David Remnick, a great reporter, writer and editor, talks about the New Yorker, where journalism is going and paying for news online. It’s an interesting interview, all the more so because it’s a transcript, not an article.

Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, misrepresented his service record — claiming to have served in Vietnam when, in fact, he did not.

Chris Matthews, on Hardball Tuesday night, had smoke blowing out his ears, condemning Blumenthal’s misrepresentation as “unspeakable”. Matthews couldn’t contain his outrage — “I don’t know how you could lie about such a thing.” The only moral course for Blumenthal, Matthews suggested, was to fall on his sword, and if he doesn’t, then the Senate — that body of high virtue and moral standards — maybe should refuse to seat him if he’s elected. “The United States Senate cannot take on the morally dead weight of this candidate without honor.”

Blumenthal received five deferments from the draft before joining a United States Marine Corps Reserve unit in Washington, DC in 1970. He served six months active duty, going through Marine boot camp at Parris Island, and then attended Reserve meetings and participated in summer exercises for six years. He did not serve in Vietnam, never heard a shot fired in anger, and never apparently was in danger of losing his life while on active duty.

Blumenthal has been Connecticut’s attorney general for 19 years. He has on at least one occasion in public alluded to having served in Vietnam. He characterized his misrepresentation in a news conference on Tuesday as “misplaced words”. On at least one other occasion, while debating on television, Blumenthal stated that he did not serve in Vietnam. Today he apologized for having “misspoken” about having served there and said he regretted doing it.

Misrepresenting your service record is bad, especially falsely claiming to have been in combat. Let’s get that out of the way. But doing so doesn’t make Blumenthal a moral leper. He wasn’t a traitor to his country. He didn’t sell nuclear secrets to the Russians or give aid and comfort to the enemy. In fact, in the end he didserve, albeit in a cushy kind of way.

And, before I get to my big wind-up, a little full disclosure. I served in the United States Marine Corps from 1966 until 1968. In truth, I was drafted into the Marine Corps. Yes, the Marine Corps doesn’t like to broadcast the fact, but they do draft when they need more than a few good men, and I guess I was good enough. No, I did not go to Vietnam. I went to Norway, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, but not to Vietnam. I didn’t do anything to get out of it and I didn’t try to go, either. While I was in the Mediterranean with a battalion landing team for six months, I did get orders to Vietnam, but they were canceled because I was already deployed in what was considered an equivalent activity. Go figure.

To the best of my memory I have never claimed to have been in Vietnam. I did think, for the first year of my enlistment, that I would surely be going there. I lucked out, or missed out, depending on your point of view.

But enough about me.

My recollection from the late ’60s is that a lot of young men of Blumenthal’s age tried to avoid going into the military. They didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Vietnam was, when all is said and done, a stupid war. A lot of young Americans and a whole lot of Vietnamese were killed or maimed for no good reason. My hat comes off for those who did serve even though, in the end, their sacrifice served no good purpose for the country that sent them there to fight.

Now, how about Chris Matthews? Was he, as he put it in his Tuesday television harangue, “in it”? Actually, no. Chris didn’t go to Vietnam. He didn’t go into the Marines, or the Army, Navy or Air Force. Chris went into the Peace Corps and served in Africa from 1968 until 1970. Peace Corps service is national service and having served is definitely something to be proud of.

But if Chris Matthews thinks it was so important to be “in it” back then, why wasn’t he “in it”? He could have enlisted. What was on his mind when he joined the Peace Corps? (For those too young to know or who have forgotten, Peace Corps service generally got you out of the draft back then).

Can we get over this now, please? Vietnam was 40 years ago. Shame, shame on Richard Blumenthal for misrepresenting, or misspeaking or whatever he did. He has nothing to be proud of as far as that goes.

But who appointed Chris Matthews the spokesman for duty, honor and country? Come on down, Chris. Save the moral indignation and hot air for something truly disgraceful. Plenty of opportunities will present themselves in the days and months ahead. You can count on it.

