The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.Shafer is right, in his cheeky way, that democracy does not need newspapers to function, just as the function of newspapers is not to become a "cheat sheet for democracy."
But Shafer's argument ignores a couple peculiar features of America's democratic system: It's a representative democracy and it sits in the middle of a capitalistic society. Both features have a tendency to concentrate power and money in the hands of a relative few. Newspapers aren't essential to democracy, but neither are lobbyists or HMOs or weapons manufacturers or social-safety nets or public education or Wall Street or Congress. For all their flaws, newspapers serve as a place where we can concentrate our power - not as partisans, not as sectarians, not for our profit or their loss - to hold these other institutions accountable on a daily basis.