Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy

On Friday, former Wichita Eagle editor W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr. spoke to members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club.

He retired as editor of the Eagle in 1999. He is the author of the book Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk.

Merritt said there are two things to think about today. One is that journalism must somehow survive if democracy is to survive. The two are interdependent. One can’t exist without the other.

The second is that democracy can’t survive on opinions alone. “The plasma of democracy is shared information,” he said. People need a way to discuss the implications of that shared information, forming the mechanism of democracy.

Merritt sees a notion, becoming more reinforced, that opinions are more important that information. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has good information. With everyone having a megaphone, there’s no check on irresponsibility.

We’re entitled to free speech, but we’re not entitled to our own facts, he said. Journalism has been the provider of this shared information that makes democracy possible.

Changes in the information environment have been wonderful, he said. “The problem is the rutabaga man can vote.” He may be interested only in rutabagas, and that’s all he searches for on his computer, but there’s information and facts he needs to know in order to participate in democracy.

It’s clear that newspapers are in trouble, Merritt says. We don’t necessarily need newspapers, but we need the type of journalism that newspapers have traditionally provided. A concern is that the infrastructure that supports journalism will go away before the transfer is made to online delivery of journalism.

How did newspapers get in such trouble? The key event is the shift from family ownership to institutional ownership of newspapers. The search for ever-increasing profits by the new owners lead to cost-cutting measures that have snowballed. (If you read “Knightfall” you’ll learn that one of the things the Wichita Eagle did to cut costs was to stop delivery to western Kansas.)

If journalism like that which newspapers provide goes away, democracy is in terrible trouble. “No shared information, no place to discuss the implications of that information, no place for politics, government, and public life to work.” Replacing this with under-informed opinion is a cause for concern for our democracy.

A questioner asked why doesn’t the press aggressively report about ACORN? Merritt replied “How do you know about ACORN?” The point is that newspapers have reported on ACORN.

Another question asked how much ideology has contributed to the problems of newspapers, the premise being that newspapers are out of touch with their readers. Merritt replied that newspapers do have an ideology — on their editorial pages. That’s where a newspaper expresses its opinion. There may be surveys that show that journalists identify more with liberal than conservative thought, but Merritt doesn’t believe that to be that case, in his experience. People who want to see things change are often attracted to journalism as a career.

In a response to a question, Merritt recommended contacting the newspaper with specific examples of bias, if readers sense it in the news reporting.

A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. “The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.” When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the “boots aren’t on the street anymore,” he said.

In response to another question, Merritt said that the “contradictions are too enormous” for government to use public money to support journalism. There may be conflicts of interest, too, in foundation ownership of newspapers. These may have to be tolerated in order to preserve journalism.


4 thoughts on “Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy”

  1. Thomas Jefferson said, “You cannot have a democracy without informed citizens.” We depend on the media for one means of unbiased information and this should include newspapers. We need more than just reporting on shootings and car wrecks.

  2. I can understand Merritt being upset at corporate ownership making profit more important than news, but Mr. Merritt retired financially secured because of the corporate umbrella.

    The media has been infatuated with their editorial writers doing opinion pages as news articles. Most readers believe that the opinion writers do research and that their writings reflect some facts.

    Newspaper do listen to the advertisers over the public. Locally, if Jeff Turner at Spirit Aereosystems, doesn’t want the Wichita Eagle to write an article about his additional compensation of $23 million in bonuses in 22 months it doesn’t happen! And if the Columbus project at Cessna is killed, but the company doesn’t want to give up the goverment incentives….they won’t and the newspaper will not write about it so as not to offend them.

  3. To what degree a newspapers bias has contributed to its downfall, I don’t know, but I do believe it has contributed somewhat. And one of the ways newspapers have “cut costs” is to run a “story” in the regular news section with one word making it stand out from the rest: “Analysis.” That’s the new way editorials are finding their way onto page one and two of the newspaper and the paper can cut costs at the same time. After all, it costs much less to have an uninformed editorialist write about politics than it is to send him to city hall to find a real story.

    If only the newspaper’s opinion showed up on the editorial page, I’d thank my lucky stars.

  4. I have read Knightfall several times and appreciate Bob sharing Merritt’s comments. It’s unfortunate journalist’s lost control of ownership. They were satisfied with 10% or less in profit. Losing Knight so quickly was a great loss for the country. Ridder’s corporate ownership wasn’t even satisfied with 25% profit. There is no money for investigative reporting.

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