Does Elena Kagan eat meat? Is she a vegetarian, or a vegan? Does she observe Jewish dietary laws? Does she keep the Sabbath?

I’d like to know, and I’m sure other Americans would like to know the answer to these questions. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how many Americans without doing a poll to find out. Apparently, some Americans would also like to know whether or not Elena Kagan is a lesbian. After all, she’s 50 and isn’t married. Does she date anyone of the opposite sex? If she does, aren’t we entitled to know whether she sleeps with this person? Once again, we don’t know how many Americans are interested in these questions, but that ignorance does not prevent some (there it is again) in the media from claiming that hordes of Americans want to know.

That begs the question, if people want to know, are they entitled to an answer? Actually, no. Just because they want to know and think they have a right to know doesn’t mean that they should be satisfied. Well, the answer goes, that’s part of their value system, and regardless of whether or not I care about the question, they do.

If she’s a lesbian, maybe that predisposes her to favor gay marriage and gay adoptions. So she would be biased in that way. But wait. If she isn’t a lesbian and favors gay marriage and gay adoption and believes that gays and lesbians are entitled to equal protection under the law, then what? In other words, if she can arrive at the same position without being a lesbian, why would the same position be discredited if she were a lesbian?

We know that she’s not going to be asked questions about her sexual orientation during her confirmation hearings, and, even if she were, she wouldn’t answer them. Nor, in all likelihood will she answer questions with any specificity about abortion rights, healthcare, the commerce clause of the Constitution or reading defendants their Miranda rights. The custom now is for Supreme Court nominees to reveal as little as possible about their beliefs and constitutional philosophy in their confirmation hearings. They may even obfuscate and dissemble. See, for example, the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

So apparently some members of the media have come forward to guard the public interest by raising questions about nominees and speculating, whether or not the questions or the speculation have any relevance to the qualifications of the nominee.

The Supreme Court now has six Roman Catholics sitting on it. Once upon a time in America, that would have brought mobs out into the streets. Now, hardly anyone notices. A justice’s religious beliefs may or may not influence his or her thinking in coming to a decision, but the entire panoply of our experiences influences our thinking and decisions. Why focus on one aspect of a person’s character or experience and elevate that to paramount importance?

And even if, and it’s a big if, some group, because of its value system, demands to know one thing or another of questionable relevance about a nominee, the media are not obligated to raise the question. We’re here to exercise judgment and—excuse me for exhibiting a little elitism here—tell people what we think they need to know, which isn’t the same thing as what they may want to know. People seem to want to know a great many things about public officials that are of questionable value to the well being and future of the Republic.

Let’s not confuse the desire to know with the need to know.

He tells Howard Kurtz that it was a hazing. Is there any reason to expect that the second year will be better? The good news is that the Post lost less money in the first quarter of this year. The bad news is that the Post is still losing money.

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, has written a nice piece in the wake of last week’s announcement that The Washington Post was putting the magazine up for sale. Someone, or some group of someones, may well buy it. The point I’m most interested in from Meacham’s piece is:

“There is a place for NEWSWEEK in some form in a fragmented culture. We represent an opportunity to focus the attention of a large number of people on a single topic. The moment of focus may be fleeting, but there are fewer and fewer common denominators left in American life, and the conversation is not going to be enriched by having fewer still. We are not the only catcher in the rye standing between democracy and the abyss of ignorance and despair.” (my emphasis)

That statement may be a little melodramatic, but Meacham’s entirely correct. At the risk of repeating myself (again), the point is precisely that we need a common pool of information and a common point of departure in focusing on the myriad issues confronting us. The challenge for the media is restoring the public’s trust that we’re presenting a fair, balanced and comprehensive account of whatever issue we’re discussing (and I mean truly fair and balanced). Unfortunately, we have few institutions that still command universal public respect. Have our institutions become m0re corrupt, or have they always been as they are now and we just know more about them? One thing is for sure, we can’t on the one hand demand total purity on the part of our public servants and then on the other hand search for any impurity, however slight or minor, to discredit them. Men and women of goodwill will decide, as many have, that the game isn’t worth the effort if their reward will be a splash of mud all over them.

