Apr 15, 2009

Lasting impressions

Seldom do I look to actor Ben Affleck for wisdom of any kind, but the Boston Globe recently quoted him saying something exceedingly pertinent to the news industry:
"Part of the erosion of newspapers is about new media, but part of it is newspapers' own fault ... I think the public has felt let down by The New York Times and others for not asking the tough questions, whether about the Iraq war or the subprime issue. The job of the fourth estate is to stand outside the vested interests and say, 'Wait a minute, this isn't viable.' "
Whatever one thinks of Affleck's fuzzy version of history, it's the sentiment that's important. His impression of newspapers, which I think more and more people share, especially young people, was shaped by a perception of failure - for them, the newspaper is symbolized by Judy Miller and the New York Times and their collective failure to tell the truth in the run up to a war. In this way of thinking, newspapers are dispensable and possibly dangerous.

Compare this to the popular sentiment that existed pre-weapons of mass destruction when the popular impression of newspapers was shaped by a perception of success - the Watergate investigation. In this way of thinking, newspapers are indispensable to democracy and a watchdog against the worst kinds of corruption.

Ad dollars might be drying up but a silent killer for newspaper journalism is the impression people have caused by these external events. One can argue for standards, and ethics and against layoffs and cheapjack publishers, but until public sentiment shifts away from the Affleck narrative and back toward the one at the heart of "All The President's Men," it will be difficult to gain traction outside of our own media echo chamber.

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