we tried that.

Back when this now essentially defunct experiment called “democracy” was being cooked up by those bewigged commies in Philadelphia (no wonder they picked a place with such a faggy name…) this whole idea of what the far left conspiracy of the era called a “Bill of Rights” was, just as today, fairly controversial.  (Tea bagging, when mentioned, was generally the other way around, and sadly lacking in the modern more hilarious connotations…) Oligarchs then, as now, understood that tolerating a bunch of smartmouths with printing presses could only lead to trouble, and as such were especially upset with the order of these promiscuously generous “rights.”  Maybe if the first amendment had been slipped in later, not so many people would have noticed it, and they might have gotten all ten passed on the first try.  Anyway, once they tossed God in for good measure, the first backroom deal in American history gave us something called a Free Press.  And while backroom deals have done quite well, the free press is now in free fall.

In the beginning, a happy accident occurred .  This first amendment thingy, along with the eager participants in a burgeoning capitalist democracy wanting to partake of it, could and did make a lot of people very rich, just by running a few constitutionally-privileged presses.  Sure, they sometimes had to do a bit of reporting on the side, and employ a lot of people who later inconveniently became pillars of the labor movement, but in general, printing newspapers was as close as you could get to just flat out printing money, and it showed.  They undoubtedly shilled for the powerful, hyped their own interests, and generally behaved as badly at times as any privileged class, but in the process, an historically rather unusually informed but diverse public grew to use their product to both enrich their lives and burnish their citizenship.

Our folklore, history, institutions, and even places themselves bear the names of the press barons: Pulitzer, Hearst, Scripps, Knight, Medill, Chandler; here in Portland, the grandest house by far is the Pittock mansion, built by the founder of The Oregonian.  Less than fifty years after Oregon became a state, Pittock built himself a colossal French chateau, with a central vacuum, indirect lighting, and a location so commanding that when one sits in its oval dining room, a snow-capped mountain is centered in each window.  (less so these days…) Hearst built San Simeon, the Chandlers Los Tiempos, and the Sulzbergers, Grahams, et al, lived in digs of baronial splendor.

Now they tell us that running these rags is tantamount to running a welfare office.  Nobody reads the things.  Advertisers found the internet.  These commie workers expect to eat meat once a week.  The list goes on and on.  Nobody mentions the fact that the product is garbage.  It’s not unlike a carmaker complaining that no one wants to buy one, just because the tires, seats, and engine have been eliminated.  Somewhere along the way, everyone forgot that just because a few dozen families were able to get very rich, and stay that way for a few generations running newspapers, good or less so, does not  mean that a half dozen bloated, Wall Street beholden corporations can get twenty times richer dabbling in them for a few years, just long enough to turn them into emaciated, interchangeable pieces of shit.

The results are quite clear, but the implications somewhat more grave.  We are tossing out something the founders thought was absolutely necessary for a functioning democracy, with no idea what, if anything, might replace it. Most people have already given up on newspapers as reliable sources of information of national, much less international, import, owing to their abject failure in the last decade.  But they did like to look at the high school sports, the city council meetings (or here, the latest shenanigans of our horndog Mayor) and, clip out Grandma’s obituary.  Now it looks like they’ll have no place left for that.

Bill O’Reilly will be so proud.

22 Comments

  1. bystander says:

    CH, you might be interested in this piece by Clay Shirky. His wiki bio is pretty interesting, too.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    It was that piece, the Nichols/McChesney piece in The Nation, and that book I read about Knight Ridder that got me going, more than usual, on this subject. I’m glad to know you spotted it, too. I’ll check the wiki.

  3. bystander says:

    I know I get stuck on things economic; when all you have is a hammer… But, it looks like we’ve moved into uncharted territory with respect to so many taken-for-granted institutions simultaneously, it’s hard to know where to set an anchor. As I read Shirky’s piece, it wasn’t hard to think about the fourth estate, our economic system, our legal system, or our political system. It’s almost like all kinds of systems are unraveling at once, and it’s hard to know what will be rebuilt out of any of them. The demise of the traditional press is a metaphor for everything else.

    • cocktailhag says:

      More than a metaphor, a reality. “Finance,” which can make profits out of thin air, drove all of the talent and capital out of those dreary business that actually produce things, with their profits in the embarrassingly outdated teens, which is the modern equivalent of a charity. AIG’s London boys were booking 87%. Selling air, where the real (i.e. fake) money is. If you have to actually hand something over for the money, be it a newspaper or a toaster, there are costs involved, and pesky math gets in there.
      The Nation article actually offers some solutions; it’s called “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” I liked the riff off of Jane Jacobs, one of my heroines.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Oops. Life and Death, in that order.