The other point I’m interested in from Meacham’s piece is this:

“… the task now is to find the right economic and digital means to meet our traditional ends while trying to discover a sustainable business model. ”

I’m not sure exactly what he means. Obviously, any enterprise has to be able to pay its bills to survive, regardless of whether it’s a profit-making business or one sustained by an angel of one kind or another. It would be better all around for the enterprise to be profit-making because that would show, among other things, that it’s meeting the wants and needs of its audience and not simply indulging some elite’s whims or interest. When Meacham says “the right digital means” though, is he being deliberately obtuse? He published his piece on “the right digital means”, so where is the mystery? The task is to present a product that will bring enough paying customers back on a regular basis to show a profit and keep the ‘publication’ (if that is the right word in this context) going. Newsweek, or any other magazine, has to recognize the expectation that readers have been encouraged to develop that something new and interesting will be there for them to read whenever they turn to a publication. And they’re not going to wait until Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday morning or afternoon every week to get it.

This is the venue, for better or worse, where Newsweek and all the other magazines and newspapers have to sink or swim. And they will just have to get better and quicker at presenting whatever they are doing in order to stay afloat. And readers, as I have said too many times already, will have to get used to the idea that they’re going to have to pay for information. In the best of all possible worlds, maybe information would be free. In this one, it isn’t.

Today’s announcement that The Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale is obviously another indication of how the news business is changing. Newsweek already had scaled back and was in the process of becoming a digital operation, with the print edition taking a back seat. It was losing money, though, and according to the statement of Don Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company, the Post didn’t see a way that it could reverse the trend.

News magazines may have outlived their usefulness in a world where anyone can have access to up-to-the-minute news reports 24/7. Waiting a week to read what you already know doesn’t make much sense, and there are so many voices out their already commenting that the loss of a couple of weekly voices may not seem to matter much.

HOWEVER.

Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, appeared on the Daily Show tonight to talk about the sale, what’s going on in journalism and the importance of publications like Newsweek to American democracy. He made two points that have been made here in the past couple of weeks. 1) that if people aren’t ready to pay for news, “they should be prepared to get a different kind of news”; and, 2) that in an increasingly fragmented world, Newsweek and other publications like it constitute a source of information that people have in common.

We need to be drawing on the same pool of information if we’re going to have any kind of dialogue. Meacham repeated another point made here, that the informati0n may not be accurate 100 percent of the time in a publication like Newsweek, or The Washington Post, or Time, or the New York Times, but they make an honest effort to get it right and avoid blatant bias.

We need to hear facts that we may not like, and we need to get used to the idea that there’s no free lunch. Someone has to pay for all those reporters running around–occasionally risking their lives–to gather information. They love their jobs, of course, but they have to eat and support their families. If no one wants to pay them, they’ll have to find another line of work. Once again, quoting King Lear, nothing comes from nothing.

Warren Buffett, whose company owns the Buffalo News, expresses his amazement at how quickly newspapers are losing ground. Buffett is obviously very astute as an investor, but he shouldn’t be so surprised. Newspapers have been fumbling around for 20 years while they lost readership. It began before the Internet was a factor, so it can’t all be blamed on technology. Something will eventually serve the function that newspapers filled for more than 200 years in this country, although the transition is obviously rocky. The desire and need to know is too great for the void not to be filled.

Technology has made it possible for more than 150 years to report news immediately. Anyone who could receive telegraph messages could know what was going on in a particular place almost to the minute. The problem was that most people didn’t have telegraph machines in their homes. When radio came along, people could also receive news immediately as it happened. The problem was that people who listened to the radio were interested in more than news, and it wasn’t commercially viable for radio stations to report news only. Even if they could, the volume of news that they could report was limited. Even if it was unlimited, if you weren’t listening to news when a particular report was made, and it wasn’t repeated, then you missed it. Ditto for television.

