The decline of newspapers: Our biggest threat to democracy

The advent of internet information, true and false, posted as fact, misleads the political narrative, leaving those who once would have been the subject of investigation, free to carry on at will.

Boston Globe, Massachusetts | File Image

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2015  – For democratic government to work properly, an informed electorate is essential. Traditionally, there have been virtual armies of reporters looking over the shoulders of mayors, governors, congressmen and senators. Shortly after graduating from law school,  this writer went to Capitol Hill, where, for a number of years, I worked both in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

The legislators with whom I worked were from a variety of states, Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Illinois among them.

Each week the Washington correspondents of hometown newspapers would visit the office to find out what their representative was doing. Today, few newspapers can afford to have Washington correspondents. It is hard to find occupants for the vacant offices at the National Press Building.

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With no one looking over their shoulders on a regular basis, members of Congress have, in effect, been given a free pass.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors newspaper staffs are down by 40 per cent since 2003. Thus, two of every five reporters have disappeared, leaving crucial beats vacant. Statehouse reporter ranks have shrunk even more dramatically, according to the Pew Research Center.

Consider the current widely praised and discussed movie “Spotlight,” which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into sexual abuse by priests in the city’s Roman Catholic Church. The Globe had an investigative team of reporters, known as Spotlight.

A group of reporters worked on this case for many months before a single word was published.

In earlier times, papers like the Globe, which received a Pulitzer Prize for public service for this story, had substantial staffs, often numbering several hundred journalists. Newspapers and journalists were able to do the time-consuming work that can lead to breakthrough stories.

Now, as more and more people learn what they know about the world from sources other than genuine journalism, such as left and right-wing ideological websites and social media, newsroom staffs are shrinking dramatically. Investigative journalism is increasingly threatened.

Tom McCarthy, the director of “Spotlight,” told Variety:

I’m not sure those who will see the movie will say: “Wow! That barely exists anymore.” They are not going to know it’s too late. The ice caps have melted. These papers are gone, they’re decimated.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet says that cities like his hometown, New Orleans, and those where he has worked, including Chicago and Los Angeles, are suffering from the decline of news-papers. “When I judge contests,” he notes, “I see a lot of really good work, but there’s no way there’s as much of it now. I do really worry about the decline of hard-hitting local coverage with a public-service mission.”

Martin Baron, who pushed for the investigation of pedophile priests as chief editor of the Boston Globe, is now executive editor of the Washington Post. He is worried about the future of investigative reporting: “It’s a cause for grave concern. There’s a fair amount that is still going on. Some fine work is being done. but resources are being diminished and the will to do this work may have atrophied.” In today’s media environment, laments Baron, real investigative work is “considered something of a luxury that might alienate your readership or your advertisers. And it doesn’t appear to be digital and doesn’t necessarily generate traffic to the paper’s digital platforms.”

It is hard to exaggerate the loss to our society if investigative reporting continues to decline, just as newspapers continue to close.  At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the “Watchdog” group, similar to “Spotlight” at The Boston Globe, produced a series of impressive reports.

Crimes and criminals of the Catholic Church

In 2013, for example, the paper reported that blood tests to screen newborn babies for serious genetic disorders were processed so slowly, due to ineptitude, that babies were suffering brain damage and, in some cases, dying.

The paper developed a data base of nearly 3 million newborn screening tests in 31 states. This investigation brought reform and saved lives.

In Washington and across the country, there is a great deal of bad behavior that warrants close investigation. Nicholas Kusnetz of the Center for Public Integrity, summarized a new study: “Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists.”

He notes that governments, businesses and other groups, such as religious institutions, often operate in secret and without scrutiny can fall prey to corruption.

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, writes, “Both times that I saw ‘Spotlight,’ I heard the audience members gasp at the final frames: the long lists of cities, in nearly every corner of America  and the world, where priests sexually abused children. The knowledge is chilling, but at least it is no longer hidden. Sunlight—or a spotlight—makes a huge difference. Clearly…investigative journalism can’t be allowed to die out. The mission is far too important.”

