On the day the last newspaper is published, I expect no sympathy card from Kwame Kilpatrick. Were it not for a newspaper — The Detroit Free Press — his use of public funds to cover up his affair with one of his aides would be unrevealed and he might still be mayor of Detroit.
Nor will I expect flowers from Larry Craig. Were it not for a newspaper — The Idaho Statesman — we would not know of his propensity for taking a “wide stance” in airport men’s rooms and he might still be serving in the U.S. Senate. And I doubt there will be a toast of commiseration from Reynaldo Diaz and Oscar Rivero. Were it not for a newspaper — The Miami Herald — they would still be living large on money scammed from an agency that builds housing for the poor.
In short, the day the last newspaper is published — a day that seems to be rushing at us like a brick wall in an old Warner Bros. cartoon — I will not be surprised if the nation’s various crooks, crumbs and corrupters fail to shed a tear. But the unkindest cut of all, the “Et tu, Brute?” dagger in the back, is the fact that, according to a new survey from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, most other Americans won’t, either. Pew found 63 percent of respondents saying that if their local paper went down, they would miss it very little or not at all.
It is the insult that compounds the injury, by which I mean the growing sense that we are working on the last major story of our lives and it is an obituary. Ours.
There remain pockets of optimism — Pew’s new State of the News Media report says, “We still do not subscribe to the theory that the death of the industry is imminent. The industry overall in 2008 remained profitable” — but it is hard to find much reflection of that sunny outlook in the newsroom, as colleagues are shoved unceremoniously into the unemployment line, media giants declare bankruptcy, and century-old papers shut down.
And yes, I know some putative conservatives, displaying their usual delusions of potency, are gloating over all that. These hard times, they feel, are due to people turning against an industry they regard as biased against their ideology. But if that were true, the only papers in trouble would be those that endorsed Kerry over Bush and Obama over McCain.
That is not the case. We are “all” suffering. That’s because the industry’s decline is not due to ideology but to the fact that it was slow to recognize and react to the threat the Internet represented. So if we die, it will not be at the hands of righteous conservatives, but because we failed to anticipate and strategize.
Which is small comfort. Dead is dead.
And too many of us fail to understand what that death would mean, believe newspapers provide no service they can’t get elsewhere. But there is a reason Craig and Kilpatrick were not taken down by CNN or the local TV news. Local TV news specializes in crime, weather and sports. CNN has a national purview. Even the Internet primarily synthesizes reporting done in other media.
No, only the local paper performs the critical function of holding accountable the mayor, the governor, the local magnates and potentates, for how they spend your money, run your institutions, validate or violate your trust. If newspapers go, no other entity will have the wherewithal to do that. Which means the next Blagojevich gets away with it. The next Kilpatrick is never caught. The next Diaz and Rivero laugh all the way to the bank. And the next Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two innocent men saved from death row by the indefatigable reporting of The Miami Herald’s Gene Miller, are executed.
Sixty-three percent of all Americans think they won’t miss the daily paper? I think 63 percent of all Americans are wrong.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.