Media Matters

The Problem With Journalism Is Personal

Myopic media bigwigs gather again to pronounce on why their product is in decline.

By 8.22.07

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My local paper of late has been the (Raleigh, NC) News & Observer, and although one neighbor calls it the "Refuse & Disturber," I have a soft spot for its opinion page, if only because the opinion section is run by an editor who, like me, grew up in Hawaii.

Last Sunday, the N&O devoted most of its opinion section to a remix of presentations given by news industry bigwigs to the North Carolina Press Association, which met recently in Charlotte. NCPA convention-goers were hot to find out whether this is the end of news as we know it, and whether public service journalism will survive.

Assuming that it would be impertinent to argue that all journalism is "public service journalism," my answers to those questions are yes and yes, but I am not a professional journalist. The NCPA does not care what I think. More distressingly, the people speculating about the future of journalism in Sunday's pastiche do not appear to have read Randall Hoven, either.

Writing recently for the American Thinker website, Hoven hit on the idea of cataloging known misdeeds for the benefit of anyone wondering why journalists are not as admired now as they were in 1897, when a famous editorial in the New York Sun settled the question of whether Santa Claus exists for an eight-year-old reader who trusted the answer because her father had said, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so."

Hoven compiled two lists. His first list had 62 incidents of journalistic malpractice, and his second list had 21. As he wryly noted in part two, he stopped counting at 83 for lack of time, not lack of material.

When I covered some of the same ground in an essay ("Citizens' Arrest") that The American Spectator online published in 2004, I was calling attention to the way that bloggers had found dishonesty in reports by CNN, the New York Times, and Harper's magazine. Sadly, there is no overlap between the examples I used then and the much bigger set that Hoven just compiled.

TRUE TO THE SAYING that you should never pick a fight with someone who "buys ink by the barrel," journalists often downplay their own image problem to point fingers at other damaged professionals. Priests and teachers take it on the chin, but politicians, personal injury lawyers, and car dealers have been journalistic adversaries for so long that many reporters would rather dance with them than spar with them.

A press convention would have been an ideal time to address the reasons why journalism lacks the cachet it once had (former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg wrote Bias six years ago, for crying out loud). But if the essays published by my local paper represent what passes for self-examination in the news business, then we're left with a textbook example of missed opportunity.

Rather than tackle mistrust and its origins head-on, the five worthies quoted by the N&O offered either bland reassurance or maudlin nostalgia. From the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor, we got "the beast struggling for footing isn't the news side of newspapers; it's the business structure that for several decades has supported newsrooms and public-interest journalism."

Tell it to the Marines.

The dean of the journalism department at a local university offered -- wait for it -- an ode to continuing education: "News outlets will have to learn how to perfect their sites, how to offer information that readers want online versus what they want in print," she predicted.

A Poynter Institute fellow from Mississippi wrote emotively about journalism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when "men and women at the Sun Herald in Biloxi and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans put aside their own pain, their own losses, their own tears to create a place for all of us to come together." Moreover, he said, "they did it in print and online, and they did it with courage and honor."

Some did. Others were delusional enough to give Ignatius J. Reilly and his Big Chief tablets a run for the money. In the case of the Times-Picayune, the Poynter panelist was talking about a newspaper that admitted afterward that it had published unverified and provably false stories of "rapes, sniper attacks, and inflated body counts" among scores of other myths about post-Katrina conditions in the Louisiana Superdome and Convention Center (this is incident #14 on Hoven's second list).

Think tank director Tom Rosenstiel came a little nearer the mark when he suggested that a journalist's job is now to help other citizens in our "quest" to find the information we want, "and not be threatened by the fact that journalists are no longer in control," but even he ducked the question of why journalists are not regarded as the most reliable of guides.

THE BEST ILLUSTRATION of why journalism is too important to be left to the professionals came from Rem Rieder, a veteran of six newspapers who now runs the American Journalism Review. Rieder was more downbeat than his colleagues. You can practically hear him sobbing into his beer with lines like, "An informed electorate is critical to democracy. And providing that information properly is expensive. It requires a lot of reporting firepower. And large reporting staffs tend to be fielded by newspapers." Worse, said Rieder, "until that elusive new economic model for the news media emerges, the American people will be the losers."

Uh, Rem. Are we talking Nighthawks here, or Boulevard of Broken Dreams? Step away from the paintings, dude. If I'm a loser and I read one of your papers, just what is it you're editing, anyway?

While there's no denying the usefulness of a big news budget, I'd take Michael Yon and his shoestring reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan over Christiane Amanpour and her politically correct analysis any day. Losers like me trust combat reporting from correspondents who served honorably in Special Forces.

Even with all the resources of CNN at her command, not to mention her piercing eyes, no-nonsense bangs, and safari jacket, Amanpour makes laughable mistakes in her depiction of subjects like "God's Warriors." She is by no means alone.

When the media does not make mistakes egregious enough to warrant placement on a list like Randall Hoven's, it lapses into self-congratulatory soliloquies like Rem Rieder's. The problem with that kind of dinner-theater Hamlet is that it ignores the newsroom culture that still allows an old CBS hand like Bob Schieffer to misattribute Senator John McCain's fading popularity to his support for war in Iraq -- and never mind that Senator McCain himself cites "the immigration issue" as the reason for his abysmal poll numbers.

If you want to talk whitewash, what Walter Duranty of the New York Times did to win his Pulitzer Prize in 1932 is no different from what Vladimir Putin is doing now. And there is no excuse for the way the once-storied BBC permits anti-Christian and anti-Semitic slurs on its Internet message boards, but instantly removes anything that might be construed as anti-Muslim.

What journalism needs (if I may make so bold as to prescribe) is an examination of conscience, not a smooth-talking entrepreneur who can lead newspaper executives into the promised land of publicly subsidized websites.

Analysis that too often boils down to "my child is an honor student, but my president is a moron" deserves neither eyeballs nor subscription dollars. Professional journalism will rebound only if journalists can regain the trust they started squandering even before Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford granted the American branch of the profession a stay of execution by playing Woodward and Bernstein as larger-than-life.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.