The Books Briefing: Can Democracy Survive Without Journalism?

Journalism faces existential challenges in a polarized society and the digital age: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Newsboy selling the Chicago Defender. (Jack Delano / Library of Congress)

Throughout the summer of 1916, “tired of being kicked and cursed,” tens of thousands of African Americans migrated from the South to the North in hopes of a better life—inspired in no small part by the nation’s leading Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

The paper printed accounts of horrific murders by lynching, and demanded federal military intervention to stop the killings. But after observing the economic impact of Black people leaving the South, The Defender’s publisher, Robert Abbott, became convinced “that migration was at once an effective tactic for hurting the white South and a real opportunity for African Americans to live in freedom,” Ethan Michaeli writes in The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. The newspaper published success stories of men finding employment in the North, as well as encouraging editorial cartoons and poetry, and its readers praised it for its role in the exodus.

The work of The Defender, and in the same era, trailblazing women investigative journalists, show the power of a free press to effect change in a democratic society, even—perhaps especially—in a time of social upheaval. Yet today, many news outlets are struggling to overcome existential challenges and preserve bonds of trust with their readers and viewers.

Franklin Foer makes the case, in his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, that digital media’s constant push for clicks, and the ensuing ad revenue, have affected journalists’ editorial judgment. Viewers have made Fox News the most watched cable network in the country, even as its opinion hosts live in fear of challenging their audience or the president, Brian Stelter argues in a new book based on interviews with more than 140 Fox employees. Meanwhile, once-trusted local newspapers have closed at an astonishing rate, meaning that much of the watchdog reporting that binds communities and holds the powerful to account will simply never be produced, the media critic Margaret Sullivan writes in her book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. Even The Defender, with more than 100 years of public service, hasn’t been immune to the struggles of the digital age: Last summer, it ceased print operations, and now publishes online only.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

A group of African Americans seeking extension work in 1920 (INTERNET ARCHIVE BOOK IMAGES / FLICKR)

The Chicago Defender’s Role in the Great Migration
“The newspaper … ran articles about African Americans dying from cold temperatures in the South, accompanied by editorials that asked: ‘If you can freeze to death in the North and be free, why freeze to death in the South and be a slave? The Defender says come.’”

📚The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, by Ethan Michaeli


The Women Who Made Modern Journalism
“The standards, methods, and collaborative ambitions that fueled the 20th-century journalistic upsurge don’t look quaint at all: They remain as crucial as ever in the effort to hold power accountable.”

📚 Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America, by Stephanie Gorton


When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism
“Journalism has performed so admirably in the aftermath of Trump’s victory that it has grown harder to see the profession’s underlying rot. Now each assignment is subjected to a cost-benefit analysis—will the article earn enough traffic to justify the investment?”

📚 World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer


Do You Speak Fox?
“A former producer tells [Brian] Stelter: ‘We were deathly afraid of our audience leaving, deathly afraid of pissing them off.’ Stelter’s sources describe ‘a TV network that has gone off the rails,’ he writes. ‘Some even said the place that they worked, that they cashed paychecks from, had become dangerous to democracy.’”

📚 Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, by Brian Stelter


The News Is Democracy’s Endangered Species
Margaret Sullivan is “offering an opportunity: to recalibrate our vision. To think of ‘the news’ not as so many Americans are conditioned to, as the stuff of Fox and CNN and The New York Times, but instead as an intimately local proposition.”

📚 Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, by Margaret Sullivan

Correction: The newsletter version of last week’s Books Briefing misstated that Herman Wouk wrote about World War I. In fact, he wrote about World War II.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. The book she’s reading next is Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love With an Animal, by Sarah Maslin Nir.

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