The Romance of the Press
It’s been interesting, though a bit odd, for me, watching the hand-wringing over the “death of the press” as some of the major newspapers struggle to figure out how to make their budgets work in a world in which fewer people read “dead tree” editions and advertisers can take advantage of more targeted advertising online and in specialty publications. There is, it seems, a level of reverence which many people seem to attach to “the press”, which does not seem well born out what it actually is.
Looked at historically and economically — newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads. They seek to provide stories that people want to read (whether “news”, human interest, comics, crosswords or recipes) in order to persuade people it’s worth parting with the artificially low newsstand or subscription price.
Based on the number of people who can be persuaded to buy the paper, the newspaper then turns around and charges advertisers for the privilege of advertising to those readers.
Because people will sometimes stop reading a paper if it’s flagrantly biased or routinely prints false information, it is sometimes in the interests of papers to print the truth to the best of their ability. On the other hand, examples throughout the history of our press can be found in which it was found to their advantage to print something other than the truth, or simply allowed themselves to be deceived.
Our constitution protects freedom of the press, but this is not in the sense that the press is some sacred part of the civic order. Rather, this is a matter of simple freedom: our freedom to print what we want (whether or not people are actually interested in reading it is another matter) is protected.
At a practical level, the press can serve as a useful check on political power, in that given our political dispositions and culture stories about how those in power are abusing it sell well. Thus, it is often in the interest of news venues to be critical of power. However, in other cases, the incentives run the other way. Most news outlets also have a necessary bias towards whatever story is most exciting — even if that means supporting political authorities rather than critiquing them. (Any progressives who doubt this should do a little critical thinking about the enthusiastic reporting which almost invariably issues forth when a national move towards war is being considered.) And, of course, since selling news is the true reason for being for news — news venues also have a necessary bias towards whatever they think their readers will want to hear.
Freedom of expression is certainly essential to our republic, but the preservation of specific news organs is not. Nor should we allow the self-serving myths which newspapers built around themselves in the 50s through the Watergate era about how they are the selfless bastions of objectivity and truth to be confused with anything like reality. It was, in the end, just another way to sell papers.