My Hopelessly Quixotic Idea for Saving Newspapers

April 27, 2009 at 10:27 pm (By Amba)

I was talking with a friend in St. Louis today, and he was telling me that he’d read that the ship’s captain held hostage by pirates had jumped overboard, not out of an excess of courage or desperation, but in a by-the-books strategy — to give allies the all-clear to blow the lifeboat out of the water.  But, my friend said, they could not do so because President Obama had given the order that no one, no one, was to be killed.

But, I said, I thought Obama ultimately gave the order to kill the pirates if necessary.

No, my friend said, he never gave that order, he just took credit for it.  The captain of the rescue ship issued the order, overriding the president’s order not to shoot to kill on the basis that there was clear and present danger to the hostage captain’s life.

That may well be true, I said, but then again it may not.  There are people who are extremely eager to discredit President Obama who would say it even if it wasn’t true.  And then there are his defenders who would deny it even if it was.

So how can we know what really happened?

We can’t.

My friend and I agreed on that:  more and more, there is noplace to find objective, researched and documented truth (presuming there even is such a thing).  There is left spin and right spin, and there is only faster or slower spin.

I told him about (he didn’t know it), and how reassuring it is to be able to go and check an urban legend or rumor with someone who has researched it.   I said I didn’t think they vetted “news” stories so much, but of course what they do borders on the news and sometimes crosses that border.  [UPDATE: And sure enough, Snopes has taken on the exact story about Obama’s wussy vacillation that my friend must have read and believed — drawing on NBC and Washington Times reporting.  Go here to find out their verdict.]  My friend and I lamented how newspapers used to at least have the reputation for fact checking and objectivity — “but they lost that a long time ago,” my friend said.

That was when it struck me:  could this be a new (or renewed) role for newspapers?

The frightening thing about their demise, for those (few) of us who’d like to get at least a sense of what might have actually happened, is that there will no longer be even the pretense of, not even a half-hearted attempt at, reportorial and editorial standards.  Everyone will just say whatever they want you to believe, and consume whatever propaganda tells them what they want to hear.   There will be no investigative reporters who get paid to be our eyes and ears, who go to the ends of the earth to try to get a read on what actually happened, whether we (or “they”) like it or not.

Could newspapers do this?  (Evidently the Washington Times is doing it — in this case, debunking a story that some of their readers might have preferred to be true.)  Could they once again, or perhaps for the first time, become the Snopeses of history in the making, refusing spin of any valence (or reporting it as such), priding themselves on hunting, if not the Truth, at least the elusive, unbought, beholden-to-no-one Fact?

Two questions immediately arise:  is there such a thing?  Has there ever been?  Or is every story Rashomon, the plot depending on where you stand?

And even supposing there is such a thing, is there much of an audience for it? Was there ever, or have “facts” always been whores in respectable dress?

Both painful, and pivotal, questions.



  1. Ron said,

    I haven’t the slightest doubt that every story is NOT Rashomon; the use of that seems an equivocating dodge. Of course people have their leanings, so what? As long as you know what they are, you can adjust accordingly. A paper, even with some kind of ‘bias’ that strove to tell you what they saw as the truth, didn’t bury or stonewall stories that went away from that bias, would be a wonder indeed. I might even pay for it.

  2. Donna B. said,

    It’s my opinion that there never has been such a thing as a newspaper or media outlet that existed strictly for disseminating facts. (But I’ll have to check out the Washington Times!)

    I read (in How the Scots Invented the Modern World) that someone said it was silly to have a newspaper or journal if you weren’t using to spread an agenda. That’s paraphrased, of course, and my son-in-law stole the book, so I can’t look it up right now.

    One of my first jobs was typesetter at a newspaper and, it being a small town, I was familiar with a lot that was being reported. I asked the editor one day about a story I’d set that was totally different from my experience at the same event. He said he decided what angle to cover and push and that I just typed up whatever the reporter wrote. That has served me well through life since I’ve been a skeptic about what I read (or see on TV) ever since.

  3. Callimachus said,

    However, you’re talking here about the big newspapers, the ones that can pick up the phone and in a few hours get answers enough to report what a president did or didn’t do or what the military did or didn’t do half a world away, and report it to the whole nation.

    Those aren’t the newspapers that are dropping dead around us.

    The ones that are, don’t have those sorts of resources or that kind of reach.

  4. amba12 said,

    So, means the local newspaper is a thing of the past, and big papers will go even more national than now? Maybe there will be local inserts independently contracted to piggyback., but they’d have to be subject to the big papers’ standards and oversight

  5. Callimachus said,

    You’ll still be afflicted with the New York Times and the Washington Post 20 years from now. If you live in Paducah, though, God help you. I doubt the New York Times will put out a zoned edition that far west.

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