Almost a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote, “In an exact sense the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” He could have added that the reverse is also true: a crisis in journalism is a crisis for democracy. It’s understandable that Franklin Foer, former editor of the New Republic and now a national correspondent for the Atlantic, uses this quote in his book World Without Mind: The Existenial Threat of Big Tech (Penguin, $27, 272 pp.). We are living through another such crisis, and both journalism and American democracy again lie in adjoining beds in the trauma ward.
Foer’s own story has become the stuff of modern media tragedy. He rejoined the New Republic as editor when it was bought by Chris Hughes, the young, wealthy co-founder of Facebook. Foer initially saw Hughes as TNR’s savior. Instead, Hughes presided over its effective demise. As Foer tells it, an early warning sign was the obsessive focus on Web traffic data. Another was the hiring as CEO of Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo executive who described TNR rhapsodically as a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Foer soon learned that his bosses were actively seeking his replacement. He quit, followed by most of the magazine’s best writers and editors. Foer tells his story here, but those seeking a detailed memoir will be disappointed. World Without Mind draws on Foer’s experience to tell a larger story about the ills of modern media—and, thus, of contemporary politics and public discourse.
A physician treating such patients will necessarily look for the cause of the disease. The patients themselves will hunt for someone to blame. Foer here is both physician and patient, and he looks for a culprit other than himself and his fellow elite journalists. He finds it in “Big Tech”: companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which run our new media landscape.
One should always review a book as it is, not the book the author might have written. But when that book gives short shrift to an important aspect of its subject, it’s fair to say so. Foer isn’t wrong to blame Big Tech for the state of modern journalism. But he neglects other culprits. They include journalists themselves, who have collaborated with Big Tech to degrade the profession—and called the result good. Another culprit is surely us, the readers. With or without the influence of Big Tech, we display our preference for chaff over wheat with every click.
Without indulging in the fiction of a golden age, Foer is nostalgic for better times in the profession. I was a journalist for a short while: a graduate of Columbia’s journalism school and briefly an intern at Newsday and reporter at Roll Call. I share his nostalgia. I remember what it meant, as a journalism student newly arrived in New York, to experience the thrill of buying the Sunday New York Times on Saturday night. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” writes Wordsworth. But to get the Sunday paper the night before was very heaven.
Swollen with sections and bleeding fresh ink, the Sunday Times seemed to live up to the paper’s motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It felt authoritative. Even a selective reader couldn’t help but encounter unexpected stories. That involuntary exposure to what felt like all the world’s news was a big part of its value. It involved not a leap of faith, but an act of trust: trust in the reporters and editors who produced the paper. One trusted their expertise, their (relative) disinterestedness, their professionalism.
Today’s Times experience is different. I’m aware of the dangers of nostalgia, but I still insist that today’s Times is not just a shadow, but a deliberate rejection, of its older self. Its squad of editors may have been top-heavy and stifling, but they were essential to one’s pact of trust with the paper. The Times recently announced it would get rid of many of its copy editors, describing it in PR-speak as an effort to “significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at the Times.” When I think of all the times my own reporting was rescued from error, bias, and short-sightedness by some newsroom Gorgon, I shudder to see this mass defenestration of editors described in positive terms.
Equally worrisome was the simultaneous decision to eliminate the public editor, or ombudsperson. That position was filled by someone experienced in journalism and authorized to call the Times to account each week. The real tragedy of that position’s elimination has to do with what the Times has said will replace it: the mob. As a memo cheerfully put it: “Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog.” The Times’s strength comes from its professionalism and expertise. Its editorial page regularly laments the effects of online shouters on civil discourse and respect for truth. Yet it handed over one of its more important methods of self-scrutiny to cranks and amateurs—to the paper’s most credulous fans and most reflexive haters.
These changes are part of a broader suite of alterations, all of them ultimately related to Foer’s broader thesis. The Times’s desperation shows in its feverish “adaptation” to the internet. The online Times has become the paper’s primary outlet. That fact drives its voice and content in ways that have changed its mission and degraded the institution. Sober print headlines are replaced online by clickbait headlines and summaries, frequently opinionated and often misleading. In keeping with the online preference for commentary—which is cheap to produce and attracts “eyeballs”—over conventional reporting, it has added an army of opinion-mongers to what was formerly a small stable of columnists. Meanwhile, by encouraging reporters to maintain Twitter feeds, it has turned even its “straight” news staff into opinionated gossips.