News institutions face radical headwinds and collapsing business models. Not surprisingly, many are quick to cry foul over change while reminiscing about the good times past. "Kiss goodbye the golden age of journalism," the cliché goes. People and their livelihoods are in question, so that's a natural, if protectionist, reaction.
But was there ever a golden age of journalism? No. The very notion of a golden age is of journalism is, itself, inaccurate. I conclude that simply because I can't decipher why any one period over the past two centuries was significantly better or worse than any other. Different? Yes. Better or worse? No. Moreover, my own quick survey among several friends in the news business suggests that there is no consensus on any single period of greatness.
Perhaps the biggest reason there's no such thing as a golden age of journalism is that every period in our country's history holds its own meaningful share of bad and inaccurate journalism. This is explained well by Eric Burns, author of "All the News Unfit to Print," a catalog of journalistic misdeeds dating back to the American Revolution. He said in a recent interview
with Brook Gladstone of On The Media: "There never was a golden age. From the very beginnings of journalism we've had people who, because of ideological bias, who, because of laziness, who, because of a lack of respect for the profession, did not care enough about their story to make sure that it was accurate."
Many argue that a world without legacy news institutions will do us harm by creating an environment that breeds inaccuracies. The absence of these institutions will threaten democracy and our American way of life. Valid claim? No, and Burns explains: "One of the reasons that the republic is not imperiled by irresponsible journalism is that we have had such an explosion in journalistic outlets -- yes, we're losing newspapers but we're certainly gaining on the Internet -- that irresponsible journalism is going to be detected today more easily than it ever was before."
But won't many more independent news voices simply equate to far more erroneous coverage? Burns says: "So we have two things going in contrary directions at once. Because we have so many journalistic outlets, the odds are greater that we'll have erroneous coverage. Because we have so many journalistic outlets, the odds are greater that some of that coverage will point out the errors in some of the other coverage."
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution acknowledges freedom of speech and freedom of press - cornerstones of our democracy. While changes in the news business may be unpleasant in the near term, the cornerstones that many claim are at risk are actually being cultivated through more voices, more fact-checking and more open, intense debate.
Despite conventional wisdom, the Golden Age of Journalism is yet to come. What do you think?