Sunday’s New York Times brought us some thoughts on the crisis facing the newspaper industry from Frank Rich. He’s not, I admit, my favorite columnist, generally speaking – but it’s actually an interesting and thoughtful piece. The death of the newspaper may well be upon us – though as my friend Gigi Sohn helpfully reminds me, that doesn’t necessarily portend the death of journalism, which would be a far more serious matter – and it should be of concern to anyone interested in the future of “news” and the future of an informed global community. Rich acknowledges – correctly, I think – that many of the newspaper industry’s woes are due to its own “self-destructive retreat from innovation”.
“In the Internet era, many sectors of American media have been re-enacting their at first complacent and finally panicked behavior of 60 years ago. Few in the entertainment business saw the digital cancer spreading through their old business models until well after file-sharing, via Napster, had started decimating the music industry. It’s not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival. But, with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.”
It’s that snide reference to being “tediously reminded” of Jefferson’s vision of the free press, and of the crucial importance of the free press to a functioning democracy, that – naturally! – caught my eye. Oh, so arch, so condescending! Who can resist a little bit of smarmy Jefferson-bashing every so often – even when he’s on your side of the argument?!
I am, I happily and rather proudly confess, one of the tedious reminders. Why, I wonder, is it so tedious to be reminded that it was, in fact, Jefferson who, more than any other figure in history, articulated and helped establish, in this country, a vision unprecedented in human history: the government would allow people to speak their minds freely and without hindrance. It’s not about whether Jefferson does or doesn’t get the credit for the accomplishment – it’s about understanding the idea, and the context from which it sprung. I think it deepens our understanding of the principle to understand how it came into being, and understanding how it came into being necessarily means understanding how Jefferson helped bring it into being. Understanding, among other thing, how long the odds were that he’d succeed; when Jefferson wrote his justly famous epigram:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”
the government of the United States (including a fully complicit judicial branch) was throwing newspaper editors in jail for expressing their displeasure with the way the Adams administration was doing things. Had it continued, it would have destroyed the United States before the United States had a chance to become the United States; it didn’t continue because the people of the United States threw the bastards out in the election of 1800; and I don’t see why it’s so tedious to remind ourselves of all that from time to time.
Why does Frank Rich find it so “tedious” to be reminded of Jefferson’s role in that astonishing accomplishment? You’d think that journalists like Rich would adopt Jefferson as their secular saint – he actually believed that what they do is more important than what the government does!
My theory is that Rich is uncomfortable with Jefferson on his side because – ironically, perhaps – Jefferson’s vision of the primacy of unfettered communication is a little too radical for Rich. He’s not nearly as sure as Jefferson was himself that newspapers matter more than the government matters; faced with the Jeffersonian choice, I think Frank Rich hesitates, but then then goes with Alternative A. Or perhaps what makes him uncomfortable with having Jefferson on his side is that this is all a prelude to asking for a most un-Jefferson-like government bailout for the newspaper industry? He claims that it’s not:
“Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.
It’s immaterial whether we find the fruits of their labors on paper, a laptop screen, a BlackBerry, a Kindle or podcast. But someone — and certainly not the government, with all its conflicted interests — must pay for this content and make every effort to police its fairness and accuracy. If we lose the last major news-gathering operations still standing, there will be no news on Google News unless Google shells out to replace them. It won’t.”