TJ and T.J.

TJ Sullivan, independent journalist and LA Observed blogger, has a modest proposal for saving journalism and by extension “American Democracy” (his caps): Take to the barricades firewalls. He wants all newspapers and magazines to shut down their Web content for a week and force Americans to pick up the dead-tree copies instead.

His proposed start date for the shutdown is July 4th, which should indicate how steeped his manifesto is in the defense-of-democracy argument. To bolster his case he uses a passage from Thomas Jefferson’s personal correspondence as a recurring motif. (Hagiography of the Founding Fathers sometimes seems to be the only acceptable genre of patriotism among Serious People.) The gist:

Jefferson went on to say that, without newspapers, he feared the American public would stop paying attention to their government. Once that happened it was only a matter of time before Jefferson, the Congress, and the whole of the American government turned into a pack of wolves preying upon sheep.

The use of Jefferson to drive the point home — like a celebrity endorsement — makes sense as far as it goes; Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers were clearly very concerned that the American public remain informed, and saw newspapers as the best way to make that happen. They cared so deeply, in fact, that they passed legislation to charge newspapers unusually low postal rates: one cent to deliver each copy to a subscriber, and free delivery for copies being sent to other papers, or “exchanges.”

The exchanges were the important part, because papers in those days gathered content primarily by selecting articles that had already run in other towns and reprinting them. For free. (There weren’t even subscription charges for exchanges, because they were generally mutual. One could probably argue that the news-gathering relationship between blogs and newspapers is similarly mutual, of course.)

As a result, citizens were able to learn about what was going on in the rest of the country; as they learned more, they discussed more; as they discussed more, the people they were talking to learned more. I understand concerns about the fate of investigative journalism, but the reason journalism is so important to democracy isn’t primarily to excavate information, but to circulate it.

Sullivan’s use of the Founding Fathers’ passion for newspapers to argue for exactly the same sort of “discomfort” they deliberately avoided is ironic, but it’s typical. The press is only necessary to democracy insofar as it produces an informed populace. Once the “curmudgeons” (to crib a term from Jay Rosen) start thinking of journalism as something that comes on paper, they’re barking up the wrong dead tree.

I got the details on the Postoffice Act of 1792 from American Journalism, by Frank Luther Mott.