In examining the radical changes in the dissemination of news, we need to examine not only how newspaper and news media are evolving from providing historically accurate records, but also how the expectations of the audiences have changed.
Even as the Internet has opened the gates of information and replaced the gatekeeping function of major news media, the American news audience has become more close-minded it its desire to consider diverse opinions.
We need to think of the position the New York Times occupied in the American culture. For more than 100 years, the New York Times has been a repository of the U.S.'s historical memories and cultural contexts as well as a record of how we saw ourselves and how the world saw us. Back issues of the Times are a diary of how our history unfolded day by day. Even today people who need or want to be informed still read the Times to learn what is going on in the geopolitical world and to be sure they know what other informed people know. For national news, and especially for news of the American government, the Washington Post played that role for many readers, especially with its Watergate coverage. To an extent, local newspapers played that role for individual communities, whether they be large cities or small towns.
The concept of the newspapers as a written historical record and a source for historians looking backward to cull significant patterns implies gatekeeping -- by which I mean that the editors decide what goes through what I call the Gates of Importance into the daily paper. The Internet blogosphere undermines the concept that editors control those Gates because information and what poses as information are disseminated to often small groups of eager readers awaiting fulfillment of their subjective and partisan views.
Moreover, today, in part because of economic exigencies, even the Times and the Washington Post are more concerned with delivering what it thinks its audience wants rather than what it thinks it needs. When writing my book on the New York Times, I was told by one of the Times' former managing editors, "Follow the money." Thus the Times, like the Post, now does much more of what is called value-added journalism, or "life school." It offers practical advice on virtually every conceivable subject, whether it be retirement, investment, health, nutrition, restaurants, caring for elderly parents or charitable giving. In these ways, as well as its inclusion of gossip, the Times has become more of what used to be thought of as a magazine. As a hybrid newspaper-magazine-Internet site, the Times is aware that its audience is divided into a panorama of small segments. The Times seeks to address as many of those segments as possible.
What about the contemporary news audience? It may be that our belief that we can know truth and our respect for journalistic accuracy has changed. The hyperbole of talk radio and cable television has opened the windows to a more polarized discourse even as the blogosphere gives voice to fringe perspectives that in the past had more trouble finding an outlet. No doubt the increasingly cynical attitude toward government that Americans now voice has been fostered by events dating from the Vietnam War and exposure of the government's failings by the Pentagon Papers to the false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destructions (WMDs) as a pretext for starting the Bush administration's starting the second Iraq war.
The Times bears some responsibility for the erosion of trust, by its publishing first-page stories about WMDs in Iraq, withholding evidence of government wiretapping of its citizens before the 2004 election when this information might have a difference in the outcome, accusing Wen Ho Lee of spying at Los Alamos without sufficient evidence, misreporting of events surrounding accusations of sexual impropriety by the Duke lacrosse team, inaccurate reporting of Caroline Kennedy's withdrawal from consideration for an appointment to the Senate in 2009, and implying impropriety by John McCain and a lobbyist during the 2008 campaign.
Moreover, the concept of continuous news in which stories change from hour to hour to such an extent that one version modifies -- really "unwrites" -- a prior one throughout the day also underscores how the Times (and other newsgathering sources) no longer produce a definitive historical record but often a hazy version in which, as in the reporting of the Wall Street protests of fall 2011 or of Dept. of Labor unemployment and other economy numbers, so-called facts shift from hour to hour and the reader is mystified about what actually is happening. To be sure in places like Syria the past year, where foreign journalists are banned, it is often difficult to ascertain facts.
We have evidence that fewer people read a daily newspaper and those who do spend less time than they used attending to any news, whatever the source. Social media has often shifted the focus of our attention to the micro-local, that is, what friends are doing at a particular moment.
While the Internet is the essential underpinning of the globalization of information, those who consult the Internet news sites are often looking for specific information and specific blogs with opinions that echo their own rather than the full experience of reading the major news stories on the home site. This may be another way of saying we live in a divided country -- divided between red and blue states, white and racial minorities, pro-choice and pro-life activists, gun control advocates and those who resent infringement on what they regard as their Second Amendment rites to pack pistols, the well-to-do (the 1 percent but also the next few percent) and those struggling to make ends meet. We live in a country polarized by those who believe that we are part of God's plan and that there are fixed immutable truths and those who believe we are shaped -- culturally produced -- by our experiences, psyches, values and capacity to understand and that much of what we call "reality" is provisional and much of what we call "truth" depends on cultural and historical expectations.
To be sure, at its best the Internet has, particularly in autocratic countries, contributed to the globalization of essential information. But in the U.S., the Internet blogosphere -- mirroring the more partisan TV news channels, especially Fox and MSNBC, and ranting talk radio -- paradoxically intensifies balkanization because subgroups retreat into their own prejudices and speak to an audience that seeks to have their beliefs reaffirmed they want to believe. What we have at times is what Andrew Keen has called "The Cult of the Amateur," where gatekeeping is reinstalled by the audience's own preferences. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred and so-called expertise is simply a matter of opinion if not spin.
Author of the recently published Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University.