Mencken is supposed to have said that it's a newspaper's job to comfort the afflicted—and to afflict the comfortable. On the dismaying evidence of Underwood's thoughtful survey of the user- friendly pap that now passes for print journalism, the famed editor's sly canon has become a very dead letter. A working reporter for 13 years before he began teaching at the University of Washington, Underwood offers a sobering appraisal of the newspaper business that—if not quite as lively as Howard Kurtz's Media Circus (p. 279)—is appreciably more systematic and better documented. Paying close attention to the influence of a former employer (Gannett and its USA Today) as well as TV, the author focuses on how a new breed of market-minded, profit-oriented executives has changed the face and shoddied the editorial content of newspapers throughout the country. Covered as well is the flashy makeover's impact on newsrooms that once were havens for nonconformist mavericks informed by a love of good writing and an absolute conviction that they were rendering an essential public service. Now, Underwood concludes, only team players willing to see their prose homogenized beyond all individual recognition need apply. In what appears to be triumph of hope over experience, the author closes on an upbeat note, pointing out that newspapers not only meet social and psychic needs but also set the agendas for broadcast media in today's wired-up world. A first-rate critique of the infotainment/customer trap into which commercialism has lured many of the metropolitan dailies owned by conglomerates rather than by proprietors who view their equity as a trust.
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