What is our once-free press good for? Absolutely nothing

Sol W. Sanders  

The great American newspaper is dying, done in by incompetent journalists and management unable to deal with asphyxiation brought on by the digital revolution. It is going out not with a bang, but a whimper. That simpering you see is subservience to the Obama administration, sometimes with such intellectual corruption that it takes this old newsman’s breath away.

We have hypothesized for decades that radio and television — and now social media and the Internet — eventually would be adequate replacements for old-fashioned newspapers. That kind of public communication was necessary to a thriving civil society. Information, we believed, was the lifeblood of a democratic society.

An image of President Barack Obama appears on a television monitor via live feed in an almost empty White House Brady press briefing room in Washington, as the president campaigns in nearby Woodbridge, Va., on Sept. 21.      /Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Our Founding Fathers enshrined a free press as a necessity for the republic — even if as an afterthought in the Bill of Rights, borrowed from slaveholding Virginians, no less. The body politic would have to endure all the press’s excesses: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and, later, Lincoln were to learn that bitter lesson. But a powerful nongovernmental taskmaster was critical, guarding against the human frailty inherent in any institution, even that uniquely ingenious one created by the Constitutional Convention.

Ironically, recent figures show that newspaper circulation is increasing, at least temporarily. But almost all the gain is from digital subscribers — in the case of the New York Times, a 73 percent increase by digital readers, who now exceed print subscribers. What no one wants to talk about is how this is coming about. It’s a little like Wile E. Coyote when he darts off the cliff but doesn’t fall until he looks down. Virtually all the successful digital “news” operations — whether a success d’estime or in dollars — are indirectly financed by and plagiarize the dying print media.

No one appreciates more than your humble servant what the magical digital revolution has brought to the search for knowledge, in its most vulgar manifestation in daily or weekly journalism. But “reporting” these days more often than not means scrounging the Internet for a subject using other people’s sources and then cobbling them together to reach often wrong conclusions.

“Handouts” are the order of the day. My inbox is cluttered daily with dozens of offers of assistance in writing “stories” — if not already written for me — from “public relations” correspondents. When we called them “publicists,” as we used to do, the euphemism was more exact. But the PR types, just like most of the K Street lobbyists who importune the Congress and Washington regulators, do indeed perform a service. They know their client’s business, at least, and that client is often at the center of a complex issue in our economy or political system.

On larger issues, the newspaper (and its affiliated television and cable news services) has collapsed. Its ultimate crisis is exemplified in the attempt to help President Obama cover up the failure of his policy of outreach/appeasement to the Arab/Muslim world. That disaster has climaxed in the killing of an American ambassador in an attack by a resurrected Al Qaida terrorist network. Such crises may be unavoidable in a brutal world, given the long histories involved.

But that Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s State Department did not anticipate and prepare for the anniversary of 9/11 in a hotbed of radical Islam is indefensible. That’s the story the so-called mainstream media refuse to tell, in an obvious ploy to support the president’s re-election campaign.

Once upon a time, American journalism would have reacted differently. The history of media antagonism to power has been fundamental to U.S. politics. Even during the four Roosevelt administrations, despite FDR’s incredible charisma, his failure to solve the economic crisis and to avoid World War II were the objects of criticism by American newspapers, a majority of which opposed each of his re-election campaigns.

In 1936, the so-called “straw poll” of the Literary Digest, then one of the country’s leading publications, predicted a victory for Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, a Republican, over Roosevelt. On Nov. 1, FDR won by the greatest landslide in history, carrying every state but Maine and Vermont. By 1938, the Digest had disappeared without a trace.

History, as the co-founder of communism, Friedrich Engels, wrote, has a way of repeating itself, first as tragedy and a second time as farce. But who is laughing as the American media commit suicide this election season?

Sol W. Sanders, ([email protected]), writes the ‘Follow the Money’ column for The Washington Times on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.