In the mid-1950s, William Greider worked for a couple of summers as a reporter at the Cincinnati Post, an afternoon newspaper that was the flagship of the scrappy Scripps-Howard chain.
Greider came from an affluent, Republican Cincinnati suburb, and was spending the non-summer months as a student at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1958. The other reporters at the Post didn't have backgrounds like that. They had generally grown up in the city proper or in grittier surrounding areas, and started out at the paper as copy boys right after high school. They were pro-union, pro-police and anti-politician. None was black, few were women, and the paper they produced was relentlessly parochial. But it did, Greider recalled decades later, "cast itself as a representative voice" of "the people who were least likely to be heard on political issues."
By the 1970s, Greider was working at another Post, the one in Washington. Virtually all the reporters there had college degrees, many from fancy places like Princeton. The newspaper they produced was sophisticated and at times brilliant, and some of its journalists were disrespectful enough of authority to help topple a president. But by burnishing the paper's reputation and authority, Watergate may actually have accelerated its transition to pillar of the Washington establishment, a representative voice not so much of the people as of those who governed them.
For a paper based in the nation's capital that approach made a certain amount of sense - the Post was arguably serving its readers. But as most of the rest of the news media, especially at the national level, followed a similar path of credentialization, professionalization and cozying up to power, it left a lot of its audience behind, Greider argued:
I have always thought [this] is a central element feeding the collective public resentment that surrounds the news media. People sense the difference, even if they cannot identify it. Conservative critics usually call it a "liberal bias" in the press, but I think it may be more accurately understood as social distance.
This is all from Greider's 1992 book, "Who Will Tell the People." It is far from his best work, but good enough that, weeks before the sad news that he had died last Wednesday at 83, I had pulled it off the shelf to reread the parts on the news media.
The instigation was another book, historian Brian Rosenwald's recently published "Talk Radio's America." In Rosenwald's telling, conservative talk radio rose to prominence not as the result of some vast right-wing conspiracy but "because it made better business sense than the alternatives." Lots of Americans were hungry for something other than what the increasingly elitist mainstream media was offering, and radio talkers such as Rush Limbaugh were able to deliver it on a cost-effective basis.
Limbaugh and a few others of course soon became so successful that they formed a new elite; the subtitle of Rosenwald's book is "How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States." And the overall evolution of the news media since the early 1990s - with the rise of not just talk radio but also cable TV news, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other new-media phenomena, along with the precipitous decline of regional and local newspapers - is I think the single best explanation for why U.S. politics have become so fractured and dysfunctional. Most Americans' policy views don't divide neatly along partisan lines, the cultural distance between different groups in the U.S. has grown modestly if at all, and it appears that those who follow the news most closely have the most distorted picture of what followers of the other political party believe. The changes in how we communicate have been much bigger than those in how we think and act.
Before one starts waxing nostalgic, though, it's useful to return to Greider's clear-eyed view of the state of affairs in 1992. Among other things, he described how what had once been a great variety of daily newspapers aiming to serve very different groups of readers had consolidated into a smaller number of publications "with an angle of vision that presumes an idyllic class-free community - a city where everyone has more or less the same view on things."
This is a variant of what media critic Jay Rosen later dubbed "the view from nowhere," and it seems like a recipe for eventual irrelevance. Greider chose to break from it, leaving the Washington Post in 1982 to become national editor of Rolling Stone and later writing for the leftist Nation. He applauded those who did the same, even if their views didn't coincide with his own. In reporting "Who Will Tell the People," he spent time with left-libertarian Los Angeles talk radio host Tom Leykis and took notice of rising national star Limbaugh, whose syndicated show aired on the same station. "Despite their differences," he wrote, "Leykis and Limbaugh are essentially delivering the same message - flipping the bird at power - and they are speaking to the same audience, the vast sea of disaffected and impotent citizens." (Greider didn't mention this, but Leykis and Limbaugh were also both college dropouts.)
The rise of "personal computer networks" would offer yet more such opportunities to "empower ordinary citizens," Greider predicted on the same page, but allowed that he wasn't sure "whether the new culture created by modern communications will someday lead to revitalized democracy or simply debase the imperfect politics that already existed."
These days, of course, it can sometimes seem like it's been debasement all the way. Greider remained an optimist nonetheless, and I'm all for clinging to hope too. I ended up an economics journalist in part because of a class I took with him - at, yeah, Princeton - as he was finishing up his masterfully subversive history of the Federal Reserve, "Secrets of the Temple." In that field, at least, my impression is that the quality of coverage and diversity of viewpoints represented are both greater now than in the 1990s. The audience for most of it remains pretty rarefied, though. Working-class journalism on the model of the old Cincinnati Post is something that hasn't quite been reinvented yet.
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Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker.