How, why newspapers fail: spinelessness and whining

The Argument

Two new books on U.S. journalism identify significant problems, but fall short on solutions. The Sun's publisher throws out three challenges.

Books

March 03, 2002|By Michael E. Waller | Michael E. Waller,Sun Staff

That the media -- defined broadly as including everything from television, radio and the Internet to compact discs, cell phones and video games -- engulf us every day is hardly news. That American journalism is in a state of flux and undergoing historic change also is hardly news.

However, the significance and impact of each of these cultural truths is news and is the subject of two new books, both worth reading. One is written by a prominent intellectual and the other by two top editors of The Washington Post. Each issues several warnings about the consequences of these evolving cultural changes yet neither offers much insight about what should be done about it.

In Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 260 pages, $25), Todd Gitlin explores the impact of our all-consuming immersion in a media-saturated world revolving at lightning speed.

The main truth about the media, according to Gitlin, is that its real meaning is that we use it to escape from meaning. It is not the information age; it is the age of relentless images that give us experiences, instant pleasure, disposable feelings and the buzz of the inconsequential but distract us from the more substantial pursuits of life, namely real -- not virtual -- relationships and civic obligations.

Gitlin argues that we vote for a way of life in how we choose to use our time, and we have voted to view, feel, smell and hear life through the media rather than plunging into life ourselves.

The consequence of this, according to Gitlin, is the devaluation of public life, largely reducing democracy to a sideshow.

He salts his book with heavy doses of history and sociology. And why not? He's a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, and it is this background that informs the work, which at times is profound.

But it is not without flaws. Gitlin mistakenly lumps newspapers in with all other media and offers little information and less insight about them. He fails to recount the main distinction between newspapers and all other forms of media: good newspapers consistently offer substantive debate on issues that matter in a meaningful life; they encourage a public life dedicated to civic improvement, the very processes at risk in the torrent that is overwhelming us.

An even more serious failing is the pitiful solution Gitlin proposes: step back and examine the media torrent as an entire way of life. Staring at the whole, he says, might lead us to figure out what to do other than change channels. This is no more constructive than navel-gazing.

The premise of The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril (Knopf, 292 pages, $25) is simpler than Gitlin's examination of the complexities of the media torrent. It repeats the argument that press critic A. J. Liebling made after World War II and was resuscitated in the 1970s and beyond by any number of critics -- that corporate ownership of newspapers and its demands for higher and higher earnings to satisfy shareholders and Wall Street is undermining good journalism and fostering bad journalism.

Authors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser bring excellent writing, some new perspectives and creative approaches to the old argument. And you would expect them to, considering their credentials. Downie has been executive editor of The Washington Post since 1991 and Kaiser was managing editor of The Post from 1991 to 1998 until he became associate editor of the paper. Both have spent their entire newspaper careers, since 1964, at The Post and have been foreign correspondents as well as holding several editing positions. For the purposes of their book, that is both a strength and a weakness. More on that later.

They are at their best when they examine, through case histories, the lengthy, difficult process of what they call accountability reporting, or investigative journalism, in which abuses and injustices are exposed so that the makers of public policy can act to correct them. They are correct when defining this as journalism's greatest obligation.

Downie and Kaiser also excel when they do their own original reporting. The chapters on network, local and cable television are excellent, informed by their terrific interviews with the anchors of the three commercial television networks. Excellence also permeates their analysis of news values.

But some of their underlying assumptions are questionable, at best, and elitist and condescending at worst. Here are two examples:

Assumption one: No newspaper can meet its civic obligation in a democracy if it doesn't publish in-depth regional, national and international news informed by consistent original reporting. By their definition, only The Post and The New York Times can qualify as great newspapers.

Nonsense, I say.

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