In the news business, self-flagellation is as commonplace as computers. Everyone from Steven Brill, the self-appointed media watchdog, to do-gooder foundations such as the Freedom Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has issued lamentations on declining standards and warned of an eventual loss of constitutional protections. The calls to repent and be saved will no doubt occupy the time of some news hounds during this summer vacation month.
Consider Brill, the publisher of Brill's Content, a monthly magazine that bills itself as "The Independent Voice of the Information Age." He posits that among the characteristics of "the new media dynamic" are "the carnivorous appetite for any shred of news that has even the slimmest claim of being `new' "; "sinking standards of sourcing"; and "sinking attention spans, and the ability of the story du jour to drown out most other news." He asserts that "the central dynamic of the new media machine is for all the players to stretch to get the most controversial -- which usually means the most negative -- story, and then for everyone else to grab it and send it spinning out into the print, online and cable TV echo chamber, where it assumes a magnified reality."
New York magazine's media critic, Michael Wolff, recently suggested that "news" as we've come to know it is "dead" and that Time magazine has latched onto a way to remain relevant by specializing in "nonnews news": "Time's beat . . . is no longer America-writ-large but the various private preoccupations, emotional and aspirational rather than ideological in nature, of large blocs of Americans who don't much relate to great events or great men." Purists -- "classic trenchcoat journalists," he calls them -- are recoiling in horror, as you can hear them doing on those serious public interest programs on TV or on NPR and can see them doing in the pages of newspapers, including this one.
The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center recently published this year's edition of "The State of the First Amendment" and concluded that the press is "in deep trouble" because there is only "wobbly support for specific press activities." Indeed, 53 percent of those surveyed said that the press has too much freedom.
Around the country, lawyers, scholars and journalists are discussing whether, given the shifting nature of the news business and the low regard much of the public has for the enterprise, the courts will begin to drastically curtail press freedoms.
Some readers have suggested that the lamentations are disingenuous since the media continue to do that which is being lamented after, perhaps, a brief pause for reflection. But be assured that self-examination is a continuing activity here. The challenge for The Post is to distinguish itself from other media. But that is also a challenge that readers must take up. A few days ago I received a long harangue from a reader who was put off by so much coverage of the drowning death of the wife of actor William Shatner (Captain Kirk of "Star Trek"). I went back to reread the paper to see if I had somehow missed such excessive coverage in The Post. I had not. The Post treated the story as it should have: as an item in the "Names and Faces" column in the Style section. But the irate reader had lumped together all media in reaction to what television was doing.
On another matter: In response to those who complained that the new type size used in Sports made it impossible to read without a magnifying glass, Sports has redesigned its recently redesigned pages of statistics. They should be readable today.
I will be away for a couple of weeks, occasionally mulling over the weighty issues that Post readers have raised but mainly relaxing at the beach. This column will return on Sept. 5.
As always, the ombudsman can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.