Neuron Culture

  • The idea that the Huffington Post, or the explosion of interesting internet news or blogging sites, can replace journalistic institutions like the New York times or other newspapers or dinosaurs of the mainstream media truly misunderstands the web, newspapers, journalism and the serious threat posed to democracy if the news gathering institutions fail.

I think Waldman has this right.  Michael Hirschorn’s Atlantic piece pondering the death of the Times is plenty interesting, and good food for thought. But — even aside from my own self-interest as a freelance contributor to the Times — I think Hirschorn’s overly optimistic when he says the death of the print Times (and with it, essentially, the death of all print daily newspapers) would not necessarily be a disaster. Hirschorn says best estimates are that an online-only version could support about 20% of the reporting and editing infrastructure presently at the Times. So we’d lose at least 80% of the sort of infrastructure that supports in-depth reporting, fact-checking, editing, and brainstorming, and with it a corresponding infrastructure of contacts and information flow that is not paid directly by the Times, but in existence only because of the Times’ infrastructure.

Yes, some of that can be replaced by networks tied to online reporting. But as valuable as the best online reporting is — HuffPo, Talking Points, etc. — even those places would readily admit they don’t have the means to break big, reporting-intensive stories — or pack the punch needed to hold government and business accountable. The MSM has sometimes failed to respondibly serve this function as a check on power. Yet its capacity to do so is itself a public good.

Media 2.0 is a splendid thing. But I can’t see how it can replace the combination of resources and concentrated clout brought to bear by our biggest newspapers (and local papers, at a local leval).


  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 13, 2009

    the serious threat posed to democracy if the news gathering institutions fail.

    With a very few exceptions, the traditional news-gathering institutions already have failed. They no longer provide any but the most perfunctory opposition or criticism of government actions and assertions.

    The most important opportunity the press had to keep the government honest in the last decade–the Iraq war propaganda assault–it failed miserably, and the evidence suggests that news-gathering agencies made an explicit decision not to “challenge the Leader in a Time of War”. The press is not doing any better of a job right now in covering the Middle East, acting essentially as stenographer for AIPAC far-right-wing Likud propaganda.

    The vast majority of journalists are much more interested in sucking up to power and basking in reflected celebrity than they are in acting as the opposition to government propaganda they were envisioned by the Founders as constituting. If our current new-gathering agencies are supposed to be some kind of bulwark of democracy, we are seriously fucked.

  2. #2 Richard Eis
    January 14, 2009

    I don’t see why a proper internet news site can’t do investigative journalism. Sure it’s a bit scruffy at the moment on the internet, but that will most likely change as time goes on. And i’m sorry, but most newspapers I would happily see the back of as they haven’t been practising proper journalism in years.

  3. #3 llewelly
    January 14, 2009

    Waldman’s article defends the NYT on the merits of the role that he wishes it had played, as opposed to the role it actually has played.

    Ask yourself this – what did the NYT – and nearly every other major newspaper – use their special resources for during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? They used those special resources to delude the public.

    How did they do on other important topics, such as global warming? Well, the NYT has done ‘okay’, thanks to Andy Revkin, but they’ve nonetheless published many editorials and other articles that credulously accept the denialist talking points. Nearly every other major newspaper did much worse than the NYT.
    What about the financial crisis? There were several economists who were warning of upcoming problems, probably a crash, in 2006, in 2005, in 2004 – and some who predicted a financial crisis (admittedly of then indeterminate nature) as far back as the re-appeal of the Glass-Steagull acts. Did the NYT or other newspapers report that story? As far as I know, no they did not. Waldman has much to say about the NYT’s superior resources, but no analysis of what those resources have actually been used for.

    The NYT and its ilk are dying in part because they’ve failed to deliver the goods on many important stories, and worse, they’ve delivered dangerous delusions on many other important stories. Given how poorly they’ve used their superior reporting resources, I’m inclined to believe that either (a) said resources are not really all that superior, or (b) they often prefer to delude rather than inform.

    The Waldman article seems to think most reporters at the NYT and its ilk put informing the public about otherwise hard to discover or hard to understand stories high on their priority list. But the articles printed by the NYT between about 1995 and about 2006 do not show that. On the contrary, they show the majority of NYT reporters – whatever their intent – function as if the priority list was #1 Entertainment, #2 Currying favor with up-and-coming politicians, and #3 Currying favor with advertisers. Only a minority of NYT articles indicate concern for the principles Waldman seems to assume are universal.

    NYT served as a propaganda arm for the Iraq Invasion. If HuffPo can’t replace them in that role, that’s a good thing . Due to the way it reported the 9/11 attack, NYT served as a propaganda arm for the ‘Patriot’ Act, that practical burning of the constitution, as a propaganda arm favoring the horrible disablement of FEMA, and as propaganda arm favoring security-theater style flying. American foreign and domestic policy was horribly disfigured in part because NYT and its ilk entirely failed to place the attack in its proper perspective: traffic accidents kill more Americans every month than terrorism has killed in the last 10 years. Again, if HuffPo can’t replace them in those roles, that’s a good thing . (Unfortunately, given that many columnists and reporters at HuffPo credulously promote all sorts of newage nonsense, HuffPo is clearly capable of promoting delusions of its own.)

    Unlike Waldman, I think HuffPo’s reliance on the AP, the NYT, and other bastions of traditional reporting is a serious weakness – But in my view, the NYT and its ilk largely abandoned the strengths of traditional reporting over a decade ago.

    At best, Waldman is lamenting the passage of an institution that has been dead since at least the middle 1990s. It’s time for the zombie that now wears its reputation to die too, and I say good riddance.

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