Friday, May 15, 2009

Government and the Crisis of Journalism

The crisis of economics and purpose in American journalism continues, but in all the confusion and despair we can be fairly certain of one thing: journalists won't be able to think their way out of this one because they don't know the history of their own profession. For proof of this, see a recent column in the New York Times on this topic by David Carr, a normally fine media analyst whose skewering of Fox News in 2008 was one of the sharpest and braves pieces I have ever read in the Times.

This week, though, Carr was off the mark in declaring that government has no role to play in saving journalism. He argues that this would automatically turn the nation's news media into mouthpieces for the government.

But this ignores the history of the American press. As Paul Starr observed in his fine book The Creation of the Media, content-neutral postal subsidies helped the press grow in our country's formative years. In this, the postal system is a model for government media policy.

Carr also suggests that public broadcasting will degenerate into a mouthpiece for Bib Brother. But does anyone want to argue seriously that any of the privately-owned networks in the USA has a better long-term track record as a news organization than the publicly-supported BBC? Public media isn't the same as government media, and privately-owned media does not always act in the public interest.

Carr dismisses the idea of newspapers organized on a non-profit basis because that would bar them from making editorial endorsements. But in this age, when opinions on the Web are available for free--even mine--newspapers' right to make editorial endorsements doesn't seem like something worth sacrificing them for.

Carr closes his article with a quote from David Simon, who is no longer a journalist but directs people who play them on tv. “High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it,” Simon said. “And it should bite a government hand most viciously.”

As is so typical with journalists, Simon confuses the ideals of journalism with its more complicated but ultimately edifying history. The recent history of US journalism, particularly with regard to the Iraq War, is filled with examples of reporters lapping up government pronouncements. That's bad. At the same time, the deeper recesses of journalism history offer ways of thinking about how government might help journalism get out of its crisis without destroying editorial independence.

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