Chris Hedges on the end of newspapers

Author and journalist Chirs Hedges (whose books “American Fascists” and “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” were much enjoyed here on Don Street) – a veteran New York Times reporter who reported from Bosnia, El Salvador, and Israel – gives us a reason to pause and remember the value of newspapers:

“The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print. “

Further, Hedges argues that blogs (like this one) are not to be highly regarded:

“We live under the happy illusion that we can transfer news-gathering to the Internet. News-gathering will continue to exist, as it does on this Web site and sites such as ProPublica and Slate, but these traditions now have to contend with a new, widespread and ideologically driven partisanship that dominates the dissemination of views and information, from Fox News to blogger screeds. The majority of bloggers and Internet addicts, like the endless rows of talking heads on television, do not report. They are largely parasites who cling to traditional news outlets. They can produce stinging and insightful commentary, which has happily seen the monopoly on opinion pieces by large papers shattered, but they rarely pick up the phone, much less go out and find a story. Nearly all reporting—I would guess at least 80 percent—is done by newspapers and the wire services. Take that away and we have a huge black hole.

“Those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs. The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting.  […]  If we lose (the journalist ethic) we are left with pandering, packaging and partisanship. We are left awash in a sea of competing propaganda. Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors. They cannot get fired. Facts, for many bloggers, are interchangeable with opinions.” (emphasis mine)

While I don’t share all the opinions Hedges expressed, they do hit home when I consider my own tendency to read news from sources that agree with my worldview.

That said, Hedges’ vaunted ethical journalism is not always in plain view. From convicing the public to go war over Weapons of Mass Destruction or the sinking of the Maine or the Gulf of Tonkin, some in the media have a bad tendency to want to believe the big lies. Other “journalists” are just plain nationalist mongers of war, like Fox News.

Hedges does make clear, however, that these fringe news sources are surviving in the form of biased blogs and ideologically driven websites – while the well-researched news organs are cutting back. His warning should be taken very seriously as we move from the era of TV – which Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death aptly describes – to the era of the Internet.

But I’m an optimist on this point. If the medium is the metaphor, then what are we to read into the internet? If you are still reading this, then you have read far far further than any newpaper article written today. And all this without pictures! I believe that the internet could see a return to longer articles as well as the acceleration of memetic evolution. As I pointed out in my first-ever post, memes reproduce in much the same way as genes. As this process speeds up, ideas live and die very short lives and reproduce only if they are able to survive the criticism of and competition with other ideas. On the internet – though we may gravitate to certain sites – we are often thrown curveballs which make us reconsider fundamental ideas.

As we construct our own understandings of the world, is it not advantageous to have access to as much data and opinion as possible? Yes, but only if our education system teaches us to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas, rather than to memorize facts. Teaching these higher-level skills is the major challenge for Educators in the Age of the Internet.


9 responses to “Chris Hedges on the end of newspapers

  1. Hedges aptly sums up my own mixed feelings about blogs. Many are indeed very insightful when it comes to criticizing the MSM, but do a terrible job of replacing it. Self-congratulation is a disease that afflicts far too many bloggers, and it leads to far too much meta-blogging, or blogging about blogging.

    Bloggers who delight in predictions about newspapers’ demise are deluding themselves, because Hedges is correct — even the worst do a great deal of primary reporting that benefits society.

    And despite the claims of “citizen journalists,” not just anybody can sit down at a computer and suddenly become a reporter. Reporting is a craft, and the purveyors of this craft learn the trade over many years.

    As a result, all journalists wind up learning lessons of humility. We learn to serve our readers and never ourselves. We strive to acknowledge our own mistakes before readers or editors point them out. We grow accustomed to asking apparently stupid questions about seemingly obvious things because gathering information is more important than appearing clever.

    We learn never to congratulate ourselves for doing our jobs, because we’re only as good as our last story. We learn to be friendly with our sources but never actually become friends with them, because we must remain critical at all times.

    We learn to be aware of our own biases and to either declare them or not allow them to affect the tone and content of our stories.

    We learn we carry a great deal of responsibility, in that we are among the only members of society who have power without wealth. And we learn we must never abuse that power, even as we serve as checks and balances against institutions and authorities.

    In sum, we learn not to become enamoured with the sound of our own voices. And the more we knowledge we acquire, the more we know we don’t really know much at all.

    When more bloggers learn some of these lessons, it will be a great day for independent media.


  2. Hi Bart,

    Thanks for stopping by Don Street.

