Why should newspapers matter? In the Internet age, when virtually anything you want to know is available 24/7, should people not already in the habit of reading newspapers care if they survive?
Think of it this way: newspapers are to the brain what exercise is to the body. Television, which delivers limited amounts of news with an eye on demographics and advertisers, is more like junk food - immediately satisfying, but not good for you if consumed in large quantities.
The purchase of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain by McClatchy Company provides the industry another opportunity for self-assessment. So does "The State of the News Media 2006," a new report by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research group affiliated with Columbia University.
Newspapers have been losing readers and advertisers in recent years and too many have folded. As recently as 1980, there were 1,745 daily newspapers in the United States. By 2002 there were 1,457, a 17 percent drop, according to PIJ. The big three TV networks have been losing market share and are mostly targeting younger audiences favored by advertisers.
While many explanations - some of them partially valid - have been offered for the drop in journalism consumers, the most important one is ignored. PIJ's survey concludes that the public believes most of the news they get is "slanted" with 72 percent saying journalists favor one side or the other. "Republicans and conservatives are even more prone to feel this way than Democrats," the survey says.
The New York Times, the so-called "paper of record," which shapes much of what appears on broadcast television, had a pathetic 38 percent favorability rating among the public (the Times criticizes President Bush for having approval numbers just slightly under its own). Forty-seven percent believe press criticism of the military weakens the country. That figure is the highest in 20 years. A solid majority (60 percent) believes the press should watch over politicians, but only 43 percent find journalists "moral."
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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