Why Are US Newspapers Better Than Ours?
A writer at the Daily Mail once told me about her dream story for the paper; one that upsets and angers the reader in equal measure. The Mail is massively successful, selling an average of 1.5 million copies on weekdays, 2.4 million on Saturdays. Only the Sun sells more. Its readers include more from the top social classes (A, B and C1) than the almost anyone. It’s said that Paul Dacre, the editor, instinctively knows which issues and stories will hold the attention of Middle England.
The New Statesman pointed out that in one year (2014) the Mail angrily reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax, that asylum-seekers had targeted Scotland, that disabled babies were being euthanised, that a Tamil refugee on hunger strike was secretly eating burgers, that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his country, that recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming rather than face medicals, that a Portsmouth school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan, that wolves would soon return to Britain, that nearly half the electricity produced by wind farms was discarded. All of these reports were false.
That’s the tip of the iceberg. The paper gets away with publishing thousands of lies while invading privacy because the penalties for doing so are a joke, and they’re rich. Dacre is private, hidden, humourless. There is no dirt to be found on him, or if there is, nobody dares report it. The Mail is filled with nostalgia for an England that never was. Its website is now the most popular news site in the world.
People don’t read because of ideology, and nor should they. They read because of what interests them. But newspaper power is declining rapidly. The Telegraph (which has some fine reporters) has switched to subscription, which will probably pay off for them as they have a moneyed readership. Subscription fails at the lower end of the market. The Mail has cannily not charged for its site, which clearly accounts for much of its readership. People migrate to wherever news is free.
But how can you trust what you read? As a student I wanted to be a journalist, until it looked likely that the ‘two sources’ rule in the UK was to be dropped. Without it most news becomes hearsay, or is at least suspect.
US journalism is generally far better than ours. Its reporters are grounded in generations of integrity. Papers like the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are deeply respected because of their carefully nuanced, accurate journalism. Such newspapers balance politics, economics and social stories, providing an overview of what is happening in their spheres. They do so with an intelligent understanding of their readership that does not pander to base tastes and untrue stories. The New York Times view of British politics is usually far more accurate than anything we produce.
Of course there are bad news outlets in the US as well; the borderline insane Fox Channel is occasionally worth watching for the way it blurs mad opinion and fake facts. But generally speaking, American journalists face a far more rigorous training-up period to become writers on their papers. They win trust and are honoured accordingly. Here we hire ‘celebrity’ columnists who have ghost writers.
But as digital media replaces paper, people are free to choose where they get their news. And often US papers do a better job of covering the UK than we do. It will be interesting to see if UK readers move to better news sources outside the UK. I’m guessing a great many will still want to read about Celebrity Big Brother stars in the Mail Online.