In the 1980s, which now seems so long ago, I was a sabbatical from journalism and, among other tasks, worked for three years as the Special Assistant to the Ranking Member of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee.
At the time, the committee was involved in helping the transfer of the military’s DARPANet information service to the National Science Foundation into what became the Internet. I became part of an informal group that met weekly, in the evenings, at a restaurant and bar in Arlington, VA. A member of that group was a young tech-savvy man named Steve Case, who was building an online service that became America Online.
A topic often discussed in those gatherings was whether or not the internet would become the electronic “information superhighway.” Some, myself included, felt otherwise. If anything, I said, the ‘Net would, at best, become “The Misinformation Manure-filled Cowpath.” We were already seeing how quickly incorrect rumors and lies could spread electronically.
That was more than 30 years ago and, boy, was that feeling correct.
Today, the honcho on right-wing propaganda “news” website Fox News, called Faux News by most real journalists, has admitted knowing that most of what they reported about things like election fraud stealing the 2020 presidential election from disgraced and criminally indicted Donald Trump were lies that they broadcast because of ratings, not truth.
Polls show many Americans now seek “news” from partisan sources that cater to their particular views: Right-wingers flock to Fox News, liberals to MSNBC. Some say they get news from social media sites that are aimed at their partisan viewpoints.
I became a full-time newspaperman in 1962, a time when newspapers were considered the primary source of news and information for most Americans. In those days, you could contact a newspaper to see if they had any openings and if an editor liked your clip file of stories and/or photos, a job could be offered on the same day as the interview.
That happened to me in 1962, when Pete Hallman, then owner of the Floyd Press, looked at my files of photos and stories published as a freelancer, and offered me a job with the paper, even though I was still a student at Floyd County High School
In 1965, as a high-school graduate, the Roanoke Times hired me as a reporter who could also shoot photos. In 1969, a call to the Alton Evening Telegraph in Illinois brought an invitation to fly there at their expense for an interview. Two days later, Managing editor John Focht looked over my clips, we walked for more than two hours and he offered me a job that offered a $ 50-a-week increase in what the Times was paying me.
Fifty bucks more a week was a lot of money in 1969. Hell, it still is today. I worked for the paper for 12 years and they gave me a column to write, first weekly then twice a week.
Nown newspapers are declining. Many have reduced publication days or have folded. Most that still survive are now owned by chains. Lee Enterprises owns The Floyd Press, the Roanoke Times, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Lynchburg News-Advance, the Bristol Herald-Courier, and many other dailies and weeklies in Virginia and elsewhere.
Staffs have shrunk. Many weeklies, including the one in Floyd, have just one full-time employee, the editor. Papers used to cost 25 cents. Now they cost over a dollar, sometimes two or more, with fewer pages and less space for news and photos.
Online news organizations are a mixed bag. I know. I own one, Capitol Hill Blue, considered the oldest political news website on the internet. Does it make money? Of course not.
As a retired newspaperman, I now provide the bulk of my work for free. I last worked for a regular salary in 2004, almost 20 years ago. Friends who have a job at a newspaper often faced forced weeks off without pay time or reductions in their salaries.
These days, this is simply life on the misinformation cowpath.