Hold the Panic

Posted: Aug 21, 2013 12:01 AM

Dear Excitable,

Calm down. Yes, a great newspaper, The Washington Post, is changing hands.

Yes, it'll have a new owner in place of the Grahams, who have been admirable stewards. Ergo, the sky is falling, American capitalism is running amok again, and American journalism is going to The Other Place.

So quick, let's all panic. Some professor of "communications" -- not journalism, not the humanities, not business -- says this means the end of professionalism in the newspaper business. It couldn't end soon enough for me. What this trade, not profession, needs most is more amateurs. (Amateur, n., from the Latin amator, lover.) Wanted: talented, devoted and even obsessed amateurs who love what they do, who are writers, not communicators.

The professor also says that the country "went through this type of journalism at the turn of the last century and it produced a massive political crisis that eventually led to the creation of professional journalism, to protect the news from the dictates of their owners."

Huh? The turn of the last century was the golden age of the muckrakers, the Ida Tarbells and Upton Sinclairs and the scads of magazines that exposed every scandal in sight, and a lot that weren't till the press wrote about them.

Our professor of communications is clearly not a professor of history, or he might know about the great publishers who revolutionized and popularized and sensationalized a staid American press -- publishers like Pulitzer of the World and Hearst of the Journal and another who restored a measure of perspective to it: Adolph S. Ochs of the Times.

Back then there were also satirists like Mister Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne) and genteel reformers like E.L. Godkin. And no end of newspapers reflecting all shades of political opinion.

Take your pick, but no one can doubt that it was a glorious, wide-open, free and, yes, rambunctious period of American journalism. Not some capitalist plot to monopolize America's news and views. Let freedom ring!

And ring it still does in this new, wide-open, freer era of journalism, as discombobulating as that may be to those who used to enjoy a captive audience courtesy of government regulation/strangulation through limited broadcasting licenses and the (un)Fairness Doctrine. That kind of manipulation was merchandised as "objectivity," though it was no more objective than the current New York Times' news columns or NPR's party line. Their way of slanting the news may be subtler, but that makes it only more insidious.

Only when cable television and talk radio and the whole outpouring of unconventional opinions was allowed again, in the true spirit of the First Amendment, was American journalism rejuvenated. And the grip of the old establishment broken.

Our professor calls that kind of well-regulated news and opinion professionalism, and he has a point. For every profession, to quote George Bernard Shaw, is a conspiracy against the laity.

So relax, friend. Keep your cool. All that hubbub you're so shocked by is just the rebirth of a newly freed press. Don't be afraid of it. Welcome it.

Celebrate it. Raise a little hell yourself. It's still a free country, and it's still in its youth. So keep the faith. And buy a newspaper.

--Inky Wretch