Free societies need an Agora: Knightfall: Knight Ridder and how the erosion of newspaper journalism is putting democracy at risk

By Davis Merrit

Born in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina

Graduated in 1958 from the University of North Carolina

(born 1936?) ~ 83 years old

Adjunct journalism professor at University of Kansas and Witchita State

~Live in Wichita, Kansas?

21 N Cypress Dr, Wichita, KS?

316-686-4728 ?



A free press is essential to a functioning democracy. A function democracy is essential to a free press.  They synergy of these two ideas is important because a free society cannot determine its course — that is,, self-determination does not exist — without three things: shared, relevant information; an agora (that is, a place or mechanism where the implications of information can be discussed); and shared values (at a minimum, a belief in personal liberty itself).


Coming to Public Judgement is the title of a seminal book in which Daniel Yankelovich explains the phenomenon of public judgement and how it is formed. Published in 1991, it demonstrates that the democratic way of dealing with problems is to strive for a resolution that

(end: page 17)

everyone can live with; that benefits more people than it harms; that recognizes and allows for differing opinions and values but nevertheless helps settle the issue so the public’s business can move on.

Public judgement,, Yankelovich explains, is far more complex than mere opinion. In his three decades of research into public opinion preceding publication of the book, he developed ways to distinguish between off-the-cuff public opinion, as reflected in most statistical surveys, and true public judgement.

A public judgement is “the state of highly developed public opinion that exists once people have engaged in an issue, considered it from all sides, understood the choices it leads to, and accepted the full consequences of the choices they make.

Reaching public judgement about important and complex issues can take years or only hours. For instance, Americans reached public judgement about women’s rights decades ago after more than a century of debate, but aligning that determination with life’s realities is still a work in progress. On the other hand, surveys showed that public judgement on Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was almost instantaneous and supportive.

.. True public judgement, once arrived at, reflects values at least as much as it reflects information because of the complex way in which the public arrives at the judgement, Yankelovich contends. The process involves three stages: consciousness raising, working through, and resolution. He describes them this way:

Consciousness raising is “the stage in which the public learns about an issue and becomes aware of its existence and meaning .. When one’s consciousness is raised, not only does awareness grow but so does concern and readiness for action.” In other words, people decide: We must do something about this. But what? And how?

Working through can be complex and time-consuming, for it involves individuals having second thoughts — that is, “resolving the conflict between impulse and prudence”; accepting new (and sometimes unsettling) realities; and resolving conflicts among the competing values that they hold. In other words, working through involves cognitive, emotional, and moral calculations.

Resolution occurs only after successful consciousness raising and working through, and the accumulated mass of that effort then reflects a public judgement.

Consciousness raising — which journalists are good at and dearly love — does not alone lead to public judgement. The working-through phase is essential. So when newspapers, either deliberately or by lack

( end: page 19)

of insight or public service orientation, limit their role to merely calling attention to things and flit, hummingbird-like, from one issue to the next, the process begins to break down; public judgements rare not given time to mature; the working-through process is time-consuming, expensive, and full of risk. It is not the sort of thing that newspapers can do with one eye always on the bottom line.


For decades, the mantra that people in journalism delivered to people who thought they wanted to be in journalism went something like this: You won’t get rich and you probably won’t be famous, but you can make a difference and have a lot of fun in the process.

(page 132)


Seeing Richard Nixon as a prototype rather than an anomaly, journalists began a two-decade-long practice of treating all political figures at any level as potential suspects in the next Whatever-Gate. The journalistic norm became “We catch crooks.” Scalps on the belt, particularly government scalps, were the sign of rank and the measure of testosterone at gatherings of the journalistic tribe. The democratic process, which had been superbly served by the Watergate reporting, was enveloped in a flood of self-indulgent and self-serving efforts by journalists-cum-cops to find a bogeyman under every government and institutional bed.

.. Journalism also learned from Watergate that, unlike the era of Chester S. Lord, journalists could indeed become both wealthy and famous, a realization that would turn the occasional knaves or fools who sneaked into the profession into an army of wanna-bees much more sinister and difficult to deal with: serial liars, cheats, and thieves driven by reckless ambition and bereft of the restraint and respect for intellectual honesty that guided most of their predecessors.

In the first thirty-five years of my experience in daily news-papering, I did not encounter any such liars, cheats, and thieves, or at least

(page 137)

was not aware of the if they workd around or for me. In the last ten years of my experience, they were everywhere infecting a business, and a society, that seemed to have no useful serum for combating them.

(page 138)


Hodding Carter III is president and chief executive officer of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has within its mission the improvement of American journalism through many mechanisms, including endowed chairs at journalism schools. Carter is also, by genetics and training, a newspaperman inflamed by the idea of journalism as a public trust. And he’s angry about what is happening to newspaper journalism. In a speech at Kent State University in April 2001, he argued that newspaper companies need not march to Wall Street’s drumbeat of ever-increasing profits.

It is a fallacy, said Carter that newspaper companies “must accept the market’s logic and demands,” and went on to say:

Actually you don’t [have to accept it], as long as you’re not emphasizing profit growth as masculinity surrogate, a macho game of “my profit growth is bigger than yours.”  The Washington Post goes to the market. The New York Times goes to the market. Neither comes close to the profit margins the market allegedly demands. Neither will as long as current management endures. Both these great newspapers prosper and lead.

What it takes is a little guts. A little cohesion among media managers and all would echo [Washington Post CEO] Dom Graham’s remarks to Wall Street analysts not long ago. You want profits, he told the. We want profits. But we know what matters. Our journalism is not the focus of your interests, but it is the focus of min, and it is better than ever. It’s going to stay that way.

Let me put a proposition to you. Today, GM averages around a 5 percent to 6 percent profit.. Suppose GM went to 20 to 25 percent. Would you buy its cars? Would you believe the product was as good at a 25 percent return as a product at 5 percent? And yet the newspaper industry has doubled what used to be the acceptable profit margin, well past what we routinely call “obscene profits” in the oil industry in days gone by, and things it can’t live below 25 percent.

Of course, the way Wall Street see it is determinative for

( end: page 223)

some. Terry Smith of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer did a segment on the issue of newspaper profits.  Well, he ask the bright analyst, what margin does Wall Street expect from a publicly held newspaper company? If they average in the twenties, is that enough? No she replied, it’s never enough, of course, This is Wall Street we’re talking about.

Precisely. And what we should be talking about is journalism in the public interest.

(page 224)