Defenders of the press as it stands mistake the physical medium of print with the function of the Press in a democracy as envisioned by our nation’s founders. Indeed, the rationale behind including "freedom of the press" in the First Amendment was detailed by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist #84. Answering the objection that a large central government would be too far away to be effectively monitored and controlled, he wrote:
“The public papers will be expeditious messengers of intelligence to the most remote inhabitants of the Union.”
This is necessary because:
“Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations.”
The remedy for the dangers of a remote, central government is a system of communication which, of necessity in that colonial era, relied on the printing press to carry word to citizens at a distance from the seats of government. Living at the height of the print era, Hamilton would naturally rely on the printing press as the medium of choice to preserve the transparency of government he deemed essential to a democracy. If the Internet had existed in his time, he might have deferred to any number of Internet blogs rather than to the printing press.
Paul Starr’s epitaph “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to the New Era of Corruption)” in the March 4 issue of The New Republic is one of dozens of recent laments that mistake the medium for the message. Starr assumes that newspapers have everywhere and always lived up to Hamilton’s ideals, or that only through the medium of ink pressed on newsprint can the "Truth" be revealed and corruption curtailed. He notes that:
“Although the rise of broadcast journalism changed the newspaper business, radio and television did not kill it because newspapers retained their local advantages in providing information to readers and connecting advertisers and consumers in a city.”
I was at CBS News in the 1980s when the decision was made to convert the entire news operation from a cost center to a profit center. Salaries of top news stars were increased. News support operations deemed not essential to the primary goal of maximizing ratings were abandoned. For example, CBS News used to employ a staff of full-time research librarians and a facility in-house for news staffers to use in the development of their stories. This was among the first things to go, with a resulting decline in the quality and quantity of fact checking for news productions.