WASHINGTON -- The other day I ran into a young working woman I know who couldn't wait to tell me the most recent news.
"Did you know," she whispered hoarsely, "that Obama has been having a long love affair with a beautiful young p.r. girl?" She then regaled me with details, none of which seemed to be right to me.
"I doubt that very much," I said, trying to clear up the scenario before it traveled any further. "It just doesn't fit with his character." Then I paused a moment, and asked, "Where did you hear such a thing?"
She answered innocently, "On the Internet." Why would I have to ask?
Almost daily I hear some outrageous "story" that can quickly be traced back to the Internet and not to regular newspapers. I have been a newspaperwoman for nigh on 50 years, so to me, the outrageousness is obvious -- but to many Americans it is not obvious at all.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has said that if someone quotes the Internet to him, it is the truth equivalent of a person saying, "Someone told me ..." He is so right. And yet, many of our young people in particular -- often the same ones we spend tens of thousands of dollars sending to the best universities and colleges across the country -- find this highly questionable "information" to be true, to be "news."
This week, the nation's capital -- and citizens across the country -- witnesses the opening of the 112th Congress. The nation faces a dangerous moment in its history, with terrible debt, with the Congress divided, and with two wars that will not soon be resolved, much less won.
Information will be at the heart of this Congress' decision-making -- honest, well-investigated, serious information. Instead, much of what the Congress will be getting will be the confused chatter of the showoffs on the Internet -- where everybody who is nobody can rant and rave. Where there are no gatekeepers to check information. Where all the "reporting" is actually done by the remaining newspapers and "borrowed" by bloggers for their own purposes.
Do Americans have any idea where we are heading if we allow these trends to continue, much less for the bloggers to take over where newspapers unfortunately are leaving off? Well, let me tell you.
This is a complex and confusing country. To use commercial terms, it has many customers and, in political terms, many constituents. It is a sobering, unending and, in the end, noble job to inform such a polity, and it cannot be done by individuals ruled by complaints but rather by men and women disciplined in the art of honest searching.
For 16 years, I was a reporter and a foreign correspondent on the old Chicago Daily News, one of the great papers of the country. Since then, I have been a syndicated columnist dealing with many papers. Newspapers may have looked simple because the product itself looked as though we were having rather too much fun (we were, but that's another story); but that never stopped the seriousness of the endeavor.
Newspapers were, and some still are, big, serious corporations, with lawyers and editors watching everything we wrote. In general, we put out very few inferior products; more, we held the society that we covered together, for readers could see their entire city or town reflected when they held the newspaper out in front of them. And readers knew we were not only checked and rechecked, but that most reporters were motivated by principle and by the excitement of reporting.
The foreign correspondents sent out by the best newspapers, including mine, were in some ways even more important. I was always filled with wonder that this handful of people (perhaps 200 really excellent correspondents, outside of the press agencies) could provide America with all the information/news that undergirded our decisions about the world.
Today, there are only a handful of that band of comrades left. Of the papers that remain, most depend on the news agencies or much cheaper and highly specialized news services that are sprouting up. Some of them are quite good, but they use mostly unknown individual reporters who work for a pittance in various countries.
And here you find another serious problem. Unlike, say, the foreign correspondents of my generation, these reporters are unknown to most of the readers. There is no way to KNOW them over the long run and to compare one writing against another. Which introduces a word that I think best characterizes a major gap in many sectors of American life today.
We are losing connections in journalism between the reader and a newspaper that he or she can believe in, along with reporters that readers know have told the truth over and over -- and know when they haven't, too.
We are losing connections on other levels, too -- with our schools, with our curricula, with the very principles that underlay the effectiveness of our institutions. Our enemies today are not so much Islamic radicals "over there" as they are the petty divisions of selfish and often vulgar competing groups at home.
So every time you say smartly, "I don't read the newspapers any more," I only beg of you, "Do you have any idea of what you are doing?" Then, please, think again.
- foreign correspondent
- Chicago Daily News