Dissing newspapers

August 10th, 2018

Do people younger than middle-aged read newspapers? Seemingly not so very much, except for occasional articles streaming across their social media. Instead, even some of the best informed often rely on smorgasbords of opinion blogs and podcasts, some of which are thoughtful. But many if not most of such sources are rich with opinions while thin on reporting. It’s a terrible loss.

Almost every day since 1976 I’ve read The Washington Post, starting age 10, for which I remain very grateful. Early that year my fifth grade class began examining the presidential election and hosting mock primaries. I fervently supported Gerald Ford and began reading the Post for election news.

Even earlier The Post was a daily presence, every morning landing with a thump on our front porch. My parents, grandparents, teachers and all adults I knew read it. I vividly recall the gigantic headline NIXON RESIGNS, and other headlines from the early and mid 1970s about the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh, the deaths of Mao and Chiang Kai-shek, assassination attempts on President Ford, the Arab oil embargo.

I read the front page section, including editorial pages, the local Metro news and the sometimes salacious Style section, including political humor columns by Art Buchwald. If vacationing with family at the beach we would find a Post. Once while visiting relatives in Tennessee I felt starved for real news, as the local papers only had Jack Anderson’s faux investigative column.

From the start I knew The Post was liberal, it had of course in 1976 endorsed Jimmy Carter, my bête noire. But my own developing conservatism was not impeded in the least. I relied on its reporting, understood there was sometimes a slant, but still learned much. The Post‘s coverage of the often disastrous 1970s was decisive to shaping my worldview. Eventually as a teenager I subscribed to a conservative newsletter devoted to countering media liberal bias, whose founder Post editor Ben Bradlee denounced with a term meaning regurgitated vomit. Yet still I daily read The Post.

And I worked for The Post for four years all through high school as a delivery boy, starting each morning at 5:15. Some customers would already be up, eagerly awaiting their newspaper’s arrival. Some of that era’s great events I learned on dark mornings peering at fresh bold headlines. American hostages taken in Iran, and rescue mission failed. Soviets invade Afghanistan. Margaret Thatcher elected. Before the internet and cable news the morning newspaper was often first to announce breaking news. Such excitement!

My daily Post reading helped me in college as I had almost a decade of reportage and commentary about numerous topics stored in my head. And now I have over 40 years worth catalogued mentally, perhaps equaling or surpassing my formal education. Unlike most online sites today, The Post, then and now, includes lengthy, in-depth coverage of topics that would of themselves almost never appear in organic social media. When young I routinely on the back pages read about coups and famines in obscure countries about which I otherwise would never have known.

In recent years, flummoxed by nuisance newspaper piles in my house, I reluctantly cancelled my Post home delivery in favor of reading digital versions of the hard copy. No more newsprint on my hands as I read over breakfast. For a few more years I would still hear The Post delivery truck outside in early hours, driven by older immigrant men, delivery boys on foot or bicycle long since irrelevant. (Back in the day, there were occasional delivery girls, including a neighbor my age, who delivered our Post for years, starting age 10, often walking streets alone in pre-dawn darkness.)

The Post influenced me professionally and spiritually. Its global coverage motivated my original work in foreign affairs. Its Saturday morning religion page awakened me to church controversies that preoccupied my later vocation.

Of course there was a downside to reliance on a single newspaper. Columns in The Post by George Will and Robert Novak notwithstanding, starting in college I subscribed to National Review for conservative commentary, plus conservative religion journals, like, later, First Things.

DC’s other longtime newspaper, The Evening Star, an afternoon daily, closed in the early 1980s. Then there was The Washington Times, which I read, though discomfited by its Unification Church ownership. Network news, and as a boy I watched Walter Cronkite, was editorially in sync with The Post and other big liberal newspapers. Conservatives, religious or otherwise, accurately complained they were largely shut out, yet somehow their message still transmitted. Certainly it did to me, though it often required a skeptical and inquiring disposition. Today’s countless media options are incomparable to the narrow choices of 40 years ago.

But today’s absence of comprehensively reading daily newspapers, especially by the young, often leads to knowledge and opinion ghettos. Whatever their faults and biases, newspapers have had a spiritual purpose in sustaining geographic communities, versus today’s focus on online community. Opinion blogs and podcasts, no matter how insightful, can never fully replace actual wide range reporting, systematically compiled and vetted. And I confess that my daily newspaper reading has not prevented, thanks to my own heavy intake of social media, decreased patience for lengthy articles.

Newspapers will survive of course, but perhaps never again will they reach whole communities, as in my boyhood, when everyone read The Post. It’s a loss, but Divine Providence often replaces a loss with a gain. Doubtless new generations are being shaped for the better by new media in ways yet unimaginable.

Meanwhile, I’m indebted to The Post, which still begins my every morning. And no longer, when traveling to remote locales, do I need fear lack of access, with The Post, and everything else, effortlessly at my fingertips.

This was first published at Juicy Ecumenism. Mark Tooley is the author of The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War.

comments powered by Disqus