November 19, 2007

The "Sacred Trust" of the First Amendment

"Trusted" "Independent" "Objective" Yeah, right. Next.

In what is now a common collection of bitching and moaning wafting out of newspaper editorial rooms, The Seattle Times published a cri de coeur Sunday in The Handoff: Newspapers in the Digital Age that quotes this sad bastard child of Prince Don De Lusion:

"While the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace the old ones there's no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors." -- Hal Crowther, columnist, The Independent Weekly (North Carolina)
The always unctuous James Vesley of the ST uses this to end his "editorial" because, I guess, he couldn't come up with a zinger for the standard "O woe is us at the newspapers because the Internet ate our lunch" blatherfest. It's the sort of thumb-sucker you see all the time in newspapers from clapped-out hacks who are goin' down slow. They all seem to think that because "they" care about protecting, in the words of Governor William J. Le Petomane, their "phony baloney jobs" that we care if they are employed as a "journalists" or as an overfed hamsters in an Eastern Washington windfarm.

Vesley's chief villain in all this is craigslist:

"I see Craigslist as a negative-editorial product. Why? Because it claims the profits normally shifted to the newsroom. Without the obligations of journalism, e-commerce becomes the anti-newspaper."

Well, God bless Craig Newmark's little cotton socks say I. Long ago, when I and Newmark were both members of the WELL, Newmark took a bare bones budget, an idea, a crappy but now classic interface, and a couple of insights into the uses of the net and the elements of trust in online relationship and built them out into something that performs real and vital services for millions of people every day. And for the most part for free. It is now hard to think of a world of transactions of all sorts between individuals that would operate smoothly without craigslist.

Yes, craigslist has sucked up the vast classified revenue stream that used to flow into the nation's newspapers, but that is only because it was there to be absorbed right down to the last little drop.

It's not that the papers didn't have ample warning that this was coming. It's not that they didn't pour hundreds of millions if not billions into an "online presence." None of that. It is that the Vesleys of the newspaper world were clueless from the beginning and retain their cluelessness today about the kind of connectivity that people want when it comes to their everyday small commercial interactions. What they don't want is a return to the gala days of phoning in a classified, paying an outrageous sum, waiting two, three, four days and then sitting by the phone hoping somebody will call.

As a fellow member of The Well back in the 1980s and 1990s, I knew Newmark in that glancing way you know people you only know online. But I can assure you that the last thing Newmark would have wanted was to kill off newspapers, especially liberal ones. But that's just the way it happened.

But still, craigslist is useful to "journalists" like Vesley and Crowther. It enables them to hide their failure to inform, enlighten, and entertain readers along with their unremitting slanting and ginning up of facts with slant and opinion behind the standard cookie-cutter excuse for dying newspapers: "The Internet did it."

The Internet did nothing to these dinosaurs that they didn't do to themselves. After all, they had as much if not more access to the Net than Craig Newmark and huge stacks of cash which they flushed down the rat-holes of "Push," "Streaming," "Paid Content Walls" and a host of other ideas that came too little, too late, and too bogus. Watching the newspapers play Internet over the years has been like watch the Special Olympics of Cyberspace. After all, a "new record" for page views set by most newspapers is not in the same league as pages views for craigslist.

Right now I'm sure that banging about in what passes for the business brains of these AP aggregators is the thought that, "Social media! Hey, that's HOT. Let's get into it! Make us a Digglike site and let's like, you know, mount videos on it -- but don't give out the embed codes because we want them all coming to us to watch the half-page ads for the Prius drop down over the video...."

"S0-cial me-di-a," goes the chant, "we'll do so-ci-al me-di-a and then they will have to come and watch our ads!" Well, the people keep a comin', but the train done gone. Little do these late to the party so-cial-lists know that the window for being a Social Media site of any significance closed two years ago. Anybody who thinks they can play in that space today and make a dime from Google is just blowing smoke up the backside of whatever or whomever is still willing to write checks. Newspapers and social media? It is to laugh. Most of them are still trying to get their blogs and blogging policies in place.

The biggest bit of denial still extant in newspapers is the denial that their self-willed blindness, their bias -- in short, their smarmy attitude in the 21st century -- is itself the largest threat to their continued existence.

"Journalists" have had it so soft for so long that they cannot really see themselves as they are. Instead, they seem to look into the mirror of themselves and see.... heros of the truth. Here's Vesley's version of this effluvia. You can almost see him inhale it's rich personal fragrance:

"Reporters know that truth is fleeting, and that it changes in the palm of the hand like mercury. For just a moment, something is true. It is true because it is verifiable by other sources and true because of the checks and counterchecks that look for truth amid the haze of events. It was that verifiable truth that kept newspapers coming to the kitchen table.

Foremost, a decent newspaper is the enemy of rumor and a citizen of its place. Blogs are not the enemy of rumor, nor is talk radio or cable television. Rumor is not the substitute for truth, and it takes journalism to sift for truth."

Given the well-documented record filed under "Truth, Reporters," these two graphs could make Pontius Pilate blush. Seldom have I seen moral relativism represented so well as standard "journalistic practice:" It is precisely this kind of internal preening that keeps newspaper writers and editors from seeing themselves and what they do for what they are and what it is. More than that, it keeps them from seeing what it has become -- a "sacred trust" that they've frittered away, inch by column inch, day by day, for years. The result is that fewer and fewer people come to newspapers because they trust them, but because what they now trust is that today's newspapers will not tell them the truth, but validate how they feel -- about America, about Bush, about Iraq, about Global Warming. Truth and facts have nothing to do with newspapers these days -- just validation and feeling righteous.

