Dear Mr. Safire:
Re your observations, "America's quality [news] media are now wading through the Slough of Despond. Our self-flagellation, handwringing and narcissism threaten our mission to act as counterweight to government power."
It should not be the mission of the news media to act as a counterweight to government power; that mission belongs to the electorate. The mission of the news media should be to inform the citizen public about events that critically impact the public.
There are good reporters. Yet somehow it happened that the Establishment became the employer of many who believe that a reporter's job is to place the American government in the dock.
The upshot was plainly evident on the morning of September 11, 2001, when millions of Americans stared in disbelief at their television sets and told themselves that the plane must be off course. Even after seeing the second plane, millions of Americans still couldn't believe that it was attack. That's how poorly the US new media had done their job in the decade running up to 9/11. So Americans had to learn the hard way that the world's lone superpower nation had a news media fit only for a banana republic.
What you call "quality" media became a tabloid for Beltway food fights. The major American press and television news build front pages and newscasts around the day's food fight and call that "the daily news." They do this to such an extent it's not worth a busy person's time to routinely follow the Establishment news outlets--not if staying informed about vital news is the goal.
Thus, I came across your January 17 opinion piece only by clicking on a link on Drudge's site, which led me to Der Spiegel's online post of your piece for The New York Times.
I interject that if the Times thinks they can routinely get my attention via an "exchange" arrangement with Spiegel Online and similar attempts to ape the format of new news media, they are wrong. I almost clicked out of the Spiegel site immediately on seeing the Times banner. It was only the title given your piece, The Depressed Press , which staved off the mouse click.
That doesn't mean I never read reports in the Times. But to find the occasional informative sentence embedded in a Times report, I depend on trustworthy "new" news media researchers and analysts to do the digging. I don't have the time to sift paragraphs of opinion and Beltway tabloid news just so I can mine a few bits of data I can pick up more quickly and easily from other sources.
With regard to the self-flagellation, handwringing and narcissism--well, if the media you term quality were actually quality, they wouldn't have time for all that, would they? This is in consideration that America is at war, and that the Establishment spent the decade running up to 9/11 depending greatly on the BBC for news and views about what's happening outside American shores. So the Establishment should have no time for anything but to catch up and help the American public catch up.
This observation brings me to your remark that "clean government needs a snooping adversary..."
No, Mr. Safire. Just being a snoop and an adversary leads to the media becoming a pawn of the factions that most need watchdogging. Clean government requires a professional news media doing their job.
It seems to me that the slough of despond is mostly pique that millions of Americans no longer depend on the Establishment for opinion. The best therapy is to stress that respect for the opinions of journalists must be earned; it's not something bestowed by a title or the name of a media organization.
Every day I take in opinion that I don't agree with, but which I consider because the people giving the opinion have earned my respect. They've earned it with painstaking work to bring vital news to the public. As far as I'm concerned, that right has already been earned by several members of the "new" media.