Sunday, July 08, 2007

What's Wrong With America's Newspapers?

If we had been fighting in Iraq 50 years ago, we might have never left. Back then, the morning printfest was the only game in town and, from the performance of American dailies today, there would have been no clamor to get out.

Today, some 51 months, 3600 military deaths and $441 billion after it started, a New York Times editorial finally says, “Enough.” Titled “The Road Home,” it begins: “It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.”

The Times took its time deciding that, yet even so it is in the vanguard.

According to Editor & Publisher, “very few newspapers in the U.S. have endorsed a withdrawal from Iraq or even a timetable for that, despite the overwhelming shift in public opinion on that question. Momentum has started to shift in that direction, however, with a handful of papers --from the Los Angeles Times to, just this week, The Olympian in Washington--backing a pullout.”

Why has it taken so long? Have newspapers under corporate ownership lost touch with their communities and the pain this war has been inflicting on readers? Back when A.J. Liebling famously said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one,” were benevolent publishers more empathic or more responsive?

Not in my long experience. Daily newspapers back then were just as out of touch with public sentiment, routinely endorsing Republican Presidential candidates in the overwhelmingly Democratic era of Roosevelt and Truman.

If there is an answer, it may be in the newspaper tradition of never getting too far ahead of, or in many cases, even abreast of its readers on controversial issues.

During the days of McCarthyism, Vietnam and even Watergate (with only Woodward and Bernstein the dazzling exception), magazines, book publishers and even network TV took the lead in delivering the bad news just as cable and bloggers have been doing about Iraq.

Marshall McLuhan said, “People don’t actually read newspapers. They get into them every morning like a hot bath.”

Finally the New York Times at least has decided it’s time for a cold shower.

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