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Confessions of a Feral Beast

In the old joke, two rabbis are sitting in a cafe. One is reading a Jewish newspaper, but the other opens a notorious neo-Nazi rag. The first, stunned, says, "Why would you read that?" The second replies: "In your paper, I read how Jews are being harassed and persecuted and endangered. In this one, I read that Jews are rich! Jews are clever! Jews run the world! I prefer good news."

When Tony Blair recently attacked the news media as "a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits," many of those under attack did not take it well. "It’s just sour grapes," replied the editor of Britain’s Daily Express. "He’s criticizing journalists because they found him out." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd likened Blair to Tony Soprano — both being "bitter, paranoid and worn down by their enemies and scheming erstwhile allies." But I prefer to see it as good news.

The British prime minister, speaking at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, complained that the power of the press eclipses everything. For politicians, he reveals, "a vast aspect of our jobs today — outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else — is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms." The result is an unhealthy relationship between government and journalists that "saps the country’s confidence and self-belief," asserts Blair.

He dislikes us! He really, really dislikes us! What a relief. Working in a field that, we are told, is increasingly irrelevant and outmoded, it’s nice to know that someone still regards the news media as capable of sapping the self-esteem of 61 million people who are not known for self-pity and who boast a heritage of Shakespeare, empire and the Beatles.

Americans are equally vulnerable to our wiles. Liberals say the problems in Iraq are the media’s fault because we served as enablers for war. Conservatives say the problems in Iraq are our fault because we report only bad news. It would be nice to think we in the press could dispatch armies hither and thither on a whim. But secretly, I fear that Saddam Hussein and insurgents deserve slightly more credit than we do for the tides of public opinion.

Still, I always feel a thrill when I hear the mainstream media, aka MSM, being abused by critics on the right or the left: If we arouse such passions, we must be important.

This is not a feeling old-school journalists get to enjoy much these days. Our circulation is shrinking, our ad revenues are drying up, our readers are abandoning us for an assortment of websites, our companies are being sold at fire sale prices, and those of us who write about grave issues often suspect that people buy the paper strictly for the comics and the coupons.

Our business faces withering competition from a huge array of TV channels that didn’t exist a generation ago, as well as news and talk radio. We see our kids getting information about current events, if they get any at all, off the Yahoo home page in between instant messages.

Anyone who had the poor judgment to migrate into opinion-mongering 30 years ago, as I did, finds that there are now more people producing punditry than consuming it. So the possible influence of any individual commentator — pitifully modest to begin with — has been greatly diluted by the glut. Being 1) a columnist for 2) a newspaper founded 160 years ago, I often feel doubly obsolete.

Yet I find I am actually part of a group that dominates every waking hour of one of the most powerful people on Earth. Even on days I feel sluggish, we are perceived as hyperactive. Though we feel like we are talking mostly to ourselves, others find us overwhelming.

It puts a new swagger in my walk. Detractors may see me as a middle-aged, pencil-necked pencil-pusher, but Tony Blair knows better. To him, I sit atop the food chain like Godzilla, with claws and teeth capable of evoking fear in war-tested leaders who possess nuclear arsenals. I am newsman, hear me roar.

Other journalists think Blair is a whining, dishonest spinmeister who only turned against the press when he could no longer manipulate it to his satisfaction. But anytime he wants to inflate our importance, he’ll get no argument from me. Go ahead, Tony. Make my day.

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Mr. Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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