Charles M. Blow: As the press weakens, so does democracy

We are moving ever closer to a country where the corrupt can deal in the darkness with no fear of being exposed by the light.

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak) In this Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, photo, Bertram de Souza works on a story for The Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The Youngstown paper announced in June it would cease publication Saturday, Aug. 31, because of financial struggles, but the paper will be printed by the Tribune Chronicle, which has bought The Vindicator name, subscriber list and website from owners of the Youngstown publication.

I came to The New York Times in 1992, 29 years ago this summer, as the first intern in its graphics department. I arrived in Manhattan, a little Black boy from a hick town in Louisiana, and it blew my mind.

In those first months I saw how one of the best newsrooms in the country covered some of the biggest stories of the era, and it shaped me as a journalist and my reverence for the invaluable role that journalists play in society.

I arrived weeks after the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating, and just before the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. The city was under the control of the first Black mayor in its history, David Dinkins.

I would soon watch in person as Bill Clinton was nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden, just about 10 blocks south of The Times’ offices, and I would watch a massive — and very political — gay pride parade march through Times Square as the community reeled from the scourge of AIDS. In 1992, a staggering 33,590 Americans died of the disease as it became “the No. 1 cause of death among men aged 25-44 years,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This, in many ways, was an extraordinary time to be a journalist.

Newsroom employment was at a high, and throughout the 1990s, and even into the early 2000s, a slight majority of Americans still had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the news media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly,” according to Gallup.

In 1992, there was no MSNBC or Fox News, no Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. Also, there weren’t many, if any, mainstream news organizations online. The Times didn’t start online publication until 1996, and then it was not the truly transformative force it would become.

Since the 1990s, newsrooms have seen tremendous, truly terrifying, contraction. On Tuesday, Pew Research Center issued a report that found “newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by 26% since 2008.”

Last month, Poynter reported on a survey that found that “the United States ranks last in media trust — at 29% — among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries.”

Furthermore, a report last year by the Knight Foundation and the University of North Carolina found:

• Since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth — 2,100 — of its newspapers. This includes 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or nondailies.

• At end of 2019, the United States had 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004.

• Today, more than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues. Half of the counties have only one newspaper, and two-thirds do not have a daily newspaper.

• Many communities that lost newspapers were the most vulnerable — struggling economically and isolated.

The news industry is truly struggling, but the public is oblivious to this. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 found that “most Americans think their local news media are doing just fine financially.”

The report explains, “About 7 in 10 say their local news media are doing either somewhat or very well financially (71%).”

I guess I can understand the illusion in some ways. We have celebrity journalists — writers, radio personalities and anchors — in a way that didn’t exist before.

There were popular and trusted news figures, to be sure, but the proliferation of sensational, personality journalists is a newer and growing sector of journalism.

Also, we are now able to access and share more news than ever before. This all leads to a feeling that we are drowning in news, when in fact pond after pond is drying up and the lakes are getting smaller.

I share all that to say this: Democracies cannot survive without a common set of facts and a vibrant press to ferret them out and present them. Our democracy is in terrible danger. The only way that lies can flourish as they now do is because the press has been diminished in both scale and stature. Lies advance when truth is in retreat.

The founders understood the supreme value of the press, and that’s why they protected it in the Constitution. No other industry can claim the same.

But, protection from abridgment is not protection from shrinkage or obsoletion.

We are moving ever closer to a country where the corrupt can deal in the darkness with no fear of being exposed by the light.

Charles Blow |The New York Times

Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.