A Matter of Choice

Just as I was appraising the possibility of curtailing my 30-year devotion to the daily, and increasingly expensive, The New York Times, a noted research outfit limned the perplexity of all of us who consume or produce journalism. Those of us who do both — consume and produce — you can pick out in a crowd for our inability to quit shaking our heads.

A spokesman for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, run by the Pew Research Center, notes that "every [media] outlet is becoming more of a niche player with reduced ambitions." More and more we catch big newspapers and television networks walking backward from a longtime commitment to everything-ness. "Start the day with the world at your doorstep," the Dallas Morning News of my youth bade its readers. Not many in the business talk that way now. It’s not the world that readers and viewers seem to want; it’s their gardens and porches and alleys. More and more they want localism.

I say power to ’em, though I don’t need to, actually. Power they’ve got, through access to technology that makes it possible to watch a video on a chunk of plastic, or pick an online fight on any topic at all. Welcome to the free marketplace. Welcome, for better or worse, because there isn’t any going back to the way things were even 10 years ago.

Last year, circulation of the major newspapers dropped 3 percent and could fall further and faster. All three major television networks are losing viewers of their news broadcasts.

I know we are all supposed to sit in stupefied silence, pondering the likely consequences. I have pondered them myself. They are not as uniformly awful as one might think. True, those instances where most people know the same thing to one degree or another, those instances grow fewer, which certainly reduces the occasions for general dialogue. On the other hand, I’m not fully persuaded that is a bad thing.

Last week’s Scooter Libby verdict — the vice president’s onetime chief of staff, convicted of lying about who first mentioned Valerie Plame’s CIA connection to him — was the result of the most overblown, over-hyped story of the decade; a story that, while sad enough on account of poor Libby’s fate, bears no relevance to anything Americans care about. The story is a Washington Story, manufactured and consumed chiefly by the Washington in-crowd, yet inflicted on the world for indecipherable reasons, the clearest of which was that many in Washington hoped that somewhere at the bottom of the affair lay punishment for George W. Bush.

Then there’s the presidential race, with candidates trying to destroy each other nearly a year before a single vote gets cast on their individual worth. In the great scheme of First Amendment concerns — voters expected as a matter of civic duty to ingest this unchewable fare — we might call it shocking that millions seem indifferent at present to the cosmic questions of how much damage Al Sharpton is doing to Barack Obama and whether Rudy Guiliani’s marital record will set back his candidacy. We dunno, we dunno, we dunno! Woulda just…?

Look, here it is, maybe. Maybe, when it comes to the journalistic castor oil our great thinkers seem sure we need and want, maybe growing numbers are destined to take a holiday. When the news-bearers insist on bringing us, day after day, planetary destruction through carbon dioxide, political futility everywhere, international hatred for America, and pending economic collapse, and when readers and viewers tune out, searching for the familiar and quotidian — ought we to wonder?  Various other reasons exist for the flight from newspapers and golden-throated anchorfolk, but one that today’s news merchants should keep in mind is that in our free marketplace the customer can take his custom and go where he hopes to find maximum value and satisfaction.

That way he heads right now. Let the news merchants go chasing after him. The thing will sort itself out in time, probably without great damage to the Constitution. In matters economic, choice normally trumps no-choice.