Bob Neal

Times have seldom been harder for the traditional news media.

The question is whether they will find a new path or fade into obscurity. Either outcome is possible.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “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.”

Are we approaching Jefferson’s dilemma? Newspapers or government, rather than newspapers and government?

In the past century, change has challenged many basic industries. Some responded well, some didn’t. Hollywood responded well to the challenge of TV. It made less formulaic movies, and theaters put in air conditioning. Growing up in Missouri, I spent many a cool evening watching Natalie Wood or Johnny Mack Brown. Loved the movies, but the AC mattered.

Railroads responded badly to the challenge of buses, then planes. They surrendered, even though they can move far more people more efficiently for short and medium distances.

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Newspapers were challenged twice before, by radio and then by television. They responded to radio’s challenge a century ago by doing things radio couldn’t do. Cover local news, add features (including columnists) and adopt a new standard, “objectivity.” Newspapers then responded to TV in similar fashion, carving out a wide niche for explanation, opinion, context and the like.

The new challenge is in two parts, technology and objectivity. Newspapers are responding well, though belatedly, to the technology challenge with their own digital operations. The New York Times has more than 10 million digital subscribers. I read four papers a day online, and the Sun Journal, print and online.

The first part of the technology challenge is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law co-sponsored by a liberal senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and moderate representative, Republican Chris Cox of California. Section 230 basically frees online platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google) from responsibility for what is posted on their sites.

This gives them a dangerous, unfair advantage over the Sun Journal, the Washington Post, PBS and other traditional news media, all of which can be sued for publishing untruths that harm someone. I can’t count the stories I edited that we “lawyered” to make sure they libeled no one.

There have been moves to abolish or redraw Section 230, but so far to no avail. Government should not regulate content, but it should level the playing field. Abolish or rewrite Section 230 to hold accountable the Facebooks of the world. Some European nations are taking such steps now.

The second part of the technological challenge is older and applies to the broadcast media. The Federal Communications Commission has some role in regulating over-the-air broadcasters, such as CBS and NPR. Not their content, but actions such as licensure, children’s programming and ensuring competitive information marketplaces.

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It used to have a “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to present all points of view. It also used to limit owners to seven broadcast stations. Those restraints are gone, and large corporations, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, are free to collect stations and to order local stations what to broadcast. Sinclair owns some 200 stations, including Channels 13 and 23 in Portland, and operates 600, according to PBS NewsHour.

The FCC has little role in regulating cable TV. That frees cable operators such as Fox “News” and CNN and MSNBC to act pretty much as they please. Still, we have before us a test case. Dominion Voters Systems has sued Fox “News” for lying about its voting machines. This huge case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court and to alter the news landscape for years.

The government is failing at preserving competition, as it is failing everywhere (oil company and airline mergers, etc.). Why give Facebook rights not available to the Bangor Daily News?

The new challenge is the very idea of “objectivity.” We seek objectivity despite its elusiveness. Max Weber, a German sociologist, calls this an “ideal type,” a perfection we can’t achieve.

Leonard Downie Jr., a former editor at The Washington Post and now a professor at Arizona State University, published a long report last week on how the traditional media can adjust and adapt to new challenges. He wrote that at The Post, he ditched objectivity in favor of, “accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth.”

If the news media are to move toward his goals of accuracy, fairness and accountability, they need to make their case with the people they want to reach. That is a Herculean effort. Not sure of the odds on its success.

Let’s give Downie the last words: “One essential value for all Americans is the survival of democratic institutions, which are under attack on multiple fronts. Trustworthy journalism by a new generation … continues to do its part to protect democracy.”

Disclosure: I am not an employee of The Sun Journal. This column is done at freelance. Yes, I receive a check for each column. If you start the clock when I begin to write, having chosen a topic, the total comes to between $3 and $4 an hour. Obviously, I don’t do this for the money.

Bob Neal hates being lied to. He largely avoids that by avoiding Facebook, Twitter and other “anti-social” media. His cats are cute enough that he doesn’t need Facebook for that, either. Neal can be reached at [email protected].


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