From the dimly-remembered Westerns that were a prized treat of my youth in cinema-rich Devonport, I concluded that, for every mainstreet shootout in a frontier town of a few pubs, a brothel, a clapboard general store, a smithy and, sometimes, a train, there was a character actor in braces and an eye-shade behind the shutters setting cold type headlines for the next day’s newspaper.
It was nothing to do with my later choice of career, but, as it turns out, the ubiquitous newspaper editor of the American West was more than a Hollywood conceit.
President Barack Obama’s recognition that the current crisis for journalists is also a crisis for democracy distinguishes him from recent presidents, who have typically complained of unfair press coverage and sought to maximise their own at the expense of public debate. However, it reaches back to the enlightened and egalitarian ideals of the authors of the American constitution.
Founding fathers Washington, Jefferson and Madison understood that vibrant journalism was essential for vibrant democracy – Jefferson most famously looking back at Europe’s wealthy elites and economic slavery that was the lot of most of the Old World’s population at the end of the eighteenth century and urging policies that generated a free, diverse and contentious press.
As a result, newspapers were carried virtually free on the new rail and postal services for the geographically vast new republic and were a primary object of both.
Effectively it was a massive state subsidy in order to educate and stimulate all citizens to participate in the new republic. This widespread educative and democratic participation has been credited with both foiling a later slide back towards a monarchy in the new nation and the popular sentiment that led to the abolition of slavery, despite its huge profitability to the rich and powerful.
The numbers of newspapers bloomed, animated by the perception that news was an essential part of the Commons. Raucous debate was enabled and encouraged by the state, successive presidents benefitting from the rivalry of the many newspapers aligned with and against them.
Printers were not considered entrepreneurs out to maximise maximum personal profit by pursuing their naked self interest or even opinionated advocates of a specific viewpoint. The job of the press, according to Benjamin Franklin, was to stimulate debate, stir the masses to action, enlighten, educate and, when necessary, to offend.
A world without journalism, is not, as media commentators Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their 2010 The Death and Life of American Journalism, without political information. Instead it is a world where what passes for news is largely spin and self-interested propaganda – “some astonishingly sophisticated and some bellicose, but the lion’s share of dubious value.
“It is an environment that spawns cynicism, ignorance, demoralisation and apathy,” they say, concluding that “the only ‘winners’ are those who benefit from a quiescent and malleable people who will ‘be governed’ rather than govern themselves”.
Pathologies rapidly metastasising from this evolution include taken-for-granted corruption, endless foreign wars, crumbling infrastructure and social services and vast increases in inequality, they say.
There are some interesting exceptions to this woebegone model, notably Japan and Germany, whose distinctive journalistic ethics and ownership models owe much to the intervention by the US in 1945.
Eisenhower and MacArthur provided financial and ownership models designed to be both self-sustaining and responsible to the mission of providing citizens with the information they need to be their own governors.
Newspapers founded then in Germany remain robust now, and the Berliner Zeitung, a former East German newspaper also fared well in this climate, becoming known as Germany’s Washington Post.
In 2008, when the circulation of American newspapers had dropped 15% , Japan’s major dailies had kept nearly all their readers and the Yomiuri is the world’s largest daily.
The Japanese remain the world’s greatest newspaper buyers with 624 readers per 1000 adult buyers, two-and-a-half times greater than the US. Reports say no journalism jobs have been lost.
Our major newspapers became cash cows for overseas investors in the early 90s and their newsrooms succumbed to the same devastating annual budget cuts.
Truthful news and a free press are the Commons of civilisation not a revenue centre.