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King: Today’s media is more than a ‘press’

POSTED: January 13, 2009 1:00 a.m.

In 1945, I was 13, and World War II was coming to an end. Our family lived in New Jersey, a 30-minute train ride from New York City where my father worked at the Bell Laboratories.

Each day Dad bought the morning paper to read during his commute into the city, and each evening he bought an afternoon paper to read on the ride home. Then in June, the truckers who distributed all those newspapers went on strike.

For 17 days, the city and surrounding suburbs were without printed news. What happened during that time is by today's standards, almost unbelievable. People stood in line, sometimes as long as three hours, to buy their papers where they were printed.

At that time New York had eight major dailies. Every one of them sold their papers on site and in numbers mounting into the hundreds of thousands.

National television was still in the future, but most homes had at least one radio. The radio stations reported the news as often as every 30 minutes, but that didn't quench the public's need to see the news in print. The lines around the newspaper plants were three abreast and as long as 17 blocks.

Today, New York has three major dailies, and newspapers around the country are closing or cutting back. Atlanta's Journal-Constitution just suspended delivery to North Georgia (I still receive The Times by mail delivery). The daily paper is becoming a thing of the past as advertisers abandon print for TV and the Web.

Newspapers are going online where they will compete with all the other purveyors of electronic information. They will still glean much of their national and international news from the wire services, the largest and oldest being the Associated Press, a not-for-profit cooperative owned by 1,500 U.S. daily newspapers. On any given day, more than half the world's population gets its news through the Associated Press.

The other two major wire services are Reuters from the UK and United Press International, but in 2000 UP was bought by a Unification Church-controlled company (the Moonies) and lost most of its newspaper clients.

Meanwhile, alternative media sources have been on the increase. However, they tend to appeal to select political or cultural groups rather than the general public.

The net result is that while there are more news sources today than ever, they are becoming increasingly biased. Democracy depends on a free press, but today even the term "free press" must be redefined since the word "press" comes from those huge machines that stamp ink on newsprint.

Furthermore, for the "press," whatever it is, to be a guardian of democracy there must be an element of trust. The words can't mean one thing to one group and something different to another, and that's what's happening in today's expanding news market. We live in a time of labels, code words and cultural myths.

Newspapers have never been bias-free, but the reader absorbed the news at his or her own pace, a far more reflective process than watching a TV newscast or listening to talk radio.

When discussing the this column with a family member, I said, "Information has never been cheaper or easier to get." He replied: "And people have never been stupider."

A judgmental remark, I agree, but here's the point. We all seem to believe it's the other guy who has become stupider. He continued, "It's because we don't have to think or remember," and there perhaps he's right. Information needs perspective, and in a time of stress and change, our memories dim and we react rather than reason.

I will mourn the loss of the morning paper beside my cup of coffee, but when one thing goes, something else takes its place. The Economist, an international news magazine, will become my new breakfast companion. I'll check Al-Jazeera's Web site to learn how the Arab world interprets the news. I already receive Townhall.com, a conservative Web site. And, oh yes, I just renewed my subscription to the local county paper.

My own writing is online, and its reach amazes me. I get e-mail from around the globe. Information has never been more available, but is it news, propaganda or gossip? Does it inform or manipulate?

How we use the media can make us smarter or it can lull us into wishful thinking. It can draw us together or alienate us from our neighbor. It's up to us.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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