Fifty years ago, there were no 24/7 news channels, no cable television. There were only four networks, each bouncing their programming across the nation so that people in New York were watching the same programs as people in San Francisco, just three hours earlier. There were local television stations as well, which ranged from showing old movies and reruns to some original programming.
The primary sources of news were the three network half-hour news casts and print sources. Every town and city had newspapers. Many cities had multiple newspapers and cities with high immigrant populations had papers in diverse languages. Growing up as I did in New York, I was aware of the pattern used by news dealers for laying out the papers. The New York Times held place of honor at the right hand side of the line, and papers were displayed in small piles, overlapping each other, and the further to the left, the further the paper was published from the heart of journalism, Times Square. Some dealers did it left-to-right, but the pattern was always the same.
We got our daily news from those papers. “Respectable” papers were full sized like the New York Times. “Tabloids” were not just junk papers. They were originally half-sized papers designed to be read on the bus or trolley or subway by working men and women. The “respectable” papers followed the lead of the New York Times and published “all the news that’s fit to print” meaning all the news that a businessman could comfortably read out to his “little women” at the breakfast table. The tabloids told the story of the rest of the city and country – the crimes, the poverty, the hardships, the perversions, the corruption and reality of lives not lived in the mansions behind the gates.
And then there were the weekly news magazines. They didn’t bother with daily stories. Their function was to go in-depth on a long term story, provide it with history and detail and provide a means for pulling all the small parts together into a whole. There were two magazines dedicated to photojournalism and they were the homes of some of the greatest reporters with cameras that ever lived, Look and Life. There were three primary news magazines, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.
If you had parents like mine, true news junkies, you learned to discern bias in the network newscasts, newspapers and news magazines. My father’s all time favorite example of network bias was a single story, the death of the ex-wife of President Nixon’s eventually imprisoned Attorney General, John Mitchell. Martha Mitchell was a disgrace to the Nixon administration and her husband. The left wing loved her for her loose tongue and attacks on the administration. She didn’t live to see him go to jail, and when she died in 1976, NBC led with the story, CBS nearly ended with it and ABC put it just before the mid-broadcast commercial. NBC liberal, CBS conservative, ABC moderate. The same held true for the news magazines. Time was conservative, Newsweek liberal and U.S. News dryly factual.
U.S. News and World Report was the first casualty of the internet age. It went from weekly to monthly in November, 2008, and went on-line only two years later. It was a loss to education. We used it as a text book in my high school Current Events class because it was so unbiased, so pure in its factuality.
Newsweek has announced that it too is going on-line only. The great bastion of weekly liberal thought has not been as focused on world events in the past few years as it used to be. It has struggled for readers and lost. It has shrunk to half its former size.
The death of news magazines is not the fault of any editor or publisher. It is an inevitable result of the internet, the 24/7 news channels and the deepening gap between liberal and conservative sides of every issue. Newsweek and Time have not been biased enough to satisfy the two sides of our nation. U.S. News and World Report was too factual. Time will survive a bit longer because the conservative base is older and less tech-oriented than the liberal base. Tech comfortable conservatives have a swampland of conspiracy theory websites, and seem incapable of using search engines. Time is acceptable to them. We liberals take our news directly from the wire services thanks to services like Yahoo, and get our opinion pieces from favored websites and MSNBC.
I mourned Newsweek a long time ago. The end of the print version is anticlimactic. What we have lost is not news magazines, but the capacity to wait a week, to take a couple of hours to read through a magazine that gathers all the information and makes it all understandable. Reading the comment streams on Yahoo, I sometimes think we have lost the capacity to read a full story, not just a whole magazine. How can we make sense of the world if we don’t take the time to learn the facts? How can we make choices that will impact our own lives and the future if we will not accept information from different sources and different perspectives?
Our First Amendment guaranteed us that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press…” for a reason. They knew that only in a country where people could say what they wanted to say without fear, in a country where the press was free to pursue stories even if they exposed the government to criticism could a people really be free. We fight over the first clause of the First Amendment, the meaning of “…establishment of religion…free exercise thereof…” and argue over possible limitations of free speech, but we tend to forget that clause about a free press and what it truly means to our liberty.
I didn’t just grow up in a world full of news sources. I grew up in New York. Part of our state history courses dealt with the power of the press to destroy the corrupt and greedy, the great political cartoons of Thomas Nast attacking the corruption of Boss Tweed and the photojournalism of Jakob Riis which stripped the veil off the slums and forced America to see the poverty, the disease, the child labor. It was not a gotcha type of reporting. It was not “let’s dig up someone’s college term paper and call them a communist.” It was hard, cold facts, carefully investigated and dealing with real crimes and real corruption. Sometimes it was presented with pictures, but mostly with words. Priceless words. Words that changed our nation.
When I see real journalists like Candy Crowley being eviscerated for not kissing Republican ass, when I see the men and women who risk their lives in foreign war zones being dismissed as worthless by some Fox news dilettante who won’t set foot outside his cushy hotel, that’s when I mourn the state of journalism. Losing Newsweek is really minor compared to what is being passed off for journalism on the right.