The George Will Scandal and the Decline of Great American Newspapers


I’ve heard a number of MSMers suggest to me in recent days that maybe bloggers should stop complaining about how The Washington Post publishes non-true statements about climate change as fact in its pages, and then has its editors and ombudsman claim that these false statements are true, because said complaining is contributing to the deplorable crisis in American newspapering. This strikes me as badly wrong. Clearly, the main cause of the crisis is structural/technological shifts in the media and economic landscape. But a small number of news organizations are actually well-positioned, in principle, to benefit over the long run from these changes. Papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have strong brands and the possibility of becoming national news organizations that partially fill the space left empty by the receding metro dailies in Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere. But The Washington Post, by standing behind the claim that up is down if George Will says that is is, is pissing that brand away. Rather than complaining to me, people who work at, or care about, The Washington Post need to complain to Fred Hiatt and ensure that something gets done.

Meanwhile, one of the Post‘s main competitors in the world of papers with potential to attract a national audience is The New York Times. So faced with a humiliating abrogation of basic responsibilities by its competitor, does the Times take the opportunity to pour some salt in the wounds? No! Instead, out comes Andrew Revkin with a false equivalence article painting Will with the same brush as Al Gore. Will’s sin is to say that the world is not getting warmer when, in fact, it is. Gore’s sin was to say that warming is happening (it is) and to illustrate the problems with this trend by referring to a chart that Revkin deems unduly alarmist but that Gore found in The New York Times. Hm.

Most of the newspapers in the United States don’t seem to me to have any real future. And this is going to pose some real problems. In particular, I’m not sure where intensive coverage of state and local government is going to come from in the brave new world and as Paul Starr points out that probably means more corruption. But interested consumers of national and international news will, I think, be extremely well-served. There will be a proliferation of niche media, and there will also be a handful of global English-language news media brands offering video, test, and audio coverage. I think it’s clear that one of them will be the BBC and that one of them will be based on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It strikes me as very plausible that another could be based on the Times and plausible, though somewhat less likely, that one could be based on the Post. But to reach that promised land you need to take care of these brands not flush them down the toilet to avoid angering conservatives or in pursuit of a cute conceit.