Capable of seeing all sides of an argument…
For many years now, I have been a resident of two countries, the USA and the UK. That ‘duality’ has taught me to look at the world from several perspectives at the same time. This is a story about newspapers and TV news in America, but it has its roots in English history. Stick with it, it’s interesting….
As an American, there is much to admire in England and in the English way of life, but for a long time I could never understand the British respect for the Monarchy. The ‘House of Windsor’ was to me an anachronism. Here were inept and painfully average people elevated to the height of power. What was more irking was that they were supported by tax money. “Off with their heads!”
Yet Republicanism has had little traction in Britain, and everyone supports the Monarchy. It’s an institution with very very deep emotional roots.
I did not really understand why until I read Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples.
My new understanding of English History has also given me a new view of journalism in the United States.
Charles I ruled England during the time of the Civil War (the British one, not the American one), and was overthrown and beheaded in 1649.
The Monarchy was then replaced by Republican rule under Cromwell who ruled under the title of Lord Protector. It was a popular revolution and it was England’s first and only experiment as a Republic. A short 12 years later, the Monarchy of Charles II was restored to vast popular acclaim across the length and breadth of the land.
What happened? And what does this have to do with Journalism in America?
The rule of Cromwell was a nightmare for pretty much everyone in England. Unbound by the restraints of Nobless Oblige, Cromwell and his followers became the Taliban of England. There were religious trials, there were religious police. It was a holy terror, in every sense of the word.
The English soon came to realize the value of a countervailing force in the institution of a Monarchy. While Parliament and democracy might well reflect the momentay passions of the population and the ups and downs of the economy or foreign fortune or failure, the Monarchy was able to stand a bit aloof and have a far longer and more stable perspective. Britain needed a Monarch, in a way, to allow the Parliament to function far more effectively. It was a pillar of stability. Alone it was unreasonable and could be dangerous. But in concert with an empassioned Parliament, it cast just the right balance. Hence, the experience of the Cromwellian Republic forever cast in the British temperment a healthy respect for the Institution of the Monarchy.
Now we come to journalism in the United States.
Our nation, perhaps unlike any nation that has ever existed before, is as much run, defacto, by the Media as it is by our elected legislators. It might not be too unfair to say that the position of the media in fact has vast sway over the kind of government we get, our perception of foreign policy, domestic policy, the economy and so on. The very foundation of our goverment is in fact predicated on the notion of a well informed electorate; otherwise what is the point of a voting democracy? (note: First Amendment).
But when the voice of the media and thus of public discourse and public information is also married to the vicissituedes solely of the marketplace, does this place our democracy in danger?
We may, in the next few years, see the very disappearance of newspapers from many American cities and towns. The economics of the marketplace will simply no longer be able to support them. Television news may follow suit. There may be a new incarnation on the web… or there may not be. This remains to be seen.
By the same token, that which does make air, or make print, will increasingly be driven by baseline market demand. The cushion that once existed for newspapers, in the form of classifieds, car ads, house ads, want ads and so on has now been stripped away by the web. It is a naked news and nothing less.
At a conference I attended in Bristol, England last month, Paul Dacre, Editor of The Daily Mail, a very popular tabloid made a strong case for ‘shock news’. It is, he said, the only way to sell papers. Fox News in the US is no different. This is a business.
But it is also a business that is more than a business. It carries with it the concept of ‘the public good’ and ‘an informed electorate’.
There was a time when that responsibility rested firmly, (if tenderly) in the hands of a few families, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, Bill Paley and David Sarnoff. They understood their responsibility to balance businesss with public service.
Those days are either over or rapidly drawing to a close.
And what will we be left with? A naked market driven information place…. The 21st Century equivalent of Cromwell’s Republic, but with ROI replace le roi, so to speak.
This is not healthy. This is not good for America.
Thus, perhaps we should start to think of creating a kind of separate and non-market driven countervailing force in the world of journalism. One that exists not to replace the Fox News or Today Show of the world, but to provide a stable pillar of quality journalism. A benchmark. An alternative that is not driven by ratings or the passions of the moment.
It is true we have both NPR and PBS, but both are woefully underfunded, and in the case of PBS, so badly constructed from its birth as to be almost stillborn.
Perhaps what we really need in this country is a kind of BBC; free of ratings and a haven for the best journalists in the nation (as Harvard tenure, for example… ), where they can work unthreatened by layoffs or cutbacks. A place where television, newspaper and online journalism might flourish at its best; and provide a ‘safe haven’ for the information we so desperately need to function effectively.
It would cost us, but far far less than we spend on so many other goverment ‘programs’ that deliver so far less.
It might be the best investment we could make with a small percentage of our tax dollars. Something that would return a thousand fold.
You might, for the moment, think that you can depend upon The New York Times. But in this world, there is no guarantee that the vagaries of the marketplace might not place that newspaper ‘on the block’, the same place Charles I found himself 360 years ago, this month.