that made them clearer to the general readership and who, in their heyday, had the kind of following that we now associate with rap artists or film celebrities. What these journalists, and hundreds like them, provided for the populace was daily and weekly perceptions about the imperceptibilities of American life. And they delivered those insights and advocacies via hard copy.
The joy of the newspaper was always that the stories that emblazoned the front pages would eventually be clarified through the inside pages in features and columns; distinctive voices that we came to trust (or doubt) but which were always there sorting out our values, our uncertainties and, yes, even our prejudices.
There have been many descriptions of the esthetic appeal of the daily newspaper; the tactile feel of turning over crinkly pages at breakfast time; being wooed and entertained by like-minded people. Comforting as the reading habit itself might be, these are not the reasons for bemoaning the disappearance of the daily papers. The more pressing argument is that it removes the intellects and personalities of writers whom we have come to rely on to dope out the hurly-burly of daily living. Yes, the papers gave us the news, but they did a great deal more. They analyzed and enlightened readers employing a forum of mixed opinions and diverse insights. In a good newspaper, readers were helped to make up their minds because writers more-in-the-know than themselves were opining in feuilletons, columns, and Op Ed pieces -- as indeed, they are now doing in regard to the jumbled mysteries of the recession. Perhaps this same sense of variety can be achieved on the Internet, but the number of Web sites are so diffuse and so many lack human definition, it is virtually impossible to know which versions to download and, once downloaded, which to believe.
The press, and the freedom of the press, are so important to the nation that it was addressed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Of course, that doesn't guarantee the commercial wherewithal needed to maintain a newspaper, but because the press is cited in the First Amendment it indicates how important it was to the Founding Fathers. The Internet, although it deals with the same issues and incorporates the work of both professional reporters and bloggers, is by no stretch of the imagination the equivalent of professional journalism. Firstly, its writers (particularly the bloggers) appropriate many of its stories from standard press sources. Secondly, although there is a small number of legitimate news sources on line, the vast majority of bloggers are rank amateurs and lack polish, professionalism, and originality. It is unlikely that blogs will ever take the place of professional journalism -- simply because they lack the ability to accumulate news from a vast array of different sources and maintain correspondents in different parts of the world. Like the vampire it is, the Internet sucks the blood out of a handful of professional journals and, like the amateur actor who desperately tries to imitate the professional, pretends to a proficiency that it cannot maintain. But I am less concerned with the proliferation of blogs than I am with the disappearance of professionally-manned newspapers. There is a tradition there that, if abandoned, will represent an enormous loss to the intellectual traditions that we associate with the written word.
Do we really want to abandon the language and character of professional journalism for the amorphous alternative of anything-goes twitterings from fatuous scribes whose conception of the world is bounded by Facebook on the right and YouTube on the left?
Although Senator Benjamin Cardin's Newspaper Revitalization Act is not the best answer to the press crisis, it might serve as a useful interim expedient before true regeneration kicks in. Under the Cardin Act, newspapers would be allowed to operate as non-profits for educational purposes under the US tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. But I suspect the thirst for advertising capital will be hard to quench -- nor should it be quenched. Advertising revenue has always been the bulwark of the press and although that is the most visible well that has run dry, it is conceivable that with a replenished vigor in newspapers themselves, it could return. In short, this might be a temporary dip rather than a total submersion. Magazines have been known to fade and recover -- so have film companies, radio stations, and broken-down stand-up comics. One hopes against hope that the sooty smudge that dirtied our fingers during the heyday of newsprint may yet be magically preserved.
I recognize this is a lost cause -- as finance, sales, and advertising have placed a heavy toll on a profession that many of us grew up with and still revere. But it is worth stopping to consider what is entailed by this national casualty and to hope that a time will come when professionalism will be more respected than profit and Americans will rise up to affirm that there are some things that, if they are frittered away due to commerce, will diminish both the minds and spiritual welfare of the nation.
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