Former Wichita editor decries ‘society of anger’
Declining local ownership of media and laws that let Internet companies escape liability for what they publish are among the greatest challenges to America’s democracy, retired Wichita Eagle editor W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr. told a crowd of 40 Saturday at Marion City Library.
“Journalism and democracy are fully interdependent,” Merritt said. “One can’t exist without the other.”
But, he noted, the nature of public discourse has changed.
“We have become a shouting society — a society of anger,” he said. “We can’t depend on most of the pieces of our political life doing anything other than sustaining themselves.”
Merritt recounted how people committed to serving their local communities had started most news organizations. Now, he said, most are owned by distant corporations concerned primarily with profit.
“It’s economics that have gotten journalism and, in essence, the First Amendment to where we are today,” Merritt said.
Partisan newspapers were common throughout the country’s early years until, for economic reasons, partisanship gave way to objectivity.
“In the early 1900s, some publishers decided — and this was a pretty wise decision — why should we every day offend half of our potential readers,” Merritt said. “An effort was made to split the baby a bit and have both sides covered. Because of that, newspapers were prepared to help the nation through the terrible events in the first half of the 20th century.”
The business also became extremely profitable. By the 1960s, he said, “you had to be either really unfortunate or really stupid not to make a pile of money.”
But a combination of unfavorable tax laws and disinterest in journalism among heirs of wealthy newspaper owners led many newspapers to be gobbled up by large, publicly traded corporations with no local connections.
“Maybe grandpa and dad were so rich they didn’t need to be smart,” Merritt said. “When these sorts of people own newspapers, you see the first part of what we’ve seen in the degradation of newspapers.”
The second part came with the Internet and social media, and especially with laws that don’t hold them responsible for content the way traditional media companies are.
“You can’t go sue Facebook,” he said. “They can put out anything at all and they are not liable for it. Does it deserve the same protection as the responsible press? Probably, but that right is being abused more than ever by people who aren’t interested in the community.”
Merritt specifically criticized cable networks like MSNBC and Fox News for presenting content that “relentlessly goes beyond the appropriate journalistic line.”
“I’m embarrassed by what some people consider journalism,” he said. “You can draw a straight line from Rush Limbaugh to where we are now.
“How can we as a civil society survive? People like you are the only ones who can do anything about that — people who care enough to find out the truth.”
Merritt, author of four books on journalism, left the Eagle in 1998, soon after he wrote what he termed his most painful column — one that he said “hastened my early retirement” — explaining why the Eagle’s corporate owners would no longer distribute the paper on a daily basis in distant communities. His 1½-hour presentation, with questions and answers, was sponsored by Marion County Democrats as a non-partisan, community event.