  4. Meremark says:

    Maybe ‘nationalize newspapers.’

    So local communities — what we used to call ‘media markets’ — pay local t’pence tax and a newspaper comes free. Delivery optional. Newstand copies free, daily. Content duplicated in tandem on the web. No display ads. No lies.

    But here’s the Big Concept. Step away from the details scrutinizing.

    ‘Nationalize labor.’ I mean, re-enact the draft. For all public employment, not only military public employees. Everybody has to serve a 2-year hitch sometime (mutually agreed) after age 16 and before age 50. (60?) (Before death?)

    From folks according to ability — either tested aptitude or curious interest. Mulligans allowed, but 3 bites out of the apple and then into the military by default.
    To the public interest according to need — either actual or anticipated.

    Draft firemen. Draft legislators and mayors. Draft judges and juries. And governors. Draft teachers and cops. Road construction ‘Stop/Slow’ sign holders. Postal workers. Doctors and doctor gonna-be’s. And park rangers and street sweepers and meter readers.
    Nationalize the banks and draft bank clerks.
    Nationalize the automakers and draft automakers.
    Nationalize the airlines and draft cabin attendants, luggage thugs, and ticket clickers.
    Nationalize utilities.
    Nationalize land and water and air, and draft sheriffs and captains and pilots. Draft someone to fly kites and write poetry. Draft kids to be kids and draft grownups to be kids, too. Draft helpers at the DMV counter.
    Nationalize socialism and draft ourselves.

    You see where this is going … nationalize newspapers. And other media. Talking hairdo’s and hairdon’ts would only face us 2 years, then ‘term-limited’ out. Unless other arrangements were made.
    Hey, ‘good’ reporters could stick around after their 2-year hitch; maybe re-up public employee low wage/big allowance, or maybe go pro ‘free agent,’ craft-vetted and -certified, and personally ready to privately capitalize.

    And all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children above average.

    So I’d be interested in a technical position responsible for downlink traffic operations from weather satellites and orbital observation satellites onto the web, open access, global distribution. Or be a hiking tour guide at Mt. Rushmore. I mean, I’m flexible about this.

    We the People in the public interest also need saloons and saloonkeepers. Hag?

    • cocktailhag says:

      The Nichols/McChesney article does offer the idea of a public subsidy for newspapers, say, a $200 per annum tax credit for subscriptions to print media, and subsidized high school newspapers and low power FM stations. The danger is, of course, that no one will bother to learn journalism, since there aren’t any jobs. That was already happening when I was in college, many moons ago.
      As for national service, I think it’s a good idea. As a country, we increasingly lack any experience common to all.

      • Meremark says:

        I wish I’d said that. Or, I did. Oververbosely.

        a big shoutout YEESSSSSS! for specifying the point of tax-supported ‘school journalism’ and low-power FM broadcasting (also AM, TV).

        There’s a devil in the details. of an epochal change and reformation of our economic system (… and labor system, and legal system, and military system, and academic system, and Arts system … just, oh, call it The System — for like totally Reformation dudes and dudetteers). After (mass)realizing that Systemic Reformation is at hand and that issue is our (‘boomer’) Fate to deal with and comprehend (def’n: ‘take hold of’), then the first dilemma divides our conversation categories under two headings — do we act on it (self-govern) OR does it act on us (chaos-ocaust)? Jump or be pushed? Intervene our planet’s room temperature or ignore the thermostat? Massive, massive public and their public votes concern this issue, but again, after masses realize that that question is our reality. Global vote is today too complicated, impractical in the immediate need, and in the interim until global vote gets ready, while we wait we all each act locally. = break the 50 states into 50 countries more or less, with 50 UN seats. Details in a local jurisdiction are manageably doable. and a pain in the neck … a pain of about 2 ‘slave’ years out of everyone’s life. getting ‘hitched’ to civics. My vote: Let’s do it! (Where can I work?) Yes we can! Pass it on, buck it up, from local consensusses to planet plebiscite — suss it.

        Then come the details, next. If the ‘yes-make-a-human-effort’ side wins humankind vote. I estimate we are smartly clever enough, (at this adolescent age in our evolution), that we can design different sorts of work for draftees in each different social labor, just like we do today with regulations cut different for different crafts, guilds, professions. So go through the list:
        How do we draft firemen.
        How do we draft cops.
        How do we draft presidents … mayors, representatives, judges …
        How do we draft teachers … Peace Corps-airs, ‘day care’ for the sunrising and sunseting times of our lives, vaudeville troupes …
        How do we draft low-power FM announcers and deejays … high school newspaper ‘advisors’ …

        Seems like the first order of business is that we draft all of the How We Draft _ _ _‘s in society.

