National Newspaper Week

The Fading Fourth Estate

By —— Bio and Archives--October 5, 2010

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This is National Newspaper Week, but there’s not a lot of celebrating going on for this fading industry. In fact, National Newspaper Week might soon be a thing of the past. Newspapers were once called the “Fourth Estate”, meaning they were like a fourth branch of government. As the fourth branch, newspapers were expected to be independent of the other government branches. Hence newspaper readers would have an autonomous source that impartially evaluated the regular branches of government. Sadly, that is no longer the case.  If it ever was.


At a recent press conference, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. reluctantly admitted that “sometime in the future” his family’s century old paper, The New York Times, will discontinue its print edition and exist only as an online edition. Its survival will then depend on readers’ willingness to pay an annual viewing fee. Industry observers, who have followed the plight of the Sulzberger paper, interpret “sometime in the future” to mean within the next five years.

Newspapers as we knew them are indeed in their death throes

The New York Times’ predicament is not an isolated case.  Newspapers as we knew them are indeed in their death throes; a condition usually attributed to technological advances (television and the Internet) along with rising production costs, decreasing advertising revenue and other economic woes. Although the economy and hi-tech are the primary reasons why papers are failing, there is another rarely mentioned factor: the loss of readers resulting from newspapers placing advocacy above reporting.

Let’s be honest, newspapers have never been impartial, nor have they shied away from advocacy.  But in the last few decades, editors went a little too far in promoting “progressive” agendas that were not widely popular with their readers. To bolster these agendas newspapers moved from reporting the news to creating the news. Furthermore, selection of editorial page columnists was based upon how well their opinions meshed with agendas being advocated by each paper.

Letters to the Editor were subjected to the same vetting as editorial page columnists. For letter writers like myself, this biased culling and editing of letters was especially annoying. It is interesting, however, that over the years, as editors witnessed the popularity of Internet blogging, they reluctantly relaxed their censorship of letters. Still they maintained their obvious policy of partiality over what was allowed to be printed.

In years past there was a link of faith, however tenuous, existing between a newspaper and its readers. Most readers had at least a basic level of trust in their newspaper. But many editors violated this “trust issue” with their zealous advocacy. They simply failed to realize that newspapers no longer had a monopoly on the news.  People interested in getting news have so many other options. But in 1937, for instance, newspapers were still a monopoly; the primary source of news. And naturally, different newspapers offered different points of view. No doubt this inspired Ira Gershwin to include this little couplet in his prologue to the 1937 song: “Love Is Here To Stay.”

The more I read the papers,
the less I comprehend.

Like the song said, in 1937, Americans did read the papers, and there was a wealth of papers to choose from. A city of even moderate size usually had at least two daily newspapers. Larger cities had more, not to mention weekly publications. And most newspapers throughout our country were still locally owned and operated.

Of course, countless newspaper columnists were enamored with Roosevelt’s New Deal experiments.  And when Roosevelt was reelected to a second term by a landslide in 1936, journalists became even more captivated by his policies. They heaped praise on Washington’s costly economic interventions (Today we would call them “stimulus programs”).  Papers informed their readers that our nation was being constructively transformed; a transformation that was badly needed and would reap long-term benefits.

But actual financial conditions belied the favorable reports of journalists. America’s economy was neither revitalizing nor stabilizing. Then came the horrendous 1937 stock market crash. Before the year was even a few months old, stocks began an extended tumble that continued until the market lost almost 50% of its value.  Newspapers sympathetic to Roosevelt tried to mitigate the situation with the usual bromides. Similarly, they tried to excuse the fact that the sputtering economy was showing little signs of improvement. Not surprisingly, they attempted to deflect criticism of Roosevelt’s policies by placing the blame for the sinking economy elsewhere.

It’s apparent that newspapers haven’t changed much over the years. They preferred advocacy to impartial reporting in 1937, and they still prefer it in 2010. President Obama’s attempts to fuel our stalled financial system have been as impotent as Roosevelt’s. But journalists continue to view Obama’s economic policies through rose-colored glasses, even writing favorably about stimulus programs that have obviously failed. And when a stimulus program fails, Mr. Obama and his cronies in Congress simply expand it or implement another, equally futile but costly plan.

