Journalism is an “other matter” (see the subtitle of the blog) that I think about constantly but write about too seldom. The news business has occupied most of my working life. Seeing it change for the worse is more than a matter of professional interest. The freedom and quality of the flow of information to the public through the news has a profound effect on the state of the democracy. It always has had. Thomas Jefferson was under frequent attack by newspapers, but this is what he said about them:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The narrowing focus and trivialization of news in print and broadcast and on the internet is a danger to the country’s future. Does all of journalismI’m still holding out against the amorphous, unspecific and meaningless term “media”and do all journalists pander to the lowest common denominator or to vested interests? Has clear, objective, tough-minded reporting disappeared? Of course not. There are great newspapers, although in the struggle against the lousy economy and the digital revolution, they are losing revenue and staff at a rapid rate. There is journalism of depth in radio and television, although it is getting harder to find, even on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC. I sample the major networks and Fox, CNN and MSNBC but have pretty much retreated to The News Hour on PBS and radio news on NPR. They are not perfect, but they come close to fairness and balance. Much, maybe most, of cable news programming substitutes ranting for reporting. I hope that the newspapers and broadcasters in your region are exceptions to the trend.
Donald Barlett, one of the most honored journalists of our time, was asked about all of this in a Columbia Journalism Review interview with Trudy Lieberman, another respected reporter. Barlett and his reporting partner James Steele have won two Pulitzer Prizes for their work at The Philadelphia Inquirerand a raft of other journalism awards for penetrating investigative work on nuclear waste, tax dodges, housing and crime, among other subjects. A book based on their reporting, America: What Went Wrong? was a bestseller. Here is a bit of Lieberman talking with Barlett.
TL: Why are we disconnected from our readers?
DB: It’s difficult to overcome the drumbeat of sound bites. There are some great young reporters so it’s not an age thing. What’s missing is a sense of fairness, equality and inequality, right and wrong that journalists traditionally brought to their reporting. Like so many other aspects of American life—business and government come to mind—what’s missing is a moral compass: Is this right or wrong?
TL: Do reporters think about that today?
DB: Not so much. Journalism has become a business. It’s no longer a calling. Everyone’s job seems to be in jeopardy. People are worried about their next paycheck.
TL: Has the specialization in journalism with all the training programs and fellowships backfired? Some think that this has encouraged journalists to write for their sources.
DB: Yes. Today’s journalists often forget the audience earlier generations wrote for – the average person. Now they write for Wall Street or Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill or cable television talking heads. Their questions are framed in economic terms not in moral terms—is this right or wrong. There used to be moral outrage in the newsroom, but now not so much. Where you really see this is in the use of language. Here is where journalists have literally lost their moral compass.
TL: Can you explain this a bit more?
DB: In stories on taxes, reporters often ask whether it’s fair to impose higher tax rates on someone who has worked hard and achieved success. The implication is that someone who doesn’t make much money has not worked hard. Nonetheless, reporters often ask, “Do you really want to raise taxes on someone who is successful?” That usually means those who have made a lot of money.
TL: So we are not framing or asking the right questions?
DB: Yes. We don’t know what we need to know unless we ask the right question. You listen to TV reporters, and they inevitably ask the wrong question so the problem is framed wrong or from a point of view. Americans are not dumb. But journalism is dumbing down the information it delivers. Sometimes it’s political. Sometimes it’s laziness.
There is much more of Lieberman’s conversation with Barlett at the Columbia Journalism Review’s website. If you have an interest in the effect of reporting on the state of the nation, read the whole thing.
A reflection: For many years after my daily journalism career in newspapers, radio and television, I oversaw education of professional journalists in the use of analytical thinking to cover the economy, the environment, law, health care, foreign affairs and other issues. The Foundation for American Communications (FACS) was a nonprofit supported by grants from major news organizations, charitable foundations and corporations. We engaged top academics, trained them to teach journalists, and helped reporters, editors, columnists, commentators and producers to increase their understanding of complex public issues. As the economy worsened and news organizations foundered, support dwindled and finally ceased. FACS went out of existence a couple of years ago; one small but important symptom of disturbing changes in the news business that should concern us all. Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, this is a good time to think about it.