Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, known affectionately as ‘Uncle Walter’, stated a couple decades ago that his news show only skimmed the headlines, and for the public to get a more complete view of the world they needed to read their morning newspaper. His idea was sound when he first said it, and it is just as accurate today. Newspapers should play an integral part of a citizen’s daily life. But with the internet and changes in how America spends its free time, newspapers are suffering in readership.
It seems every month that layoffs in newsrooms of some large paper are reported taking place in this country. Classified ad sales have plummeted up to $100 million in the past three years, while some of those same metropolitan newspapers have lost 10% of their circulation in that same time period. For folks like me who enjoy newspapers and understand the role they play in our democracy, these numbers are unsettling.
One of the reasons that I fear the decline in newspapers is because of the role they play in keeping our government accountable to the public. When the Pentagon Papers became page one, above the fold material in the New York Times in 1971, the citizenry became better informed about the role of our government in defense and foreign affairs in Southeast Asia. President Nixon was apoplectic in the White House (his tapes prove this) over newspapers printing this material. But the NYT and other papers understood their role in our democracy, and fought in court for the right to report this story, finally winning in the United States Supreme Court, on behalf of the nation.
Newspapers alone had the ability to showcase the depth of the story with countless column inches, while TV and radio were left to short stories and broad brushstrokes. Today the public is still best served by newspapers digging for the truth. CBS’s Bob Schieffer recently paid special comments to Washington Post reporter, Dana Priest, for her dogged determination as an intrepid reporter by bringing the Walter Reed Army medical story to the nation’s consciousness. It was again the case that the amount of time required to investigate a story of such magnitude, and the space needed to adequately report it, could only be found in a newspaper.
I understand that to a large segment of the public this post means nothing. And yet it should.
I have long thought that every child should have a newspaper at home to look at and understand. Kids should be able to get their hands smudged from the ink, and smell the result of the printing press. I think it essential to have our kids better educated about the faces and issues that make up our world. I also think that a better understanding of the news process, which is visible every day through the pages of good newspapers, will allow them to be better news consumers as adults. And with the world in their view those kids will become better citizens, and voters as a result.
I know of what I preach. I grew up in a home without TV until the age of 13, but did have a daily newspaper to read. (My siblings and I were early readers.) When my friends went home after school to watch re-runs on TV, I grabbed the paper and laid on the davenport (friends tell me to leave that term behind) to explore the world. As a young child I was often more confused than entertained. To counter that my parents bought a large atlas, and so when names like Pakistan and Russia were in a news story I would lay on the floor with the paper spread out, and the atlas open, and find the locations for the stories.
I know that sounds ‘geeky’ but it was my world. As a result I know I am better person because of that newspaper and how it taught me to be interested in the world.