Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Views of the News: Jefferson, Thoreau and Liebling

I gave a talk today about the future of newspapers and journalism. I introduced it with three quotations. Taken as a whole, they are rife with contradictions and questions.

Start with two questions: Can the role of newspapers as described below by Jefferson, be filled by the “New Media” of the Internet? Or are the young demonstrators in Iran proving that New Media are far more potent in checking government abuse than newspapers have ever been?

The basis of our government’s being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Are the news media superficial? Or does the vastness of Internet allow us to “soar above or dive below” the thinness of “Old media” as described by Thoreau?

I have no time to read newspapers. If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events which make the news transpire — thinner than the paper on which it is printed —then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them. Henry David Thoreau, 1853

Finally, what is the news? Does it rely on “news media”? For many, the real news might be that they have been sleepwalking through life. The real news awakens them. That is what Thoreau was telling us when he famously wrote in “Walden”: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

We need to find, and make, our own news. We are our own news medium.

Which brings us to Liebling, author of “The Wayward Press.”

“People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” A.J. Liebling 1904-1963

As you can imagine, the words of Jefferson, Thoreau and Liebling gave us a few things to talk about. . . .

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