An interview on New American Media with writer Richard Rodriguez has a fascinating take on what’s happening to American newspapers. Using the famously provincial San Francisco Chronicle as an example, Rodriguez says, “I don’t think the Chronicle is dying so much as I think that San Francisco is dying.”
Not the real San Francisco, that is — but the San Francisco mythologized by the Chronicle, the city of Herb Caen, Stanton Delaplane, Art Hoppe and other (now passed) white males who failed to recognize that San Francisco was a city of non-white immigrants.
None of (the Chronicle‘s lineup of columnists in its golden age) was Chinese, none of them were writing about the Chinese or the Filipino or the Central American city. That was the failure of the imagination in the Chronicle. … The San Francisco Chronicle was never an Asian newspaper, even in the 19th Century when it should have been. This was a Chinese city even then.
Rodriguez’s interview (which I noticed courtesy Baynewser) brings up the classic argument over whether journalism, and mass media in general, should reflect the reality of a culture rather than that culture’s cherished view of itself, however illusory. On one side you have the belief that mass media play a role in creating a consensus culture whose members are less ethnic than they are American with a capital A — in other words, the melting pot. The negative flipside of that argument is the loss of identity into a bland consumer herd. On the other side is the belief that the ethnic differences each culture brings, and the competition between immigrant subcultures to determine the future, strengthen the culture as a whole — in other words, diversity.
I think: if the Chronicle (or the Baltimore Sun, or the Detroit News, or the Austin American-Statesman) dies, the city that’s left is still itself. Perhaps it’s now free to speak for itself.
But newspapers are not just a mass medium that reflect the city or nation they cover. They are also watchdogs, ideally making government, business and other powerful institutions accountable for the way they use or misuse the public trust. And that function does not depend on whether the staff or the column inches in a newspaper reflect the population of the city. It depends upon a deep commitment to the vocation of journalist and to the purpose of a free press.