The Right of a Free Press and the Crisis of Free News

I spent much of my career as a newspaper reporter and editor. In one of my assignments, I was the editor of a small upstate Michigan weekly. The owner/publisher was a grizzled old print shop veteran whose newspaper had never earned a profit. I took over the editorial operation and oversaw a major expansion that brought profit for the first time in more than 100 years of business.

One day he and I had a blowup over a news story I wanted to print that made a local city councilman look pretty bad.  The guy had showed up drunk at a council meeting and made a complete ass of himself. The publisher killed the story. I threatened to quit. He laughed. When I raised the right of a free press, he said, "Son, the first right of a free press is the right to remain solvent." See, that councilman also owned the grocery store that was our biggest single advertiser by far.

I left that job shortly after the incident. But I never forgot his caution. And while I don't like it and it chafes at me to think it, that doesn't make it less true.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that one of the big problems we have with journalism today, online, broadcast and print alike, is that there's way too much garbage out there because nobody cares about keeping the outlets solvent. We demand free information, free news, free access even to considered opinion. But of course we also don't want to see ads or be emailed offers or to have text messages disrupting our smartphones. All of that is bad enough in terms of trying to figure out how to keep decent news reporting around. But the bigger problem is that it drives the free content to the foreground, resulting in garbage passing for news. This in turn leads to a misinformed electorate which then makes uninformed decisions which in turn leads to the political chaos and confrontation we have today.

If there's no money for reporting, if there's no money for editing, if there's no money or time for fact-checking, any idiot with an Internet connection can masquerade as a journalist. The ideals of journalism — fair reporting that refuses to pander to stupidity among its news sources, a concern with factual accuracy, and intelligent selection of what's news and therefore important — are being washed away in a sea of "he said, she said and even though he's an idiot I have to present his view so I seem fair and balanced," and "of course it's newsworthy who was kicked off the island on a 'reality' TV show whose outcome means not a thing to anyone in the real world".

We get what we refuse to pay for. Ultimately, this will be the death knell of democracy.

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