Monday, June 9, 2014

Newspapers, Sports, and Healthy Societies

Everywhere I've lived I've subscribed to the local newspaper. I do so because I think it's important to be informed about what's happening in my community, and because buying the local paper is like a voluntary tax you pay when you love democracy.  It funds investigative reporting about local politics, which, while imperfect, is one of the keys to fighting corruption.

I have caught some of de Tocqueville's enthusiasm for the way journalism can pump the lifeblood of a free society.  Subscription to one's local paper is an act of patriotism.  It is a commonplace of contemporary life in the United States to say that our freedom is won and preserved by soldiers.  But this is, at best, only partly true, and history shows that armed men can both help and hinder freedom.  Armies may be helpful, but there are other services that are more essential to freedom: lawyers, educators, and journalists. 

But my idealism concerning journalism contends with my cynicism.  Publishers of news are, after all, publishers; and publishers must pay their bills, too.  They've got to sell ads, which means they can't risk offending those who buy ads.  Right now we are in one of those times when there are a very few companies that own very many of the news outlets, and it's hard to imagine that doesn't affect both the slant of news stories told and the way those stories are selected and omitted in the first place.  And they've got to print what we want to buy. 

All this is a prelude to something else I have in mind to write over the next few days, about the relationship between sports and education, a question at least as old as Plato's Republic. I begin here by noting the role sports play in our news.  How much of television news is devoted to sports?  On any given day, a third of my local newspaper reports local and national and international sports stories. 

This raises several questions for me. Why does this hold such fascination for us?  And is our fascination with sports healthy?  

Since some of what I will say about sports will seem critical, let me point out that I'm not opposed to sports.  I'm a member of a society devoted to philosophy and sport, and I love outdoor recreation.  I swam for the varsity team in my high school; I played club ultimate in college; I encouraged my kids to play various sports like flag football, gymnastics, little league, and soccer throughout their youth; and I am now the faculty advisor for my college's martial arts club and I am a U-19 recreational league soccer coach in my city.  Sports are important; but that does not mean that all the attention we give to sports is well given. 

So, once again, I begin with noticing the attention our newspapers give to sports.  Plainly we need our journalists to attend to judges and legislators, to governors and police departments, because all of those are public offices endowed with public trust.  Journalists are one of the main ways we prevent the violation of that trust.  So what about sports?  Is the presence (we could even say the domination) of sporting news merely a distraction from the real work of journalism?  Is it a necessary evil to get us to buy the paper and to support the important democratic work of reporting? 

One could argue that we need newspapers to watch athletes and coaches and owners of athletic teams to ensure that their influence on society is not unjust.  But this cuts both ways: were it not for the attention we already give to sport, the influence of athletes, coaches, and owners would be minimal.  The fact that newspapers report so much about sport is the symptom; we ourselves, and our attention to sport are the cause.  It is not something called "sport" that is at issue here, nor the leaning of the journalists, but rather, the attention we ourselves pay it.  If newspapers are physicians of our civic life, then we are the patient; and the doctor can only do so much to make us healthy if we will not do our part, too.

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