Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LET US NOW PRAISE DAILY NEWSPAPERS....Atrios says today:

As many others have pointed out, while criticism from the left (which they ignore) is about making them better, the right is pretty much out to destroy any media in this country that doesn't exist for the sole purpose of encouraging tax cuts, demonizing gay people, and generally supporting the agenda of Dear Leader.

With respect, this really doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and an email from a friend about my tetchy reaction to yesterday's New York Times announcement reminds me to say something about it. Bear with me here.

Here's the deal. Newspapers have been slowly dying for a long time. Afternoon editions disappeared long ago, joint operating agreements are the norm in the few cities lucky enough to have more than one newspaper left, classified advertising has been almost completely lost to the net, and readership has been dwindling for decades.

That's a real problem, because newspapers are the only consistent source of real reporting we have. In fact, you can narrow it down further: the only sources of serious, day-to-day reporting left in the United States are the major national dailies: the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and a couple of others with big reporting staffs.

But here's what the public hears about newspapers from the blogosphere:

  • From the right: newspapers suck because they're too liberal.

  • From the left: newspapers suck because they're craven apologists for the Bush administration.

We can kid ourselves all we want that our toughlove approach to media criticism is aimed only at "making them better," but that's not what the public hears. They hear a group of squabbling teenagers who both agree that newspapers suck. So they tune out. And all that's left is network news with its 90-second "in-depth" segments, 20/20 and A Current Affair, talk radio, and blogs.

Now, Atrios is correct that the right is out to destroy the media especially the major national dailies, which set the tone for so much other coverage because they're the ones with serious reporting capabilities. This has been a key goal of theirs for decades, and conservative bloggers are merely their latest foot soldiers. And why not? 80% of the most popular political blogs are conservative, so media bashing is a twofer: it eliminates an enemy and simultaneously promotes a medium that's dominated by conservatives.

Given all this, liberals should think very hard before joining the media bashing crusade too eagerly. Sure, the New York Times employs Judith Miller, and the pressure of daily deadlines promotes too much lazy he-said/she-said reporting on their pages, but guess what? It's still the best newspaper in the world, bar none. If you really believe the Times is a piece of crap, your problem is not with the Times, it's with the current state of the art in human perfectibility.

None of this means newspapers shouldn't be criticized. But endless broad brush howling does nothing except enable the right wing's agenda, regardless of what the howling is aimed at. If liberal bloggers were wiser, we'd spend a little more time praising our big national newspapers and a little less time shaking our fists over the fact that sometimes they aren't on our side. Our real opposition is the right wing press destruction machine, not the press itself.

Because if big newspapers die, that's pretty much the end of real daily reporting in this country. That would suit the right just fine, I think, but not so much the left. We shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we shouldn't kid ourselves that constant carping frequently over trivial transgressions somehow makes the press stronger. It doesn't.

As for the very real financial problems at the Times and other big newspapers, I don't know what the answer is. The reality is that television isn't going away and classified ads won't be returning to newsprint anytime soon. Is there a way to make money on the web by cooperating with bloggers, instead of locking content away from them? I don't know. But newspapers and bloggers are symbiotic at this point, and both would do well to think harder about this.

Kevin Drum 4:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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