News From Nowhere


Alexandria, VA

I’m late to this, but have been spending the last few weeks of the summer break gorging on episodes of David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series “The Wire.” It is a fiercely gritty, profane, violent, tough-minded look at the inner workings of the city of Baltimore in its death-throes. The series is smart and sad, one in which people are more often than not trapped by a combination of circumstance and bad and worse choices.

I took an interest in watching the series after hearing excerpts from Simon’s testimony this past Spring before the Senate on the state of the newspaper business in America. His testimony – like the series he created – was fierce, defiant, and brutally honest. What strikes one about reading this testimony is how thoroughly he shatters the contemporary myth that there’s some kind of inherent antagonism between defenders of the Free Market and an increasingly distant and ungovernable Government. Cheerleaders of the Age of the Internet have urged us to move on from the day of ink-stained hands, and revel in the ushering in of an era of unlimited information. Yet, Simon puts to lie the notion that the internet is any real replacement for the hard, gritty and local work of gathering news.

High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin – namely the newspapers themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It is nice to get stuff for free, of course. And it is nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet commentary is – as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort – rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.

Understand here that I am not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not – in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism – that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history – no more than the last fifty years or so – a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modem newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

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