de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.