Today, we are faced with a wave of misinformation on Internet web sites and social media. Far too often no editor double-checks material for accuracy. Some of this inaccurate material is even promoted by candidates for president. Donald Trump, for example, declared that President Obama wants to take in as many as 250,000 Syrian refugees.

In fact, the president has proposed accepting 10,000 Syrians. Where did Trump get this false figure?

The fact-checking site Politifact traced the story to a website called Real News Right Now, which posts fake news stories, including one in September that said FEMA would resettle 250,000 Syrians in remote parts of Arizona and North Dakota.

In another instance, news sources such as the Drudge Report and Fox News devoted much attention to bogus rumors that the Operation Jade Helm military exercises last summer were a prelude to a crackdown on civil liberties. “There’s an information-age tsunami out there that just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Steve Smith, a veteran newspaper editor who teaches journalism at the University of Idaho. “When you combine this digital tsunami with the loss of quality and quantity in American journalism (due to cutbacks and economic problems) over the years…journalists just don’t have the ability to keep up once a false narrative gains speed.”

We have reached the point where a presidential candidate such as Donald Trump cites his own Twitter followers as the source for some of the false information he promotes, such as his claim that African Americans killed 81 per cent of white homicide victims (the actual number is approximately 15 per cent, according to

Trump defended his position of not allowing Muslims to enter the country by citing a poll conducted by the Center for Security Policy, a group which has its own agenda of promoting the policies of Israel’s right-wing and is headed by a well known antagonist of Islam, Frank Gaffney.

The Internet has facilitated the speed and reach of disinformation, notes Angie Drobnic Holan, Politifact’s editor. The Internet has also made it possible for people with like-minded, if baseless, ideas and theories to organize into communities and reach others, she said. “If you think the moon landing was fake, you can go on and find people just like you,” said Holan.

The kind of misinformation seen in the Trump campaign and, occasionally, in the campaigns of others, may actually be “strategic,’ says Jeffrey Hemsley, professor in the school of information studies at Syracuse University.

Each candidate isn’t talking to the public as a whole—they are talking to their base and to those they might be able to persuade into voting for them. So for many centrists and those on the left, Trump seems crazy. But for a segment of those on the right, Trump speaks to them. If Trump is using poor sources for his information, that isn’t really a problem for his audience. That is where they are getting their information, too.

Hemsley, the co-author of “Going Viral,” about the rapid spread of often false information, says that the days when we had “a somewhat unifying story” from newspapers and t.v. networks are gone.

Now, more and more people tend to pick their news, which tends to reinforce their beliefs rather than challenge them.

As a result, it is difficult to dislodge misinformation. Robert Mason, a University of Washington professor who has researched the spread of false information, points out:

Facts may be undervalued or losing their value in today’s world. If you say it loud enough or long enough, people will believe it. That’s okay in theory, but when people act on it, that’s a problem.

The decline of American education and the study of history has produced an increasingly ill informed electorate.  One survey administered to 1,856 college freshmen on 194 campuses showed that one-third of the respondents thought the chief aim of colonial resistance on the eve of the Revolution was representation in parliament rather than self-taxation.

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Columbia professor William Leuchtenberg said of the test results:

The main conclusion one must draw is unmistakable: that this group of students knows remarkably little American history. Their knowledge of the Colonial period is primitive. Two-thirds do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian Democracy. Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was President during World War I.”

That test was administered in 1976, when American history was still taught in many schools, before “social studies” replaced it.

Today’s electorate is easy prey to  the kind of misinformation the current presidential campaign is providing. Many are intellectually defenseless against the onslaught of conspiracy theories and bogus statistics that the Internet spreads.

With newspapers in decline, and investigative reporters becoming few in number, nobody is vetting the untruths that abound.

Thomas Jefferson declared that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.  He equated ignorance with an inability to be free, saying that without education you cannot exercise your rights and thus cannot be free in society.

Jefferson argued that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

The decline of newspapers, which Jefferson believed necessary for a flourishing democracy, the decline of education and the rise of the Internet and social media as a source for news, which is all too often false, has carried us to the precarious political moment we are now in.

How our society responds to this challenge will determine the future of free, constitutional government, which looks increasingly precarious.

The Founders would be disappointed, but not surprised. Asked what kind of government had been created, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.