If You Believe in Newspapers, Then Clap Your Hands

July 29, 2008

Many will remember the immortal words of J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan: “If you believe in fairies, then clap your hands.” Many are urging us to do the same for newspapers. For some commentators clapping our hands might represent the only hope remaining for the daily newspaper in the U.S.

I thought of this as I read Chris Hedges report article on AlterNet titled “The Internet Is No Substitute for the Dying Newspaper Industry” (courtesy, once again of Bob Sacks).

I read this article the day after finishing Neil Henry’s “American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media,” published by the University of California Press.

The article, and Henry’s book, point to two aspects of the tradition of the press in America. On the one hand, there is a great deal of sentimentalism that the press in America is more or less synonymous with our democratic freedoms, and the “twaddle” we encounter on the Web doesn’t even begin to do justice to what the press has been serving for oh so many years.

This sentimentalism is embodied in quotations that could fill a book, but this one, from Thomas Jefferson, well embodies the sensibility: “No government ought to be without censors and where the press is free, no one ever will.”

Of course well before the advent of the Internet the sentiments were not all positive, as noted in the oft-quoted remark from A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

Neil Henry takes great care in enumerating the more modern problems of press credibility: celebrity journalists, bogus exposes, owner interference and onward.

He is not a follower of one of my heroes, Noam Chomsky, who has reported repeatedly (some would say ad nauseum) on the massive biases of the American press, a result of so many factors, from meddling publishers to an ingrained centrist outlook of those who most often serve as reporters at the daily papers.

But of course the most recent issue that has robbed tremendous credibility from American media (not just newspapers) was the blind support for George Bush and the Iraq war. The massive gaffe still stings many, and has hurt the press as much as it has destroyed Bush’s legacy. There’s a strong argument to be made that quite apart form the Internet the press was well on the way to destroying itself.

So now we’re in a recession in the U.S. and the newspaper industry appears to be crumbling. But both Hedges and Henry do a fine job of reminding us of what the press could be, of what the press should be. Will the Web prove a suitable substitute for an apparently dying newspaper industry? Clap your hands, regardless of which side of the fence you occupy.

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