Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Pulverized Pillars

By Shawn Healy
I have suggested in a series of previous posts that the gradual extinction of print media poses perils for our democracy, and two Princeton researchers found preliminary evidence in support of this contention, methodological concerns aside. Slate's Jack Shafer slays this "myth" in a March 27 column titled "Democracy's Cheat Sheet?"

He begins by brushing aside a recent proposal to turn newspapers into nonprofit organizations, pointing to the fact that they would thereafter be forbidden from making political endorsements.

Shafer references the Princeton study and acknowledges a legion of scholars and industry insiders lament the collapse of the age-old economic model for print media, but quickly turns these arguments on their head. He argues that our nation survived its first century without anything resembling the current objective, professional journalism that has prevailed since 1900. Early newspapers were organs of political parties, and freedom of the press, Shafer implies, was cast as a means of protecting these forums.

His most damning statement reads, "I can imagine citizens acquiring sufficient information to vote or poke their legislators with pitchforks even if all the newspapers in the country fell into a bottomless recycling bin tomorrow."

He concludes, "All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them."

Shafer's piece is valuable in that it offers a divergent viewpoint from someone within the industry, be it an organization that exists only in cyberspace. However, at the risk of redundancy, I feel compelled to refute his thesis.

Newspapers and other members of the so-called "mainstream media" offer a single place where Americans of all ideological, gender, racial, ethnic, and economic stripes can gather a common set of information that binds us together in a shared sense of what is transpiring locally, in Washington, and across the globe. The blogosphere and other "new media" alternatives, Slate included, offer an ideological taint that most often attract audiences who want their preconceptions confirmed. The rampant polarization that cripples our politics will be further escalated within the vaccum of vanquished newspapers.

Beyond shared information, newspapers partake in the leather to the ground reporting that uncovers corruption and other forms of political malfeasance that undermine the public trust. This is both time-consuming and expensive, both reasons the practice is in the process of being scaled back or nixed altogether. If the watchdogs are put to sleep, who will guard the proverbial cookie jar?

Should Shafer hold up the blogosphere as the solution, I respond with the question of why this domain most often follows, rather than leads, our national discourse? It is well-known that television and radio outlets read the morning paper and report out the stories embedded within. In the wake of newspapers, expect them to search for "low hanging fruit" that borders on infotainment rather than the hard-hitting exposes their print peers currently enable.

To borrow from the title of Neil Postman's still-relevant tome, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death as the vital pillars of our democracy are pulverized before our unconcerned eyes.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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