Every couple days, it seems like I read a story like this.
This February, Denver's Rocky Mountain News died. In March, The Tucson Citizen followed. Meanwhile, hundreds of other American newspapers reduced staff and declared themselves in significant economic trouble.
The stories inevitably go on to argue that the media are essential to ensuring that the populace learn the "truth."
To be sure, newspapers have played a role in disseminating information to the public, but in retrospect, how much of that information was accurate? I don't mean inaccurate because of bias or mistakes, (although that's common) I mean inaccurate because of the nature of the the medium. Day to day coverage is an inherently weak way to cover long and complex events. If you were trying to understand, say, the Vietnam war or the Johnson administration, would you go to the New York Times of that era? Of course not, there would be no context. Only in retrospect can we understand that the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North, or that Johnson was corrupt.
Some of the inaccuracy stems from the weakness of the medium, some of it stems from the herd mentality of corporate media, or the confirmation and anchor biases of individual reporters and some of it is plain old inertia, but the reality is that much of what we learn from the newspapers is, in retrospect, largely inaccurate.
Many of those inaccuracies eventually become mythology--newspaper lore that, although wrong is taken as an article of faith by journalists and the populace until no amount of correction can remove it from the journalists' alternative history. Here's an example that, ironically, appears in the above article lamenting the passing of local journalism.
Since the days of muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair and his establishment-shaking revelations about a corrupt Chicago meat packing industry, responsible local investigative journalists have shone a withering light on corporate polluters, unscrupulous developers, dishonest officials and incompetent environmental regulators, thereby, making our hometowns better, safer, more enjoyable places to live.
Dude, The Jungle was FICTION. Sinclair was trying to expose the plight of immigrants not the abuses of meat packers, so he made the meat packing stuff up. The Jungle-as-truth bell is impossible to unring--the same is true of the myth of the "Robber Barrons." Of course the newspapers didn't stop creating myths in the 19th century and early 20th century. The heterosexual aids epidemic, not to mention the late 1980s homelessness and child abduction "epidemics" are modern examples.
Then there are the stories that are huge in retrospect but were never understood by contemporary journalists--that banning DDT has cost 30 million lives, the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover, the incapacity of Woodrow Wilson and JFK.
Finally, there's the media's role in enabling the hysteria that surrounded the apocalyptic scenarios that seem to crop up every decade or so--global cooling, the population bomb, inevitable famine followed by widespread starvation, running out of oil by 1985, Cher and Y2K.
Some will argue that despite its inadequacies, the world was a better place because of the media. That's an article of faith--like arguing the positive role of Christianity despite the abuses of the Renaissance Popes--so there's no use debating it.
However, many of those same media advocates are arguing that the world will be worse off without corporate media. On that point, I must disagree. The media of the last 200 years has been a positive force only because it was the only source of information and even disinformation can be preferable to no information. Even a Witch Doctor can provide hope and comfort
But those days are gone. Media has gone from corporate monopoly to universal availability. Every man is his own reporter, editor, aggregator and consumer and--as with all broken monopolies--the price commanded for the product plummets, and the providers disappear. We are seeing that now...and we are much better off. Yet each week you will read yet another story about how the closing of some obscure second tier daily will result in the fall of Western Civilization.