Man bites newspaper

The genesis of the newspaper problems can be traced to Richard Nixon.
By STEVEN STARK  |  April 19, 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 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.

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