What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

33 thoughts on “What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

  1. I chose this site from thousands to read, and have not subscribed to any newspaper for over 20 years. This is not the only site I choose, but I do serious fact checking. Thank you for your comments and sometimes even though I might not agree with you entirely, you will have my respect.

  2. Good morning. So surprizing to be the first in line this time. Sheila, as always, hits the nail on the head!

    Some years ago, a friend pointed out a small book to me, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt, a moral philosopher. Frankfurt’s comments were very relevant to understanding how art criticism can get soooo convoluted (my concern at the time). His comments are even more relevant to trying to grasp what is going on today in politics. The book is available on-line.

    My friend excerpted some paragraphs from the book. I apologize for putting them here, which will make this an over long post, but I know of no web site for this information. And sorry, I cannot provide page citations, though I could look them up later on. As philosophy can be, the writing is very dense, but these observations have helped me as I ponder our current world. Here goes:

    From: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, 2005, Princeton University Press.

    “Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

    Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it is his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

    The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore be true to himself.

    But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

  3. One more: Michael Novak, in Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove, said this:

    Self knowledge is more like ignorance than knowledge.

  4. Larry, can you say more?

    I do not believe that the Bible is bullshit, just history. And, each of us should be aware of its contents as well as the Torah and the Koran and other writings about epochal belief systems and the societies and events out of which they arose. I would hope that any depth of knowledge like this would be at least a partial innoculation against bullshit, both self propagating and that generated by others…

    Your comments and yourself are welcome, incidentally, and I am sure some of the others, more visible herein than I, will echo this!

  5. When checking the validity of something, you have to have corroborating sources to determine if that information might be true. We can no longer trust mainstream media on pretty much anything besides traffic reports, weather and crime reports. That means we have to do our own research, something that many people really don’t know how to do, or do not have the time or inclination to do. For generations, we have depended on media to do this for us. With the removal of the “Fairness Doctrine” that forced broadcast media to keep it real at the threat of loss of their license and the subsequent removal of journalistic ethics on the part of both broadcast and print media, we are left in the jungle with our own wits. And far too many people are extremely short on wit. The result is a very painful presentation of large loads of male bovine feces being distributed as “News.”

  6. At least in my lifetime,I don’t think the Republican Party has ever been a respectable organization. Journalism died a long time ago. At least among the daily newspapers. I remember when The Indianapolis Star & News spent an inordinate amount of space “selling” us the idea of a Dan Quayle as VP to Bush Sr. Extolling the virtues of Quayle as a bright man. A man so bright he was taken down by a television character by the name of Murphy Brown.

    A good example of the loss of journalism would be how Judith Miller got out the pom poms to rally the nation for support of the Iraq invasion. Trump is not proof of a lack of journalism in the US,Bush Jr. was the proof and somehow we’ve survived (just barely) and the subsequent Democrat President continued Bush’s policies. A President many on this very forum support.

    Journalism might be dead in the daily papers,but we still have good journalism in books. The best journalism made possible is useless unless the populace embraces its information. One example is Thomas Frank’s recent book titled, Listen Liberal: Whatever Happened To The Party of The People?

    I have a feeling many here would not like the truth exposed within its pages.

  7. I have seen that reference for “Listen Liberal’ several times in the past couple of weeks that I want to read it. I feel that many of Bernie’s supporters are really upset with the status quo of the corporate democrats and I hope this book can give me some insights. Thanks again for the remind William. I also wanted to mention your comments lately have been great to read. Thanks for posting.

  8. I am old enough to remember when the “town” of Indianapolis had three daily newspapers; the morning Star and afternoon News, both owned by Eugene Pullium, and the afternoon Times. We are now touted as a thriving (depending on which income level you are living) big city; we are stuck with one daily newspaper, the Indianapolis Star which is owned by Gannett, Inc. So we are now recipients of primarily the far-right views and at the mercy of one of the corporate America conglomerates.

