How good are newspapers as corruption-fighters or -preventers? As noted in The Brass Check, a Chicago Tribune reporter actually tried to discredit The Jungle, Upton Sinclair‘s fictionalized depiction of the Chicago Stockyards. Fairly or not, one survey found that four-fifths of Americans do not believe most of what’s in the New York Times—perhaps not so surprising, considering that Darwin hasn’t done that well, either. In The Solomon Scandals, I myself write about a newspaper that covers up for a local real estate tycoon, a builder of rickety high rises.
Just the same, I’d agree with Eduardo Porter’s commentary in the Times, What Newspapers Do, Have Done and Will Do. "Governments in India provide more public food and disaster relief in hard times in states where newspaper circulation is higher," Porter sums up one academic study. Furthermore: "Claudia Goldin and Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago found that between 1870 and 1920, the share of political dailies that claimed to be independent rose from 11 percent to between 40 percent and 60 percent. Corruption, measured by an index of articles mentioning the topic in The Times, plummeted by four-fifths over this period."
A cause-effect relationship? I think so, even though the Porter article does not flesh one out. If newspapers fade away—both on paper and the Internet—could new kinds of online activities replace them entirely? I’m skeptical. I don’t think that foundation-supported efforts and citizen journalists can serve as full substitutes for the rigorous, sustained scrutiny that politicians require, even when they’re revered. Some brief thoughts on that topic, among many others, appear in The Jonathan Stone-David Rothman Q&A.