Average Americans are naturally confused by the glaring contradiction between the dismal prospect of the economic conditions they are witnessing and the favorable media portrayal of Obama policies. Although the Obama bailouts have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, unemployment is rising astronomically. The job market has gotten so bad that many have simply given up trying to find a job. Every day new families are added to the growing list of those who have lost the battle to stay afloat. While journalists en masse refuse to find fault with Mr. Obama or his policies.

Of course, Mr. Obama has an advantage with journalists that Mr. Roosevelt didn’t: he is a beneficiary of the lingering effects of the Civil Rights movement. Journalists were under the spell of this movement long before Obama was even born.  In their efforts to rally round Washington’s far-reaching civil rights programs, newspaper journalists began moving more and more to the left of the political spectrum. Writing favorably about civil rights became the raison d’etrefor many journalists. For them the Civil Rights movement was like fly paper: once they landed on it, they stuck.

Liberal Groupthink

In addition to unvarying liberal views, columnists today also covertly scheme with one another on column content and opinions. (Unlike 1937, it is almost impossible to find a newspaper with a different point of view.) In fact, the term “groupthink” was coined for this standardization of editorial opinions.

Of course, many papers are now owned by a small number of large companies.  But even editorials in local papers that were able to avoid being “acquired” by large conglomerates are not significantly different from those in papers owned by conglomerates.  Reading any recent editorial, you will find it difficult to tell whether it was from Michigan or South Carolina.

Contributing to today’s uniformity of editorial opinion is the fact that we have a new generation of editors who came of age during our nation’s obsession with egalitarianism. Consequently, today’s newspaper editor is no longer the stereotypical gruff crusader doggedly standing up to high jinks at city hall. Today’s editors are best described as “sensitive and caring”, in touch with their feelings, with a soft spot for those perceived as victims of a cruel society.

But newspaper readers are not as impressionable as editors seem to think. Overblown editorial advocacy has finally succeeded in chasing off many readers. In order to survive, newspapers have reduced content, cutback circulation, implemented wage freezes and staff reductions, and imposed other austerity measures. Many like The New York Times are planning to eliminate print editions in favor of “pay-per-view” online editions. - It is doubtful that a public with increasingly empty wallets will pay to view online editions with so many free Internet news sites available to them.

The future of newspapers is indeed doubtful.  But, although the Obama administration would like to silence talk radio, it does not want to see newspapers fail. Democrats thrive on the obliging coverage newspapers provide.  Predictably, they have proposed yet another bailout program: the “Newspaper Revitalization Act.” This act will allow newspapers to become non-profit 501(c) (3) organizations. Advertising and subscription revenue, as well as any contributions newspapers receive will be exempt from income tax. Also, contributions individuals and organizations make to newspapers will be tax-deductible like contributions made to charities. We can guess who will make those contributions.

Promoters of this imprudent bill are ignoring the substantial loss of revenue that will occur when the nation’s newspapers stop paying income taxes. Instead they proudly boast that non-profit newspapers will be performing an “educational” service. They maintain that papers will be prohibited from endorsing candidates, and the public needn’t worry about news coverage being slanted. - But consider that other non-profit “educational” entity: public broadcasting! Has it been “impartial” in its “news coverage?” Are news programs on PBS and NPR free from bias?

Does anyone actually believe the Obama administration wants the American public to become better “educated”, especially regarding the workings of government? Of course not. This President and this Congress wouldn’t even consider a financial bailout for newspapers unless they believed that news reporting would continue to favor Democrats and promote Leftist agendas. But with the dismal, embarrassing failure of other bailout programs, this one is unlikely to see the light of day. And its demise would prevent the additional squandering of innumerable taxpayer dollars.


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Gail Jarvis -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Gail Jarvis is a Coastal Georgia based freelance writer. Following a career as a CPA/business consultant, Mr. Jarvis now critiques the establishment’s selective and misleading reporting of current events and history. Gail can be reached at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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