    We lost not only options for printed news daily; we lost our source of the truth…more evident due to the competition between publications then and including interest in local issues such as those library board meetings and public works department. We, as a big city, have more need now for those three options via newspapers than we did decades ago as a simple mid-western town with only the 500 Mile Race as our claim to fame and glorying in the attention of the nation…and race fans around the world one month each year. The “good old days” with access to in-depth news – local, national and international – are long gone and they are part of the past the GOP has no interest in returning us to along with their 20th Century religious fervor inspired, controlling laws.

  9. JoAnn, I have to admit I liked the Star better when it actually had far-right views (despite the fact that my views are, if not far-left, fairly left). At least it stood for something. Today’s Star (and, from what I’ve seen, other Gannett papers as well) is a weak-tea of blind civic boosterism and trying not to offend advertisers. I would have canceled years ago if it were not for the fact that I was raised to believe that being an adult meant you subscribe to the local paper. Yes, it costs me a dollar or so a day, but at least it only takes about 10 minutes out of my day to read every bit of it–30 minutes on Sundays. Thank goodness the New York Times has home delivery here.

  10. What killed news is the 24 hour news cycle combined with the short attention span of the public. There are only so many really news worthy things happening in any given day, but if you have 24 hours to kill, you keep repeating short stories about what’s happening and moving from rumor to rumor on all sorts of BS to fill your remaining time. In-depth reports are few and far between.

    Add to that the fact that the main stream media is extremely conservative, in spite of what you hear on Fox News from the likes of Sarah Palin. What you get is a steady diet of right wing harangue.

    There are still a few outposts of decent journalism. I recommend “New York”, “Vanity Fair”, and sometimes “Rolling Stone”, “New York Times”, and “Washington Post”.

  11. NR; the Star now sends it’s far-right views in the Reader’s Digest sample supplement of USA Today, another Gannett publication.

    I get disgusted with the lack of information in the Star but maintain my subscription for the TV Week (much of which is incorrect but gives me an idea of what might be on at or near the time listed), the obituaries (I am at that age where I lose more friends than I make) and the daily crossword puzzle to jump start my mind each morning along with two mugs of black coffee to jump start my body. I use it to wrap garbage to prevent drippy, wet messes in the bottom of the oversize, required City trash can to prevent the need to hose it out weekly. So the Star does serve some purpose in my life, even if it no longer provides much news;-)

  12. I remember long ago when we called the Indianapolis Star the “Indianapolis Liar.” We were law students and the Star’s propaganda had a reverse effect; it rallied us then-young Democrats to know what was NOT true in ordinary news-reporting. The idea that editors clean up what reporters bring to the table is not always the case; we thought that the editors of the long-ago Star added their own spin to the spin brought in by the cubs and others. Whether Gannet with its one-size-fits-all newsroom efforts amounts to an improvement over a spin-heavy competitor waits to be seen. Gannet is currently an acquisitive monster. It even now owns my local newspaper here in Naples, Florida, the Naples Daily News, which sometimes publishes my letters to the editor. I’m not sure I want a one-source newsday any more than an automobile market where only Fords are available.

  13. As always, Sheila has it right on point. As a newspaper man (and an old one at that) I can totally identify. The only thing I have to add is that in some areas of the country there still is (often hanging on by a thread, but still existing) a choice in newspapers.

    We left Indianapolis (where back in the day when I arrived in 1990 I could get daily papers from Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, Bloomington and more along with both of Mr. Pulliam’s right-wing papers) and moved to Portland in Maine. I was shocked when I walked into the neighbourhood CVS and then the Hannaford grocery to find racks with not just the excellent Portland Press Herald, but daily papers from New England cities big and small. I have since been happily in reader overload and after “testing” all the choices get the Press Herald and the Boston Globe at the door every morning (six or seven will deliver).

    Then on days when I have time, I pick up a Bangor Daily News, New York Times (New England Edition, not that scaled down “national” one) and a Lewiston Sun or an Augusta or Waterville paper. I never read them but the Boston Herald, NY Daily News and Post also are at the CVS and grocery for tabloid lovers. Then on days when my travels take me 35 miles south to York, Maine, the grocery there has most of the above plus the Foster’s Daily Democrat (great name), the Portsmouth Herald and even the Worcester Telegram from down in Massachusetts.

