Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Breaking News" - "Out of Print"

My hard copy of the March 31 New Yorker arrived on Friday March 28, and today I read Eric Alterman's excellent piece "Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper." Searching for an online link to it, I see that already it has been blogged frequently. It's bee breaking news for 2 days, and I am out of date.

There's so much I want to say about this piece. First, I'll admit that I am a reader of newspapers in print. Yes. I grew up with the Washington Post every morning in the 1950's, mostly read first by Dad (news, sports) and Mom (Home, Food, Entertainment) sections, leaving not a lot for me at the breakfast table. But I needed news to take to Phoebe Hearst Elementary school and then Alice Deal Junior High, so I got my chances. Once I recall cutting an article about the Suez Canal from the London Times read by our neighbor across the alley, a Polish man who worked for the World Bank. Our family had no TV, so news came from the paper and we worked hard to keep up. (We also got the New Yorker in those days too, so it's a long affiliation to be reading it, a long loyalty to getting news and ideas in print.

Alterman contrasts Walter Lippman's elitist perspective with John Dewey's democratic goals about what counts as news, who gets to make news, what is the role of the newscaster and the citizen in a democracy. This is exactly my dilemma in teaching students in the argument class (with focus on public discourse) because the majority of my students say they do not follow the news regularly in any form, not in print, not even in Arianna Huffington's Huffington Post and its related blog, which Alterman uses extensively as a comparison to the traditional print news.

One of Alterman's points is epistemology (though he doesn't call it that) - how do we know what we know and what counts as knowledge and how does knowledge get made and by whom. In the "old days " of print journalism, reporters made the news and told viewers what had happened. A good citizen was supposed to consume news in order to know enough to make wise decisions. Nowadays, with the interactive online news, it is people who make the news (at least, that appears to be Huffington's position).

Here's another great and related point that Alterman makes:
[N]ewspapers have helped to define the meaning of America to its citizens. To choose one date at random, on the morning of Monday, February 11th, I picked up the paper-and-ink New York Times detainees—the front page featured a unique combination of articles, stories that might disappear from our collective consciousness were there no longer any institution to generate and publish them. These included a report from Nairobi, by Jeffrey on my doorstep, and, in addition to the stories one could have found anywhere—Obama defeating Clinton again and the Bush Administration’s decision to seek the death penalty for six GuantánamoGettleman, on the effect of Kenya’s ethnic violence on the country’s middle class; a dispatch from Doha, by Tamar Lewin, on the growth of American university campuses in Qatar; and, in a scoop that was featured on the Huffington Post’s politics page and excited much of the blogosphere that day, a story, by Michael R. Gordon, about the existence of a study by the RAND Corporation which offered a harsh critique of the Bush Administration’s performance in Iraq. The juxtaposition of these disparate topics forms both a baseline of knowledge for the paper’s readers and a picture of the world they inhabit. In “Imagined Communities” (1983), an influential book on the origins of nationalism, the political scientist Benedict Anderson recalls Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” It is at least partially through the “imagined community” of the daily newspaper, Anderson writes, that nations are forged.

I can easily imagine this community - my family eating breakfast like everyone else on our street an all of us reading The Washington Post, and getting a clear sense of what it meant to be a citizen of the District of Columbia, a citizen of the capital of the US, a citizen of the world. We all shared the common knowledge. But now -- what happens now? How do people know what it means to be a citizen of Corvallis, Oregon? And where I live across the valley, I read an evening paper, and the ritual isn't quite the same. One doesn't imagine that everyone in the county is simultaneously reading the paper before supper. One doesn't imagine a brother/sisterhood of readers simultaneously partaking in their citizenly duty to become informed. And why will this be a problem? For now, I will leave you with Alterman's conclusion (and recommend that you read his entire article):

Finally, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice. “People do awful things to each other,” the veteran war photographer George Guthrie says in “Night and Day,” Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about foreign correspondents. “But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.” Ever since James Franklin’s New England Courant started coming off the presses, the daily newspaper, more than any other medium, has provided the information that the nation needed if it was to be kept out of “the dark.” Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of “light” that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered.

This article will be shared with my students on Monday, and I hope some of them take it to heart. And I imagine I will write about this again.

Image Credit: "Eustace Tilley" classic New Yorker cover, this one Feb 18, 1939 (notice price 15-cents! compared to $4.99 for my March 31, 2008 issue) from (March 29, 2008), which is a course in the American Studies Program at University of Virginia.


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