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Chris Hedges on Alex S. Jones’ ‘Losing the News’
Posted on Aug 14, 2009
By Chris Hedges
These papers could be an important corrective force in our democracy and could give an important platform to investigative reports. But objectivity hurt as much as it helped. It usually denied a clear and strong voice to the oppressed and obscured important truths. Jones concedes, in a rather chilling aside, that his family newspaper in Greeneville, Tenn., opposed the civil rights movement. This is not a small admission. It lies at the heart of the weakness of the traditional press. And a black resident of Greeneville who grew up during segregation might not share Jones’ nostalgic view of the paper.
There was a Faustian bargain accepted by newspaper owners that allowed them, for a time, to make good money. This bargain turned reporters into members of the middle class. It made these publishers rich. But this era is over and the ethic that sustained it must be demolished if the press is to recover its thunder and importance in American society.
Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex Jones
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
Corporations no longer need newspapers to disseminate their propaganda. The corporations are slashing their advertising and have plunged newspapers into crisis. The huge profit margins of newspapers, once over 20 percent, have given way to steady quarterly declines and losses. The managerial elite of newspapers have proved morally and intellectually bankrupt. They cloyingly plead with the power elite to save them rather than turn and chart a new course. Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post, recently planned to sell pricey tickets to lobbyists and corporate overlords that would allow them to dine with her and some of her key reporters at salons in her home. She was doing what all publishers are doing, appealing to the elite for salvation. Her proposed salons, when they became public, were canceled, but she no doubt will find other ways to reach out to the powerful and rich. This route means inevitable extinction. If Weymouth, rather than inviting the heads of the for-profit health care industry and other executives to intimate dinners, unleashed her reporters on that industry and allowed them to report bluntly on it, she would begin to restore the diminished stature of the press. But this kind of courage comes with a financial cost that Weymouth and other publishers appear unwilling to accept.
It is by shattering the creed of objectivity, by standing unapologetically in the swelling ranks of the poor and powerless and challenging corporate power, that journalism will survive. This does not mean that the press should become apologists for the oppressed, who have as many failings as any other class of human beings, or not report honestly. But it does mean that we should rediscover who it is we are speaking for and what we are trying to do. It means that the press should become openly confrontational with the power elite. This journalism will never bring in huge revenues. It, by its nature, makes corporations and those in power uncomfortable and angry. But it is the only journalism, discounting the celebrity gossip and trivia that masquerade as journalism, that will survive.
The great city newspapers will probably vanish. I will miss them as much as Jones will. The loss of these papers will, as Jones fears, leave huge holes in our public knowledge and weaken our democracy. Reporters will suffer financially. They will struggle without health insurance. They will be unable to send their children to elite colleges. Their home mortgages will be foreclosed. Few young reporters will be able to afford journalism school. Journalists will no longer be members of the professional class. They will write out of this experience with a clarity that may not be “objective” but will be compelling, real, vibrant and far more truthful.
“My nightmare scenario is one of bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered and ineffectual bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity,” Jones writes, “and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service of the rich and powerful.”
But I like to think of the decline differently. I like to think that those reporters from older eras who knew that slavery and segregation were evil, who hated the baton-wielding goons hired to beat striking workers, who reported on inhuman conditions from the mills, factories and mines of the robber barons, who believed that elevating the oppressors to the same moral level as the oppressed was indefensible, will be resurrected as a new generation. Reporters, real reporters, will continue to report even as newspapers die and the airwaves are dominated by trash. Their voices may be marginal amid the din of celebrity culture and spectacle. It will not be easy. But a reporter is a personality type. Reporters are curious, brave and wired with an innate need to be heard. And while they may not be the dominant voices in our degraded culture, they will persist—long after Weymouth and most other publishers have become pathetic footnotes—to rescue our trade from oblivion.
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