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.

Newspapers. Click image to expand.
One of the last print editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

American newspapers have never been so loved as the moment when they appear to be dying.

This week, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., proposed the construction of an assisted-care vestibule in the tax code that would provide tax-exempt nonprofit status for ailing newspapers. The catch, of course, is that as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, these newspapers wouldn't be allowed to endorse candidates or advocate specific legislation. If you like NPR and PBS, which are always complaining about being underfinanced, you'd love weakling newspapers cobbling their budgets together from philanthropic donations, foundation grants, membership drives, and (who can't see this coming?) government subsidies.

Big love for newspapers has also been flowing in from academy/activist circles, a very unlikely source. Many in this orbit blame the press for not spotting our current financial predicament early enough and also believe that every reporter outside of the old Knight Ridder Washington bureau was complicit in the criminal conspiracy that made George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq possible. Bill Moyers encapsulated their view two years ago when he argued against the notion "that the dominant institutions of the press are guardians of democracy. They actually work to keep reality from us, whether it's the truth of money in politics, the social costs of 'free trade,' growing inequality, the resegregation of our public schools, or the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation."

Yet now, as newspapers attrite and collapse, some scholars are telling us that newspapers are a necessary component of democracy. Princeton University scholars Samuel Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido recently linked the Dec. 31, 2007, closure of the Cincinnati Post (circulation 27,000) to a local decline in vote turnout and office seekers, even though the Cincinnati Enquirer (circulation 200,000) survives. Media consolidation critics Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, who asked "Who'll Unplug the Big Media?" in The Nation a year ago, are back this week lamenting the demise of big newspaper journalism. They're calling for "tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies to convert the remains of old media into independent, stable institutions." I can't wait to hear the duo's pitch for a government subsidy to keep Rupert Murdoch's New York Post alive.

When the conversation turns to democracy, I turn to Adrian Monck, who rejects the idea that newspapers play an irreplaceable role in the institution's well-being. Indeed, American democracy survived its first century without much in the way of the investigative and accountability journalism we associate with newspapers. That kind of journalism didn't start to spread until the end of the 19th century. When Thomas Jefferson said he preferred newspapers without government to government without newspapers, he wasn't referring to anything we'd recognize as our local paper, says Stephen Bates, professor of journalism at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Slate contributor. The pre-modern press was captive of political parties, and their pages were filled with partisan fodder. What Jefferson was applauding was the newspapers' capacity as a forum for debate (and sometimes slander), not exposé.

I so love daily newspapers that I subscribe to four of them out of my own pocket, so please don't lump me in with the haters. But like Monck, I can imagine citizens acquiring sufficient information to vote or poke their legislators with pitchforks even if all the newspapers in the country fell into a bottomless recycling bin tomorrow.

To begin with, political parties, special interests, and government itself all have a stake in the maintenance of elections and democracy. If the Washington Post didn't endorse a presidential nominee or the New York Times failed to assemble exhaustive biographies of the candidates, I'm sure the voters would find their way to most of the relevant information. Until the current newspaper crisis, you rarely heard politicians or activists bleating about how important newspapers were to self-government. They mostly bitched about what awful failures newspapers were at uncovering vital data. The only group that holds a consistently high opinion of newspapers is newspaper people. They're the ones who do the bragging about how newspapers enrich democracy by uncovering pollution, malfeasance in office, abuses of power, and unsafe consumer goods.

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.

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.

******

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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