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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Serving those seeking truth

by Philip Martin | November 14, 2021 at 2:20 a.m.

A friendly correspondent points out that about six percent of Arkansas' population subscribes to a newspaper.

I don't doubt it for a minute. According to the Pew Research Center, only three percent of Americans cited newspapers as their primary source of information in 2020. That's compared to eight percent that cited the radio and 45 percent who said they got their news from television.

So, congratulations. You are a self-selected elite. On average, you have more money and education than the people who aren't reading newspapers. The studies say you're older too; you remember when bars and restaurants gave away matchbooks and had pay phones.

This information is kind of depressing. More than 300 American newspapers closed in 2020. At least 6,000 journalists have lost their jobs since the pandemic hit us hard in March 2020.

But we're still standing. And there's nothing to do about this than to try to do the best work you can. And maybe hope some of it blows up on social media. It would help if you could share and retweet and all that, but I understand if you can't. After all, like the studies say, you're pretty old. You probably still have landlines and consult the TV Guide.

Otherwise you wouldn't be here. You'd be out there on the 'Gram.

Or TikTok. Or some app that none of us have heard of yet.

But you're here. And I'm glad; I don't know how to communicate with an audience that doesn't read the newspaper, that gets its news from glowing screens and shout shows. I don't have to dumb things down for you; you could feel it (and be insulted by it) if I did.

And I take some comfort in the knowledge that newspapers have been dying ever since I got in the business. When I joined the staff of the Shreveport Journal in 1982, most of my colleagues seemed convinced the newspaper was unlikely to survive the decade. We just figured we'd hang in as long as we could and then we'd find something else to do.

And a lot of us did find other things to do--for about six months I even took a management job responsible for hiring and firing people and schmoozing civic leaders at Rotary Club lunches.

That wasn't for me, so I took a vow of poverty and went back to writing for a living because I liked it and there were people who would pay me to do it. I'm not someone who feels called to uncover corruption and serve the public interest. I didn't set out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable or any of that self-regarding booshwallawalla. I just like to write nonfiction stories, to try to say something true about the world as it seems to me. Someone else can decide whether they serve any public interest or not. It's not my job to save the world.

I feel the world is pretty much doomed, that mankind is too tribal and selfish a species not to exhaust its resources and turn the planet into a dust ball sooner or later. The earth's last great hope is some catastrophic event that kills us off as effectively as whatever killed the dinosaurs. And that could happen; the odds are probably better than even that human beings eventually do something stupid with atoms or biological agents and wipe themselves out.

I hope that doesn't happen for at least 50 years or so, but I wouldn't bet on it not happening.

Apres the Anthropocene, maybe the earth could heal. It would take a while; we'd leave behind a nasty legacy. Some scientists think we're already past the tipping points and that climate change will accelerate even if we never emit another molecule of CO2.

Then there's our nuclear plants. About 450 nuclear reactors around the world will start to melt down as soon as the fuel runs out in the emergency generators supplying them with coolant. That's 450 Cherynobyls waiting to happen. We don't really have much of an idea what that might mean; maybe the best case would be giant ants like in "Them!" (Warner Bros.' highest-grossing film of 1954).

Then there are the more banal terrors of oil spills, gas leaks and chemical pollution caused by the inevitable failure of the man-made devices to keep them contained. So we'll keep plaguing the earth for a while--a few decades or centuries after we're gone.

But eventually our cities will crumble, our fields will be reclaimed by jungles. Our monuments will topple. Our bridges will collapse. Nature will break down what it can and bury the rest.

So maybe it doesn't matter so much that only six percent of Arkansans read the newspaper. That's better than it is some other places.

I never had any illusions about my capacity to change anything. The job is really to point things out. And usually you're pointing out things that other people have already noticed. Maybe someone is moved to do something because they read about an issue in a newspaper--like love at first sight, it happens all the time--but it's a fool who thinks they can sway public opinion.

The public holds the opinion it wants to hold, in part because no matter how smooth-running crazy or stupid dumb an idea is, you can always find someone out there with a microphone selling precisely that take. Because they know there's a freakin' market for it.

They tend to talk a lot about "common sense" and how you ought to be scared of everything. Or about how everything is all going to work out fine because it always does no matter what the snooty scientists say. Or about how the historians are just trying to hurt our feelings by telling you about all the bad things our great grandaddies did back when they didn't know no better.

And yeah, some of those salesmen also publish in newspapers. So caveat emptor, y'all. (Right here, I was going to make a joke and say: "That's Greek for 'count your change.' But then I thought maybe the focus groups were right, and the joke would fly right over your heads. Or maybe worse, someone would write a letter to the editor correcting me. I know it's really Latin, not Greek.)

It's OK with me that only six percent of the population subscribes to the newspaper. So long as it's the six percent that's prepared to hear something like the truth.


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