It's time to kill the idea that newspapers are essential for democracy.

Media criticism.
March 27 2009 6:05 PM

Democracy's Cheat Sheet?

It's time to kill the idea that newspapers are essential for democracy.

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Think I'm exaggerating? If you're a big proponent of democracy, you'll be interested to know that a majority of Americans don't care whether their local newspaper lives or dies. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month shows that fewer than half of Americans "say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community 'a lot.' " Hell, I'll bet that if you put the abolishment of newspapers on the ballot in a lot of cities, it just might pass.

Far from being yahoos, the Americans who thumbed their noses at newspapers in the Pew poll have a point. 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.

On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption "damage" democracy by increasing the public's cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.

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The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.

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The last century of newspapering proves that no publication can keep government and the powerful accountable for long. Hey, that's short enough to Twitter. Now excuse me while I bury myself in several days' worth of unread newspapers. Send e-mail, no longer than 140 characters, to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. If you've got more to say, send several 140-character e-mails. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.