Pretty much the same thing that Fox news does with its viewers, only it is -- for all its slogans -- much more honest about it.

"The sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors." Yes, it did and in our time newspapers have pretty much ignored that trust and indulged their reporters' and editors' own little hobbyhorses. It's little wonder than readers expecting facts and truth have turned more and more to the Net.

American newspapers have, for decades now, hired and promoted almost entirely within the dumber levels of what passes for America's intellectual class. And in those levels, the political and social codes that exist are almost all of the liberal-left persuasion. We have study after study that confirms this. The problem is that these people, now in the second and third generation, don't -- for the most part -- think of themselves as "liberal-left," but as really good people who happen to know the truth and are more than happy to share it with everyone. Except that, in increasing numbers, "people are staying away in droves." The resulting debacle will accelerate and the death of newspapers will be commonplace in the next five years. Nothing can reverse the rot since, as readers desert newspapers because their attitudes and opinions, the core of readers that remain will be there because they enjoy the attitudes and opinions. This will cause the newspapers attitudes and opinions to skew ever more left in pursuit of this ever shrinking pool of readers.

And so the rot will continue and it will have nothing to do with craigslist and everything to do with the squandering of the "sacred trust." In the end, we'll have the final lines of Easy Rider:

Billy: We did it, man. We did it, we did it. We're rich, man. We're retirin' in Florida now, mister.
Captain America: You know Billy, we blew it.

"We blew it." Maybe, but I wouldn't count on it. I think instead we'll have the lame excuse of people like Vesley which amounts to, in sum, "The Internet ate my homework."

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Posted by Vanderleun at November 19, 2007 12:13 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

MSM journalism: the first draft of revisionist history.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at November 19, 2007 4:43 PM

I think the turning point came when journalism ceased to be a trade and became a profession. I'm unsure exactly when that happened; probably in the 60's or 70's.

Reporters traditionally came from the working class and got hired by newspapers because they wanted to report the news and had a talent for writing.

Nowadays starry-eyed youngsters pursue degrees in Journalism because they want to Change the World.

Posted by: rickl at November 19, 2007 4:49 PM

I think he meant to write..."truth is eternal but my metaphors are ever shifting..."

You nailed 'em;

Also helpful to remember that these are the noble print warriors for truth who couldn't get their heads into the sand fast enough during the Mohammed Cartoons "crisis." And then had the balls to come out with an editorial frumping and harumphing about respect for religion....snore..begone ye gnats of nothingness...

Posted by: Doug Anderson at November 19, 2007 6:01 PM

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I wouldn't mind the slant if the so-called "journalists" would get off their lazy butts and do their jobs the way they should. I've seen lazy writing. I've committed lazy writing. I know how it looks. And if you add lazy writing to lazy reporting and lazy arguments, you get the crap that is modern newspapers.

In contrast, I've seen good reporting— mostly online these days, but once or twice in an "alternative" paper. Those reporters go out and pound the pavement, look at what they're actually seeing, and refuse to draw conclusions until they actually have information. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

Posted by: B. Durbin at November 19, 2007 6:45 PM

Excellent points, all, and they make me wonder... is there an overlooked opportunity in newspapers?

Is there some virtue that the printed page has that the on-screen page can't duplicate? A strength that a savvy businessman could take advantage of to run a successful, profitable, and growing newspaper?

I don't know the business well enough to guess at the answer. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Posted by: Harvey at November 19, 2007 8:49 PM

The death of the newspapers is, IMO, a great tragedy. I used to love reading the paper back in the 50s. In the 70s, even when they started becoming liberal propaganda rags, I liked them because they still had enough decent reporting.

I became more disgusted during the Clinton years, but since Bush was elected and 9/11 occurred, I just can't abide the torrent of in your face left wing propaganda. What also torques me off is that they have the hypocrisy to claim to be objective. I would have more respect for papers like the Seattle Times and the Post Intelligencer if they would openly declare that they are pushing socialist objectives and quit trying to pose as objective purveyors of truth.

After Abu Ghraib I quit the Times and seldom read a paper now. I actually miss the experience of holding those pages in my hands and leisurely scanning through them. But, like a romance gone permanently sour, I doubt if I'll ever subscribe to a newspaper again.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at November 19, 2007 9:47 PM

There used to be nothing as delicious as sitting down on a cold morning with a cup a' joe and reading the newspaper. This was when writers were more than writers. The little left-leaning lame brains coming out of J schools are not what I had in mind. They and their ilk have destroyed an institution so central to our lives past that it completely sickens me. That's OK - give it a little time and they'll all be selling vacuum cleaners for a living. H.L. Mencken, where are you when we need you? Instead we have Keith Olbermann. Barrff.

Posted by: Pickett at November 20, 2007 7:13 AM

Yes, there are things that newspapers are good for that the internet will never match. I know it for certain.
We're currently housetraining two golden retriever pups. Newspaper's the only way to go. Really.

Posted by: ed in texas at November 26, 2007 12:51 PM

Nice job, GVDL. I love it when you agree with me and write about it; saves me time and energy, and the end product is better. :-)

To rickl #2:
That moment would be Watergate, more or less. So I've read, anyway. J-School didn't really exist until after then, and then Journalism became a celebrated end in itself instead of something you did *after* you became educated in something, anything, that you could write about with authority. That model doesn't seem to be working too well ...

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at November 29, 2007 12:18 PM
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