    And on days when business or fun takes me south to Biddeford or north to Freeport (yes THAT Freeport, home of LL Bean) both of those areas have AFTERNOON daily newspapers. Just think of that Midwest friends… a PM paper with news from THAT VERY DAY written by credible journalists!

    My point here is that aside from a TV station owned by Tegna (which is Gannett’s broadcast arm) and a daily in Burlington, Vermont, three or four hours drive away there is NO Gannett (ie: big corporate) newspaper up this way. Local and regional firms provide real reporters and real news and real stories about all those things Sheila mentioned — from scandals in the state capital (and boy our governor is a whole other topic) to a school budget which lost in Lewiston by six votes this week. I really never realised how much I missed local (ie: real) news as it slowly disappeared in Indianapolis and thus I buy as many of the papers as I can as often as I can to show support for this continued choice.

    So my conclusion is that the “dumbing down” of choice and real news is partly corporate and partly consumer driven. Maine has the very same internet and the same Fox (not) News and CNN everywhere else has. Maybe it’s the older demographics here or the fact in New England’s Winters there’s more time to read… or just folkks here have a love of choice. I do not know, but I do know Sheila is correct and meanwhile I am sad for the Indianapolises of the country and am thrilled to call home a place with lots to read morning — and afternoon!

  14. Like we often do, we whine about what’s different disguised as what’s bad.

    IMO we live in an incredibly rich world of information. I am amazed everyday both by what I can learn and who I can reach. It’s almost unlimited and getting better every day.

    But like most technology the value of it depends on us the users rather than the scraps of matter and energy and space-time that comprise it.

    Progress requires us to get better, not just our tools.

    What we worry about is can we, will we keep up? And the answer always is yes, sort of and reluctantly and too slowly.

    But that’s still progress.

    Nobody hands anybody exclusively truth anymore. Maybe they never did. Now we are responsible for discerning it from among mountains of bullshit. The good news is that I think we can. The bad is that it requires more education than it used to. And more skepticism. And less cynicism.

  15. William, I also recall those days when The Star was trying to sell us on the idea of Dan Quayle as bright and competent. He was tripped up by the fictional character Murphy Brown, and destroyed by Lloyd Bentsen in a debate. The Star was dropping hints that Steve Gold$mith was in line for a cabinet position under Bush the Younger.

    Every news outlet has bias to one degree or another. At one time we clearly knew what was satire (Mad Magazine, Dr. Strangelove) and what was was extravagantly hype (National Enquirer). The line now is blurred.

    If someone attributed some false but dufus statement to Sarah Palin on facebook, it would be believed, since that is the expectation by some of Sarah Palin. Even what should be indisputable facts are challenged by myth, such as the belief that humans, the earth and the universe are only 10,000 years old, which is believed by a significant number of people here in the USA.

  16. Within the last 8-10 years or somewhere near the time when Dennis Ryerson retired as Editor of the Indy Star, I discovered that the Indy Star no longer participates in the Newspapers in Education (NIE) program, an international program that promotes and increases literacy by using the newspaper as a teaching tool. NIE is a practical hands-on way for schools, communities, and the local newspaper to work together in a partnership that benefits all, now and in the future.

    Using academic freedom, every Friday was ‘Newspaper Day’ in my English classes at an inner-city Indianapolis public high school. Through experience, I learned that a Friday ‘Newspaper Day’ resulted in far fewer Friday class absences. These inner-city high school students were starved for print media as most did not have access to a newspaper in their homes. I could design my lesson plans myself or I could tweak the NIE lesson plans to fit the appropriate IN Standards. And, I never had to recycle newspapers at the end of the day because the students would drop by my classroom to grab a newspaper to take home to their mothers who’d grown accustomed to having at least a weekly dose of news from the print media. Occasionally it crossed my mind that teachers were not only providing instruction to students but also to the adults in the students’ homes.

