Goodbye to Newspapers?

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch; drawing by David Levine

1.

The American press has the blues. Too many authorities have assured it that its days are numbered, too many good newspapers are in ruins. It has lost too much public respect. Courts that once treated it like a sleeping tiger now taunt it with insolent subpoenas and put in jail reporters who refuse to play ball with prosecutors. It is abused relentlessly on talk radio and in Internet blogs. It is easily bullied into acquiescing in the designs of a presidential propaganda machine determined to dominate the news.

Its advertising and circulation are being drained away by the Internet, and its owners seem stricken by a failure of the entrepreneurial imagination needed to prosper in the electronic age. Surveys showing that more and more young people get their news from television and computers breed a melancholy sense that the press is yesteryear’s thing, a horse-drawn buggy on an eight-lane interstate.

Then there are the embarrassments: hoaxers like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass turn journalism into farce. The elite Washington press corps is bamboozled into helping a circle of neoconservative connivers create the Iraq war. What became of heroes? Journalists used to dine out on the deeds of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate; of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Malcolm Browne in Vietnam; of “Punch” Sulzberger and Kay Graham risking everything to publish the Pentagon Papers. Instead of heroes, today’s table talk is about journalistic frauds and a Washington press too dim to stay out of a three-card-monte game.

Rupert Murdoch of course has long spread melancholy in newsrooms around the world, but it was the disclosure in May that the Bancroft family, which controls The Wall Street Journal, might be ready to sell him their paper for five billion dollars that really struck at journalism’s soul. The sale of another newspaper is common enough these days, but The Wall Street Journal is not another newspaper. It is one of the proudest pillars of American journalism. Like The New York Times and The Washington Post, it has for generations been controlled by descendants of a founding patriarch.

Family control has sheltered all three newspapers from Wall Street’s most insistent demands, allowing them to do high-quality—and high cost—journalism. It was said, and widely believed, that the controlling families were animated by a high-minded sense that their papers were quasi-public institutions. Of course profit was essential to their survival, but it was not the primary purpose of their existence. That one of these families might finally take the money and clear out heightens fears that no newspaper is so valuable to the republic that it cannot be knocked down at market for a nice price. Murdoch at the Journal is a dark omen for journalists everywhere. When the sign in the shop window says “Everything For Sale,” it is often followed by “Going Out Of Business.”

There is a growing literature about…


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