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Man Bites Newspaper

Man Bites Newspaper

Steven Stark - April 15, 2009

It's not news that newspapers are in huge trouble — victims of technological change and a mini-depression. What is news is the unadorned glee that is greeting the demise of newsprint.

When auto or city workers lose their jobs, there's talk of bailouts and extra measures to cushion the trauma, and even mournful country songs written in tribute. And when newspapers close? The blogs are full of self-congratulations at the demise of the journalistic establishment.

"Seeing newspapers fall apart brings me joy," writes an anonymous essayist in a broadside reprinted on the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. Then there was the throng of commentators on boston.com that rejoiced over news the Boston Globe might close.

Part of this sour reaction is due to the traditional American love of any new futuristic innovation or technology. The past be damned! But a large part of it can be traced back more than 30 years to Richard Nixon. It was he who made hatred of the mainstream press fashionable, and his administration's cultural legacy continues to this day.

Of course, Nixon and his aides weren't the first Oval Office denizens to complain about the press; nor was he the first to accuse journalists of bias. Abraham Lincoln beat him to that punch when he closed border newspapers during the Civil War on the grounds they were too pro-Southern.

And, as it turns out, Nixon later had good reason to loathe the press, since he was eventually dislodged from office in the Watergate scandal in large part because of the solid investigative work of the fourth estate.

But it was Vice-President Spiro Agnew who actually delivered the tirade in 1969 (and who also later left office in disgrace) that launched millions of press haters. In a speech supposedly written by Pat Buchanan, Agnew attacked a "small band of network commentators" who, he charged, were a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one." Because of what he called their dedication to the "endless pursuit of controversy," he called on the networks to be "more responsive to the views of the nation and more responsible to the people they serve."

Note that Agnew was specifically attacking the networks — whose licenses come from the government — and not the press as a whole, at least in that speech. Nevertheless, his remarks struck a chord — as did the Nixon administration's continual campaign against "the media" — a term it popularized because it felt "the media" sounded far colder and more distant than "the press."

It wasn't long before the whole conservative movement had taken up the cry that the media establishment was biased against its cause and, by implication, the concerns of Middle America. Whereas liberal populism had once railed against financial titans, conservative populism now targeted editors, publishers, and reporters (among others) as the new dangerous elite.

Entire organizations were formed to document liberal media bias. A book on the "liberal slant" of news coverage was often an instant ticket to the bestseller list. And, in the subsequent decades, whether in the hands of Rush Limbaugh (who, without any trace of irony, relentlessly attacked the "drive-by media") or with the rise of Fox News — which claimed to be objective in comparison to virtually everyone else — the movement grew. By 2004, the conservative Club for Growth could attack Democratic candidate (and later party head) Howard Dean by telling him to take his "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs." (emphasis added) And everyone knew what the reference to the Times meant.

One of the great "successes" of the modern conservative movement has been the extent to which it has discredited and delegitimized mainstream journalism. So, the next time a reporter loses his or her job, you can go ahead and credit (or blame) the Internet and the economy. But without the legacy of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the history and future of American journalism might be very different.

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings.

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