Who Needs Yesterday’’s Papers?
Who needs yesterday’s papers? I read the anguished valedictoriesto our sinking newspaper industry,the calls for some sort of governmentbailout or subsidy, with mountingincredulity. It’s like hearing thewitches in Macbeth evoked as if theywere the beautiful Aphrodite and herrivals vying for the judgment of Paris.Sonorous phrases about “publicservice” mingle with fearful yelpsabout the “dramatically diminishedversion of democracy” that loomsover America if the old corporateprint press goes the way of the steamengine. In The Nation recently, JohnNichols and Robert McChesneyquavered that “as journalists are laidoff and newspapers cut back or shutdown, whole sectors of our civiclife go dark” and that “journalismis collapsing, and with it comes themost serious threat in our lifetimes toself-government and the rule of lawas it has been understood here in theUnited States.”I came to America in 1973, to theVillage Voice, which Dan Wolf, EdFancher and Norman Mailer foundedin 1955 to bring light to those wholesectors of civic life kept in darknessby the major newspapers of the day,starting with The New York Times. Asa tot I’d been given bracing tutorialsabout the paradigms of journalism andclass power by my father, Claud, who’dfounded his newsletter The Week inthe 1930s as counterbalance to theawful mainstream coverage. FromEurope, I’d already been writing forKopkind and Ridgeway’s Hard Timesand also for Ramparts, respectivelya newsletter and a monthly founded— like much of the old undergroundpress — to compensate for the ghastlymainstreamcoverage of theupheavals ofthe ’60s and theVietnam War.In other words,any exactingassessment of theactual performanceof newspapersrated against thetwaddle about therole of the Fourth Estate spouted bypublishers and editors at their annualconventions would issue a negativeverdict in every era. Of course,there have been moments when anewspaper or a reporter could makefair claims to have done a decent job,inevitably eradicated by a panickyproprietor, a change in ownership,advertiser pressure, eviction of someprotective editor or summary firing ofthe enterprising reporter. By and large,down the decades, the mainstreamnewspapers have — often rabidly— obstructed and sabotaged effortsto improve our social and politicalcondition.In an earlier time, writers likeMencken, Hecht and Liebling lovednewspapers, but the portentous claimsfor their indispensable role wouldhave made them hoot with derision,as did the columnist Bernard Levin,decrying in the London Timesat the start of the 1980s thenotion of a “responsiblepress”: “We are, and mustremain, vagabonds andoutlaws, for only by soremaining shall we be ableto keep the faith by whichwe live, which is the pursuitof knowledge that otherswould like unpursued andthe making of comment thatothers would prefer unmade.”But of course, most publishers andjournalists are not vagabonds andoutlaws, any more than are the profsat journalism schools or the jurorsand “boards” servicing the racketknown as the Pulitzer industry.What the publishers were after wasa 20-percent rate of return, a desirethat prompts great respect for “therule of law,” if such laws assist in theachievement of that goal. In 1970,this meant coercing Congress to passContinued on page 24