Slate’s uncle Jack is at it again with an informed look at how and why all of a sudden certain political figures are clamoring that American democracy needs the daily newspaper, and, more importantly, why that notion is wrongheaded.
Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. Car bomb in Pakistan? Drug war in Mexico? Flood in North Dakota? Murder in the suburbs? Great places to get Thai food after midnight? A review of the Britney Spears concert? New ideas on how to serve leftover turkey? The sports scores? The stock report? Few of these stories are likely to supercharge the democratic impulse.
Newspapers simply have too much on their plates, so 92% of what ends up in their pages is either quickly written tripe, or overly-generic tripe that is just taking up the space between the dwindling number of ads. Take The Day as an example. They often put national news on their front page, but I can’t imagine the majority of the paper’s readership is really turning to them for coverage of the financial crisis, or terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
And then there’s this point:
On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption “damage” democracy by increasing the public’s cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.
I think this is less a concern for smaller newspapers, because the scale makes it more feasible to accomplish news like this on a local level. The real problem is that the type of journalism that is being lauded by “democracy worshippers,” which is to say, investigative, is so costly that it’s the first casualty of budget cuts.