  17. Greetings NVL. If you are still reading this column today, here is my question. Where in the bible is there any history? The entire book is nothing but a story.

  18. And there is this: there was a time when local and national broadcast news departments didn’t have to sell themselves (read “sell out”) in order to survive. Now they must sell enough advertising on their own rather than be supported by station and network profits. Journalism suffers when reporters have to cover the opening of a car dealership, look marketable, and avoid offending anyone with the facts.

  19. I would have said lots of history, though largely redundant with other sources, lots of story.

    Just like “news” today user must separate the two.

  20. Greetings Pete. If your response was an answer to my question, I would ask you also, where is the history? It is a tale and not even a romantic one. :0

  21. @Nan, I so agree with your words. Journalistic integrity seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird, that flightless bird who disappeared perhaps because he lacked the ability to fly away from his predators, his enemies.

    Journalists need their wings to lift themselves above the financial temptations to overlook the differences between straight new stories and opinion pieces.

  22. Irvin. I’m not a Bibical or historical expert or even close but I believe other sources confirm details like the Jewish migration from Egypt and the nature and details of Roman occupation of the Mid East at that time.

  23. Journalism has been corrupted by “sponsored content” — editorial space sold to advertisers and often not labeled for what it really is. Some publishers offer potential advertisers a one-time free feature story, which is then followed up with endless requests for paid advertising. Some simply sell the space for promotional content, and may or may not indicate that it is actually paid advertising. Recent studies suggest that most readers cannot tell the difference between “sponsored content” and actual advertising, even if the “sponsored content” is clearly labeled. Lacking in that discernment, they are surely also unable to perceive or appreciate verification of news content. This is another topic that must be taught for civic literacy.

  24. 🙂 Greetings Pete. Like the opening of the Red Sea or what ever body of water it was? Maybe some trivial fact but where is the true history of the main theme of that book?

  25. The American Press Institute has an Online article that expands upon Ms Kennedy’s topic surrounding “journalism of verification”. From the article, I came away with 3 foundational elements of journalism that support Ms Kennedy’s call for verification before print: 1) transparency, 2) humility, and 3) originality.

    Rather paraphrase the rather short article, I’ve attached the link for those interested readers. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/verification-accuracy/journalism-discipline-verification/

    Believing that education should prepare citizens to participate in democracy without falling prey to unscrupulous media-generated propaganda under the guise of news, I visited the IN Dept of Education website to locate the first beginnings of our English/Language Arts Curriculum/Standards that clearly address the issue of research writing.

    From the IN Academic Standards for English/Language Arts, Grade 5, I located the following.

    “The Research Process: Finding, Assessing, Synthesizing, and Reporting Information
    5.W.5 Conduct short research assignments and tasks on a topic.
    • With support, formulate a research question (e.g., What were John Wooden’s greatest contributions to college basketball?).
    • Identify and acquire information through reliable primary and secondary sources.
    • Summarize and paraphrase important ideas and supporting details, and include direct quotations where appropriate, citing the source of information.
    • Avoid plagiarism and follow copyright guidelines for use of images, pictures, etc.
    • Present the research information, choosing from a variety of sources.”

    Whether our kiddos are mastering IN Standard 5.W.5 is a question for another day.

  26. It is OK no answer is required. There are no answers to religious arguments ? Have a really nice weekend where ever it is you are residing , NY or FL 🙂 irvin

  27. I agree on avoiding fixing faith. I believe that we all assume something about things that can’t be known and live by that faith. Probably no two of us exactly alike. Whatever works.

    In fact I don’t know why people think that it can/should/might be fixed. It’s all assumption.

    I personally hang on to finding and understanding facts and live with my assumptions for where I can’t find any.

  28. Newspapers involve many industries and publishers continue to thrive especially at schools in the USA. Readers demand what they get from local advertisers.

  29. Interesting to see Dan Quayle’s name here. He just emerged from obscurity to make the press rounds in support of Trump.

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