    I certainly think that the meta-blogging is valuable in that blogging as a medium does provide room for introspection and growth. However, the purpose of it must be a search for better techniques, better thinking, and better writing. Self congratulation is easy when you are editor-in-chief.

    For newspapers, Hedges does raise the fact that bloggers are paracites on the MSM, my own blog included. Many of my posts on this 17-day-old blog take off from the Winnipeg Free Press. The loss of it’s contributions would be catastophic for our democracy, and I don’t say that lightly. What blogs do is the same thing as BBQs, pubs, and water-coolers – subjective interpretation. But, I think that the blogs offer more possibilities for thoughtfulness and growth than those other “media” – and so can play a positive role in shaping opinions.

    Perhaps the best lesson you’ve suggested is that “the more knowledge we acquire, the more we know we don’t really know much at all.” Absolutely true. Like Thomas Friedman, bloggers can simply sit back and solve every world problem before breakfast because we often fail to see the sheer enormity and complexity of the systems on which we feel so entitled to comment.

  3. BTW, Chris Leo has an excellent piece on blogging here.

  4. The irony is that bloggers need a newspaper released or no one gets to see the “opinions”.

    A good blog is one that originates between the ears of the author and not from the MSM. A strong blog is one that creates thoughts and generates discussion.

  5. Excellent get on the NYT article, and very nice analysis. For the record, I think some alternative media commentators completely misinterpret, and thus misrepresent, the opinions we in the MSM have about bloggers and other alternative media columnists. I don’t mind the criticism of the work product – I think it has been an utterly positive development to have articulate readers pointing out weak spots in the mass media system. What concerns me is the commentators who try to build their observations into conspiracy theories about who is pulling the levers of the evil corporate media empire. I won’t get into those bloggers who spew verbal attacks behind pseudonyms. Anyway, if you like Hedges, you’ll love an earlier essay in the NewYorker magazine by Eric Alterman entitled The death and life of American Newspapers. I blogged on it a few months back, and included the link.
    For your consideration:

    Dan Lett

  6. Thanks for stopping by Don Street, Dan. BTW, I’ve enjoyed reading your commentaries on the Tamman Inquiry. Thanks also for the link.

    On bloggers misinterpreting motives in the MSM – this happens in every public discipline, including education. As a teacher, you say one thing and 30 ideas emerge from the room, none of them the same as intended. Even my own blogging is misinterpreted, despite the miniscule audience. When I pointed to Global Climate Change, I was told that this was part of a worldwide Communist conspiracy and was pointed to a website that showed how the Soviet Union didn’t collapse but that it tricked us into thinking it had collapsed in order to get our gaurd down! And Climate Change was the nefarious means by which their plots were being furthered!

    But, I think that the raising of these conspiracy theories is a good thing – before the Internet Age, these ideas still existed but were not as evident. Now, these ideas are surfaced and can be addressed. Communication through journals allows us to identify mis-education and to attempt to correct it.

  7. I do agree with much of the above.

    Bloggers are mostly repeaters / interpreters/ (complainers !) about what is put out by the msm. The demise of The Free Press or NY Times and other traditional media would be a bad thing. It would lead, I think, to the ‘entertainment tonightism’ of news (or an increase in the et-ism of news). We’d be much worse off.

  8. Mike, you make an important point about using the Internet in general, and blogs and discussions in particular, as a means to identify and correct mis-information. While the Net is certainly a double-edged sword in that it can allow the propogation of mis- and dis-information, a professor I had for a human rights course told me something very profound that has stuck with me. He said that the most dangerous thing society can do when it comes to ideas, no matter how radical, is to force them underground. He said let everyone speak and then we can have a conversation and point out any faults. This way, the person is allowed to express how they feel and it can be a positive learning experience for society.

  9. That’s beautiful, rob. I think I’ll cry.

    Actually, your professor is absolutely correct, and it holds for dealing with students in schools. If a kid is a neo-nazi and all you do is yell at him (for admittedly horrific beliefs), you won’t change his/her mind. However, if you can teach students to deconstruct their ideas, you can then engage them in a discussion of the origin of their opinions. Often, students may discouver that their ideas rest on shaky foundations and that it is time to rethink the roots of their opinions.

    One of my profs was very good at this. He asked the question, how long is one second? That was a wonderful look into deconstruction, and led to a discussion about the fact that every idea has an (often falible) origin that can be questioned. “Tradition” was shown to be created rather than a permanent social feature.

    In sum, an open and polite discussion can allow for growth of all parties involved and so it behooves educators to participate in the forums
    where others are constructing their world views.

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