Newspapers, civil discourse under siege

I was invited to a middle-class wedding not long ago.

Now, I don’t like weddings much.

A friend of mine who held onto his bachelorhood until his early 50s before marrying two years ago in a very picturesque ceremony (on a boat that had sailed a few knots out of Bellingham’s bay, and then dropped anchor so the minister could do his dirty work) is always telling people that in every picture I’m in, I’m frowning. This is supposed to be news, and funny, because my friends know I generally like parties where the booze and talk are flowing.

Usually, when folks get their party pictures back, they note that I’m either laughing, talking, or drinking in the snapshots in which I’m featured.

But weddings depress me. I know, I know. You and your wife are best friends. You and your husband do everything together. Why, just last weekend you went and looked at the tulip remnants in Skagit Valley, and then went antiquing.

Lucky you.

And no thanks.

So anyway, here I am at this Eastside April wedding. I’m already depressed,  and then somebody’s overweight uncle starts yakking happily about the decline of daily newspapers.

Statistics bear him out. Circulation is down for dailies across the country, including Seattle’s two twinnish entries into the morning news battle.

Weeklies are a different story because papers like the Independent focus almost entirely on their neighborhoods. Since most dailies don’t do a very good job covering the smaller communities on their outskirts, papers like this one seem to be remaining pretty healthy.

But dailies are in trouble, and this corpulent yokel at the wedding, knowing I am a journalist and not knowing I currently write for small community papers, not dailies, was trying to get my goat.

He had the usual glib rap, opinions wrapped as facts.

He got his news from television, he said proudly.

I didn’t ask if it was Fox or CNN, where he looked at pictures for a few minutes every day and then felt “informed” enough to spew his bile at parties and weddings.

Watching television is not an adequate replacement for reading newspapers and news magazines. It’s just not.

Now, I’m not saying dailies aren’t in trouble. They can’t seem to attract many readers under 35. This may be because many of the folks under 35 don’t read.

Other surveys seem to bear this sad fact out. We’ve lost one generation to television, the Internet and “games,” and we’re well on the way to losing another.

As Mark Twain once said, “The fella who doesn’t read has no advantage over the fella who can’t read.”

The dailies response to this readership loss has borne all the earmarks of corporate thinking gone bad, too. Friends at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have shown me their copy, with editors’ questions above that, instead of querying the facts, asked, “What does this story have for the 18- to 34-year-old reader?” or “What is positive in this story?”

This kind of pandering to the readers’ communal wish not to be disturbed only weakens what publishers like to call the “editorial product.”

More news and better writing would attract those of any age who read. Lose the rest since they’re going anyway, would be my idea.

But back at the wedding, this unhealthy-looking uncle had gone the next step. He was talking about how most newspapers are left-of-center.

I’ve worked for 11 editors. Five called themselves Republicans. Five called themselves Democrats. I never did figure out what the 11th guy believed.

What always made good newspapers good is the struggle for objectivity. The conservative editor pulling in on the liberal reporter. And vice versa. The need to prove and document what was written.

I sometimes watch Fox News for entertainment. I sometimes read The Nation for the same reason.

But both of these outfits bring a prejudice to the table. A bias. One to the right and one to the left. Neither is truly objective. But at least they try and act as if they are.

The nuptial uncle’s point was that he got most of his news from one network, from blogs and other places on the Internet. And from talk radio.

There are no fact-checkers on blogs. Or on talk radio.

These folks, successful and less so, simply pander to their readers’ and listeners’ ingrained prejudices.

To listen to right-wing talk radio is to hear repeatedly that there is no global warming. That there is an economic recovery which is not borne out by statistics or the evidence of our own eyes and ears.

To read lefty blogs is to see no mention of the horrors of totalitarian states where we have intervened militarily. Only places we didn’t go, like Rwanda, are treated as tragedies.

It’s obvious to me that if we had invaded Rwanda in 1994, to stop that African butchery of other Africans, the same left-leaning folks currently bemoaning our “invasion” of Iraq, would have assaulted their own country as “imperialists.”

The problem with having an entrenched political view on the left or right is that we don’t want to listen to opposing viewpoints. We’re unwilling not to label folks on “the other side.”

Good daily newspapers force the reader to see more than one side of an issue. So if you find yourself rejoicing over the decline of good (and bad) daily newspapers, check yourself for a minute.

A truly free and vigorous press is one of the truest protectors of real liberty. Every dictator shuts down the newpspapers first.

But in a society more and more dominated by personal opinions and personal philosophies, the governments, state and national, are worrying less and less about press “interference.”

In my opinion, as the daily newspaper weakens, so does our hold on the freedoms Americans on both sides of the current political divide claim to cherish.

Uncle Chubby is wrong. This is not something to celebrate. The decline of daily newspapers makes me feel just like a wedding does.


Dennis Wilken is a former Port Orchard Independent reporter.

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