The Bonfire of the Literacies

American political leaders, being deeply indoctrinated actual or aspiring millionaires/billionaires, have long equated capitalism and democracy. In reality, capitalism places very strong limits on democracy. Basic economic policy, the allocation of government spending, transportation policy, global governance, serious restriction of wealth and income polarization (income floors and salary caps for everybody!) — all these things and more are very emphatically “off the table” in capitalist democracy, simply and consistently verboten to voting.

Yet that’s only half the story. Consider, meanwhile, what the normal operation of the system does to the very roots of egalitarian self-governance.

In two separate stories, this week’s Advertising Age reports some key news on the long-known but virtually unreported-in-the-mainstream trend toward the death of both journalism and reading.

As the late, great Neil Postman explained, democracy arose from the triumph and spread of print literacy that ensued from the explosion of printing presses in early capitalist Europe. As the rising merchant class used this breakthrough in access to communications technology to win its freedom from royalist power, the commoners below also used it to further refine and expand the funny ideas and rules of modern, big-world democracy.

As Postman argued, reading, journalism, and democracy are indivisible. A threat to one of these crucial practices is a threat to all. If citizens cease to read, they cease to have access to the kind of detailed knowledge they need to govern themselves with vigilance and intelligence. Television, for all its attractiveness and fun, is simply too fleeting and impressionistic and production-centralizing to be anything like comparable as a basis for nurturing democratic citizenship.

And here’s the rub: Thanks to its ever-increasing marketing imperative, corporate capitalism means the ever-increasing reign of televisual communications and the attending crowding-out of print literacy.

Ascendant democracy means ascendant print media; ascendant capitalism means ascendant TV — and, if the truth be told, capitalism wins this fight every time, no questions asked.

Ad Age acknowledges this in this week’s “The Newspaper Death Watch” story,

Efforts to save newsroom jobs amid the ebbing support have collided with parallel — but ultimately more powerful — efforts to protect profits.

Of course, this is Advertising Age, so the framework of the reporting is hardly democracy. The Ad Age story’s concern is simply how to adapt corporate marketing campaigns to the continued withering of journalism, especially newspapers.

The reported facts, though, are quite important for those concerned with the fate of democracy and modern citizenship:

[Newspapers’] paid week-day circulation, which has been beset by 24-hour news on cable and online, has crumbled to 45.4 million in 2006 from a peak of 63.1 million in 1973. That’s a 28% plunge.

[T]he industry has cut at least 3,600 positions this decade, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Many newspapers have shut down entirely.The country has lost 441 dailies since 1940 — including 43 since 2000.

But don’t look for young generations to miss, much less save, what the industry is losing. They’re busy reading headlines delivered to their phones and surfing their friends’ status updates on Facebook. Newspapers may well be suffering the effects, in the words of the Project for Excellence in Journalism last month, of a “decoupling of news and advertising.”

The newest chapter arrives today with the industry’s latest circulation report, which insiders expected to show another 2.5% weekday decline in the best case — and a 3.5% drop in the worst. The story for the beloved Sunday paper? Darker still.

And news itself, even in televisual format, is also in big trouble. Ad Age’s story this week on this aspect of capitalism’s destruction of the basic foodstuffs of democracy is “The End of Network News as We Know It?” It reports:

The big three TV network newscasts lost about 1.2 million viewers last year, and advertising on their three big morning news shows fell to an estimated $1.03 billion. The average viewer is 60 years old, and the demographic marketers most want to reach is more likely to be facing a computer screen than a TV screen when the evening news comes on.

Given that rather sobering picture, maybe the discussion shouldn’t be over whether Katie Couric will last at CBS through the election. Maybe it should be whether we need network-TV news at all.

Networks have already responded to the squeeze. Based on estimates, PEJ believes total network-news staffing declined 10% between 2002 and 2006, with the number of on-air journalists falling 7% and the number of producers off 12%. According to reports, between 100 and 160 employees at various CBS Corp.-owned TV stations recently were laid off as part of an initiative to meet budget requirements; several of those were high-profile on-air news personnel.

As a result, perhaps, subject focus has begun to shift. During the past several years, coverage of international stories has been scaled back, said Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report analyzes the content of network newscasts. Despite an initial rush to cover the war in Iraq, he said, that focus has begun to trail off. “Iraq has fallen off the radar” as the U.S. presidential campaign becomes a bigger story, he said. “That change, I don’t think, is anything that would have happened 20 years ago.”

Shocking, disturbing, scary, immoral, probably suicidal trends, right?

So what can we do about it? The “Death Watch” story’s conclusion is both typical and instructive:

‘No solution’
“There is no solution, given the advances of digital marketing and the changes in digital reading, that is going to save the newspaper industry as it is,” said Ken Doctor, an industry veteran now serving as a media analyst for OutSell, the research and advisory firm. “There’s an acknowledgement that they’ve been resistant to make,” he said. “The industry as it has been is not coming back. It’s going to be a radically different industry, especially for content creation and sales.”

The newspaper industry, that is, must say goodbye to the double-digit profit margins that made it the darling of Wall Street, to its old unsurpassed authority, to its central place in American conversation and commerce.

This process is not reversible, said Lauren Rich Fine, a former Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst now serving as a practitioner in residence at Kent State University’s College of Communication and Information. “I wouldn’t count on this industry becoming that profitable again,” she said. “Anybody who thinks it’s going back to the way it was is insane.”

Of course, the screamingly obvious answer to the whole problem is indeed the ultimate “insane” idea, if you define “sanity” as does the leadership mainstream, i.e., from within the prevailing ideological orbit, in which Wall Street vultures retire to journalism fellowships, and where “capitalism = democracy” is still the ultimate shibboleth.

The “insane” answer? Massive expansion of PBS, the NEA, and other potential sources of public, not-for-profit journalism and print-literacy-building materials, plus radical increases in public school budgets at all levels and especially in besieged working-class districts.

All rather obvious. All also totally “off the table,” of course…

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