        Seems like we could. Through The System we have now. State the categories of ‘jobs’ we pay with our taxes. Seems unlikely we could all vote all the criteria in that, such as how much? we pay. … conditions, covenants, and restrictions. But all that could be voted in small ‘breakout groups.’ aka ‘blog regs’ or ‘bregs.’ It’s our fashionne d’etre.

        Your blog presence, CH, it’s your blog presence. Oracle vapors, I get oracle vapors here.

        Snapping out of it -*- remember the aim of this comment, actions to ‘nationalize newspapers’: AP CEO Tom Curley Discusses Open Government Effort, By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Published: March 15, 2009.

        Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, is one of the news media’s foremost advocates for open government and freedom of information. …

        On second thought, nevermind. Curley sez zilch. Par for the course of a NYTimes ‘Interview.’

        • cocktailhag says:

          I’m with you on a lot of this. It’s shameful that those who make real things, be they buildings, products, safety, or education, are consistently devalued monetarily and otherwise, while those who dream up ways to spin something they call “money” from thin air, and yap about it all on the TV, are so absurdly overvalued. You even see it in popular culture. “The Honeymooners” had real jobs, the “Sex in the City” gals, not so much. They had expensive shoes, though, so they must be better.

          • Meremark says:

            … must be …

          • cocktailhag says:

            I guess I started to develop my shoe theory beginning with OJ Simpson. Then during Katrina, an elderly african american woman, calling Ed Schultz’s show and referring to tanker-namesake Condi Rice, said, “So she finally came down to Mississippi and went to church. Well, she’s not going to heaven in thousand dollar shoes.”
            A light bulb went on. Whether you end up in jail or on the golf course seems to be directly related to the cost of your footwear.

  5. OSR says:

    The decline in the newspaper industry is just one more symptom of the dumbing down of our country. The teevee is all we need! Well, that and the occasional teabagging.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Worse, newspapers tried to “compete” with TV by being shallower, flashier, and more colorful, with less tiresome, boring words to read. Look how that worked out. The once great LATimes now looks and feels like a student newspaper, and more people drop it, or switch to the New York Times, each month.

  6. William Timberman says:

    The LA Times. I loved that newspaper, probably because, like Randy Newman, I love LA, and I could always point out to the New Age Carpers — not enough earth tones and herbal tea, too smoggy, too silly, too fast, tooooo many cars — that its newspaper was the equal of anything on the east coast.

    Sadly, not any longer. It now looks just like what LA looked like to the Carpers, and I no longer have anything to say….

    • Meremark says:

      Say it here. I loved all the newspapers. In each its kitsch.
      But it’s like it got too ‘specialized’ and drifted away from the real world. Or stood still while the real world drifted away from it.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I wholeheartedly agree. I lived there in the early 90′s, and was astonished what a good read that paper was. Robert Scheer, Sam Hall Kaplan, hell, Al Martinez… a ton of talent, and with WaPoo, bureaus all over the world, and even the daily edition thick as a good steak. It gave me a respect for LA that I admittedly didn’t previously have, and everyone read it.
      I’m down there several times a year, and what’s amazing about the decline was both its swiftness and extremity. They even combined the Sunday op/ed and book review for awhile (sudden, ephemeral, and stupid consultant-driven changes are the hallmark of a Schaivo-izing paper…) into a tabloid, and put covers on the front and back, so midway you had to turn the damn thing UPSIDE DOWN to finish. Had it been a comic book, I’d have marched back to the store to demand a refund.
      It had Jonah Goldberg in it, and a daily edition as thin as a Communion wafer.
      Sad. Profoundly sad.

  7. karrsic says:

    Please, no props.
    Artificial support holds up gimmicks.
    Let them fail. If left to smolder in their ruins, they will rise again, some day, in some form, without corporate verisimilitude, for fear of being burned again.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’d like to think so, but I do worry about the upheaval in the meantime….. Should all journalists finish their careers (officially) in advertising or PR? Then there’s the printing/production people; with even porn moving online (and Ann Coulter “retiring” from writing books) are there enough WalMart positions available for them all?

      • karrsic says:

        Journalists have to go online. Journalists have to blog, podcast, do video. Journalists need to get together and form journalism groups that don’t require a traditional corporate structure.

        There’s no shortage on demand for the truth. Sure, it’s difficult to figure out how to monetize. But frankly, that’s true for a lot of us.

        Not sure what to say about the printing/production people, in the same way I don’t have much with which to console manufacturing people. But there’s a pretty big leap from wishing things were different and undertaking a futile (IMO) endeavor to turn back the clock. Unless by turning back the clock one means printing and disseminating the nation’s most popular blogs on street corners?