The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Monday, January 25, 2010  

Why Haven't Newspapers Tried to be Better?

I'm a sentimentalist when it comes to newspapers--the feel of the newsprint, the folding-and-carrying, the not ever asking why I'm listening to an angry drunk like Mike Royko who in a fit of unaccountable cosmic awesomeness had an actual media perch for a long time--but it's very hard to feel badly about their inevitable doom when you read something like this. I know bagging the famous-for-some-reason Harold Ford on your op-ed page is a "get," as they say. But why would you bother publishing something from a famous-for-some-reason person if it is totally incoherent and meaningless?

To break it down: you can't meaningfully argue in one breath for cutting all kinds of taxes and in the next for reducing the deficit. This is like saying I'm going to cut my marathon time by reducing my number of feet. It's obviously incoherent to people who know anything about the federal budget and to everyone else it's just misleading. And The New York Times thinks so little of us and of the political process that they are supposedly facilitating that they just published that junk.

Here's what I would have done with the draft of this little burp-up: send it back to whatever hapless Ford staffer is responsible for it and say "Points 1 and 4 are contradictory. Resolve that contradiction one way or another or we won't run this piece." So maybe Harold Ford goes off and pouts and deprives the paper of record of his sweet, sweet pap. Big deal. Times readers don't have to feel swindled and insulted, and the paper can save its space for meaningfully thought-out opinions.

This is something that has genuinely baffled me as I watch the end of the newspaper age: why do they persist in publishing meaningless crap? Whether it's the Chicago Tribune tub-thumping emptily about Hugo Chavez or repeating easily-falsified CW on the Reagan years, or the Washington Post endlessly mashing-up Beltway cliches into new forms, it is a little surprising to me that we haven't seen more big papers try to use their still-watched op-ed space for writing that is actually interesting and challenging rather than infuriatingly predictable. This is not an ideological point. I'd probably read the Trib more regularly if they adopted an actual worldview--libertarianism, paleo-conservatism, ultramontaine Catholicism, whatever--that could provoke and challenge the status quo, rather than the gummed-to-death center-rightism that they try to pass off as radical new thinking. The Sun-Times briefly tried this a while back, rebranding themselves as an "independent progressive" op-ed page, and it was pretty good. I don't know how successful it was with respect to circulation, but they haven't done any better since they went back to being boring.

It would be a risk to try to produce good stuff, no doubt. It might cost you some access and some following among people who like to be soothed with platitudes of center-left or center-right. But it might be that the only future newspapers have is among people who read for news content and quality commentary.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:42 AM
I like Harold Ford. I really hope he is able to pull this off but I think he might have gotten in over his head. There are so many forces stacked against him (particularly Chuckles Schumer) that it would seem to be a herculean task before him. But if anyone can do it, he can. he's a smart guy and a good guy.

Carpetbagger? New York has a bit of a history there: Bobby Kennedy, Hillary Clinton...I don't really think it's a problem. Corporate Democrat? We shall see.

That being said, a lot of people who should know better are predicting that 2010 will be a Republican year. They aren't paying attention. The extremists within that party will only continue to destroy it. Anyone who thinks that 2010 is going to be a Republican year had better think again. The Tea Party knuckleheads are already taking credit for the Massachusetts upset last week and are set (they believe) to take over the party. When they are denied the opportunity to do that, they'll splinter the vote with third or even fourth party uprisings.

How am I so sure of this? It's quite simple, really. These people are not only crazy, they're dumber than doggy dung. It's only a matter of months before their mad house of cards comes crashing down.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
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