February 5, 2008

Editorial slant can save the press

At a friend’s holiday dinner over break, the jovial conversation of the adults at the end of table turned to politics. The members of this cadre were, to put it nicely, impaired—and not just by their unflinching, nearly unthinking, liberal ideals. They remarked that with the shallow sensationalism of news outlets like CNN and MSNBC, it made perfect sense to rely on the Stewart–Colbert news hour on Comedy Central to stay informed. With my own cynicism about the news media, I felt I could agree with their disparaging of other sources, yet couldn’t quite understand the alternative.

Though I couldn’t place it at the time—perhaps due to the food and eggnog—something seemed missing from their discussion. It didn’t hit me until a few days later: newspapers. The printed press alone remains a reliable source of information, absent from the mindless frivolity of television. The difficulty of my realization and the context of this conversation demonstrate the real problem here: Newspapers and other printed media are becoming increasingly trivialized in America.

Newsweek, The New York Times, and other publications have all undergone major layoffs in the last few years. Competition from television is nothing new, so the primary source of this new trend is, of course, the Internet. With emerging e-news sources, the average paper’s utility is steadily decreasing. For instant coverage, how can a paper that comes out once a day possibly suffice? Additionally, with the emergence of blogs of considerable respect, journalistic integrity is no longer the exclusive domain of newspapers. This threat has been forcefully perceived by papers, judging by their hasty reactions. For instance The Philadelphia Inquirer has installed an “Inquirer Express” on the back of the front section, which presents the news of the day laid out as—get this—a website. You can imagine my concern when the Chicago Tribune announced certain layout changes, but at first inspection these seem to be not much more than an economical masthead.

However, this is almost incidental compared to the general disdain for perceived bias on the printed pages. Take a slightly skeptical look at either The New York Times or The Washington Times and you can see that both sides are equally guilty. Yet frustration over bias comes not from a slant—people undoubtedly choose a paper based on its ideological leanings—but rather from the fact that the slant emerges through a perverse departure from notions of objectivity. It is the pretense, not the fact, of the matter that offends and turns people instead to the “news by committee” of Wikipedia.

The question remains: What is it that newspapers, exclusively, can offer? In answering this, papers can find their salvation.

One answer is simple and stands on its own: a local focus. What can cover Chicago better than a Chicago newspaper? But again, trends are demonstrating this as inadequate, so what else is to be done? Again, the solution is simple: dispense with the delusion.

Newspapers, and newspapers alone, can not only present the news, but also earnestly make something of it. In other words, newspapers can save themselves by synthesizing their current objectivity with the passion and mission more characteristic of yellow journalism or the party press. A clear and present agenda is exactly what can allow newspapers to utilize their respected journalistic traditions. The news presented as is no longer suits; however, with an infusion of commentary and editorial reaction breathing through the paper and no longer relegated to the opinion pages, these respected bastions of the press can achieve what nobody else can—meaningful and forceful statements on the issues behind the news.

It’s not that integrity should be abandoned, but rather that it should be considered as a means rather than the end in itself. It’s but a part of the immense infrastructure at newspapers’ disposal currently being wasted on a disinterested public.

The choice is simpler than it appears. Really, given that some sort of motion is necessary, they are faced with two directions. In one, the public is coddled and appeased through co-opting of the Internet’s success. The other elevates print journalism to a solidified, iconic place in American society. The choice is clear.