Opinion: Media Mangle

Papers’ Love of Government Hurts Circulation

Newspapers, to their detriment, flood their pages with victim stories

I’ve given a lot of thought to the issue of declining circulation among daily newspapers. I was managing editor of one for a 15-year period that coincided with the downward trend. I swear it wasn’t my fault. In fact, what I learned during that period was that newspapers, enamored as they are of liberal orthodoxy and political correctness, are simply unable to solve the problem.

Look at the front page of almost any daily newspaper in any town in America. What do you see? Invariably there will be a story or two about some victim group or person who is being helped by a government program or by a non-profit, often using government funds. It could be a person moving into a Habitat for Humanity house, or a group of inner-city kids getting some computers via a government grant, or a training program to help “underserved” citizens, or an “urban garden” being planted to help the poor.

You’ve all seen them, especially around the holidays. Editors seem to think this activity is the essence of American life. Except for the advertising, a newspaper reader from another planet would never know there was a private sector. Editorial content is skewed heavily toward the activities of the welfare state because that’s the sector that reporters and editors identify with.

Unfortunately for newspapers, most people have nothing to do with the welfare state and its many mechanisms, except for funding it with their tax dollars. The private sector is where they live. They go to work, raise their kids, pay their taxes and don’t ask anything from the government except for national defense, good schools, garbage pickup, water and sewer hookups and effective police protection. They don’t want to be hit over the head with stories designed to make them feel guilty for not needing government welfare.

Newspaper reporters and editors have always covered the public sector. But while they used to cover it as a preventative to corruption and abuse of power, they now cover it as a partner in the effort to get government more involved in people’s lives. Implicit in government coverage these days are that non-defense government programs are good and the more people are attached to some government program, the better society will be.

Just look at your local paper. Most stories about government programs are reported on in glowing terms. Grateful recipients of public largesse are interviewed and tell how good it is that taxpayers are paying for the program. And to head off any future effort to cut the program, the recipient or the program director predicts dire consequences for the community should the program ever be discontinued.

Reporters and editors love these stories. They play into the standard journalism template that the private sector has questionable motives, i.e., profit, whereas the public sector’s motives are pure, i.e., altruistic. Often ignored in reporting is the view that it’s easy to be altruistic with other people’s money, which is all the government has at its disposal.

One has only to look at election results and national opinion polls to see how out of phase journalists are in their thinking as compared to the bulk of their readers. It is as if daily newspapers are being produced by people living in an alternative universe, oblivious to what really concerns and interests their dwindling numbers of readers.

There was a time when reporters came from the streets and neighborhoods they covered. They didn’t go to Ivy League schools or even college. Their journalism school was a cigar-chomping city editor who would throw their copy back in their face if it was boring or smelled of elitism. Nowadays this would be called a “hostile working environment.”

A few decades ago reporters began coming out of journalism schools and liberal arts colleges. The job was “professionalized.” Because colleges were where you found journalism talent, most cities and towns soon had newspapers staffed by reporters and editors whose first experience with the town in which they were working was a job interview.

Because most had been immersed in the new culture of professional journalism in college, their worldviews were amazingly similar. They wanted to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” They wanted to “change the world,” not just report on it.

To that end, newspapers began preaching rather than reporting. They began to promote those programs that they felt were actually helping “change the world.” It is the omnipresent coverage of these multiplying programs, and the concomitant lack of coverage of things that actually matter to most readers, that has turned readers away from daily newspapers.

Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.