The difference is that the Internet can present news immediately. It’s always there when you want to read it, or watch it, or listen to it. (It’s multi media, in other words, as well as being immediate). And people can receive it almost anywhere now using machines that aren’t very expensive. Newspapers have lost their preeminent position as the necessary intermediary for comprehensive information.

The problem is that the prevailing notion with the Internet is that information should be free–free to consumers that is. But, to raise this question again, who’s going to pay the cost of gathering the information? That’s the heart of the matter. And if newspapers continue to fade away, we still don’t have an answer to that question.

Briefly Noted

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I’ll have more to say about this later, but I wanted to call attention to two recent articles about what’s going on in the news biz. First is an AP story about declining circulation. Second is a talk given by Bo Jones, former publisher and now vice chairman of The Washington Post, my alma mater, about how the Post may approach charging for online news. Personally, I think newspapers missed the boat when they drank the Internet Kool Aid about how “information” should be free on the Internet. Once they all jumped on the bandwagon, they couldn’t get off, and they couldn’t talk to each other about it without running the risk of antitrust violations. Newspapers would have been having problems regardless–they already were–but the Internet made them worse, and bad decisions by newspapers only aggravated the situation.

Sunday’s New York Times brings a book review by Bill Keller of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley. In the process of reviewing the book, Keller refers to the divergence between the old journalism where “a significant population of serious people feel the need for someone with training, experience and standards–reporters and editors–to help them dig up and sort through the news, identify what;’s important and make sense of it” on one side and the new journalism, thanks to the Internet where anyone can write what they want about what they want about anything without having to filter their writing through anyone else.

With the old journalism, Keller says, “the authority of professional journalists is both a valuable convenience for readers without the time or inclination to manage a tsunami of information on their own, and a civic good, in that a democracy needs a shared base of trustworthy information upon which to make its judgments.”

I’ve tried to argue much the same here. A cadre of professional interests, of course, constitute an elite, and in a democracy elitism and elites pose problems. Nevertheless, we can’t all be experts on everything. That’s why we have physicians, dentists, mechanics, tax preparers and, lamentably perhaps, lawyers. For quite some time Americans were content to allow an elite–or a few elites–to run domestic and foreign affairs, trusting (a word to which I will return) them to look out for the public’s interest. Some portion of the population, of course, disagreed with the elites and thought government wasn’t being run to further everyone’s interests. That’s to be expected in a democracy.

One of the elites was the group of people who watched the other elites and reported on what they were doing, not always completely, or accurately or even fairly, but enough of the time that the public usually had a good sense of what was going on. And, for the most part, the public trusted the information that this informing elite–journalists–provided them.

The key word here is trust. People for the most part trusted “the press” or the media as the press came to be called and they trusted their government. When they didn’t trust the government, because it was a democracy, they threw them out of office and chose another bunch to govern.

In those days, the public had a common reservoir of information to draw on. There were differences from one newspaper to another and then from one television network to another, but the basic pool was the same. As time went on, journalists developed standards, ethics and other best practices that became engrained in the profession.

The Internet changes all of that . One no longer needs a printing press, or a television or radio station to communicate with the rest of the world. Anyone can communicate anything to everyone, or at least to those who care to visit the communicator’s blog or website or read an email. There’s no one to ask the communicator “How do you know this?” or “Where did you hear this” or inquire about the reliability of the source. Correspondingly, we don’t know how reliable the information is or what the motive of the communicator might be.

Obviously, the old way wasn’t perfect. Information printed by newspapers or magazines more than once in a blue moon wasn’t accurate, complete or fair. Henry Luce had his own view of the world and when the facts didn’t conform to it, he tried to make the reporting reflect what he believed to be true. People knew that, however. They learned to take what Time magazine reported with a grain of salt because they knew the source and could evaluate the information accordingly. And Time was only one of a number of publications and other news sources. People had choices, but not so many that they were bewildered by them and couldn’t possibly sift through them all or determine what was accurate and what wasn’t.

So, the information elite has been shattered. Keller characterized the amount of news out there as a tsunami. Good word. Now we have the potential for a tsunami of communicators out there bringing us “information.” Are we better off?