According to a recent commentary in The Public Discourse by Ted McAllister (“Walter Lippmann and the Crisis in Journalism“):
We are witnessing, I believe, the collapse of a great modern project. The goal of this project was to form a democratic public, led by the most talented leaders and administered by enlightened public servants, but constituted by a deeply informed, engaged, and public-spirited citizenry…. For a century or more, public-spirited Americans have looked to an unbiased and professional class of journalists to play this indispensable role….
The starting point of this analysis is Walter Lippman’s famed critique of journalism, Public Opinion (1922). Insofar as Lippmann disparages democracy and the unrealizable dream of a “well-informed citizenry,” he is correct. But one imagines that his pessimism was motivated chiefly by ideological impatience. After all, Lippmann urged accommodation with Communist regimes and late in life he fatuously denied that Castro’s Cuba was in danger of becoming a Russian satellite.
The deeper issue is not one of journalism’s theoretical mission so much as its actual nature. Much of our news is a form of gossip. Whether it’s uttered by a right-wing or left-wing press does not make it nobler. The fact is that people don’t read the news only for enlightenment or political verification, but also (and perhaps primarily) to be entertained and distracted. The collapse of the “great project” validates the criticisms uttered a century and a half ago by conservative intellectuals like James Fenimore Cooper and Soren Kierkegaard (see related comments). News feeds the ego insofar as it gives the individual a sense of superiority – “Didn’t you know about this?” – and righteousness – “Aren’t you outraged at what is happening?” These motives pre-existed the written word, but with the advent of major newspapers and broadcasters, human behavior on the individual and group level was simply magnified, not improved.
In his follow-up essay, “Liberty and a Free Press,” McAllister makes the point that, like other endeavors, journalism is best when it is not monopolistic. The mainstream media has suffered from declining standards and intellectual smugness. This naturally led people to seek competitive alternatives. The chief virtue of the new media is not that it is inherently more accurate or superior; it will be subject to the frailties of any intellectual enterprise. Rather, the smaller size and greater variety of news outlets will appear less “omniscient” and less likely to drown out traditional beliefs, common sense, and non-journalistic sources in our assessment of the world. In the end, however, information is only as good as the person consuming it.
For a slightly different take on the new media see my earlier post Lamenting Print Journalism’s Decline.