former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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Journalists Should Live Up to Journalism

In Blog on September 24, 2013 at 8:00 am

The most recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review asks the question, What is journalism for?  

I get tired of people telling me that because of the Internet and social media, journalists’ jobs are changing.  People don’t say that about doctors or lawyers or teachers, even though the technological revolution may be affecting how they do their jobs.  No one is challenging the underlying value of those jobs.

Journalism should be the profession that people rely on to receive the facts about what happened in their word.  Journalism can have a point of view, but that point of view should be separate from its straight reporting, and a media outlet’s slant on the news should not distort its coverage of the news itself.

In my book, I cite a 1947 report of a blue ribbon commission on freedom of the press.  That report observed that it was a reporter’s job to “prefer firsthand observation to hearsay.  He must know what questions to ask, what things to ask, what items to report.” Aside from the sexist assumption that all reporters were “he,” that’s a pretty solid definition of what journalism is for.

The reason that journalism’s very raison d’être is questioned so often is that many journalists fail to live up to their calling.  They get lazy about reporting the facts,  sometimes not bothering to separate the true from the untrue for their audience.

Some journalists even declare that helping readers and views discern what is true is not  their job.  I was dismayed when I read Chuck Todd opine about the media’s role in coverage of Obamacare, and widespread lack of public support or understanding of the new law. “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”  He clarified in a later tweet that people shouldn’t expect the media to do the White House’s job of “selling” Obamacare to the American public. But even with his clarification, to me that comment means that Todd is absolving the media of any responsibility to actually do the hard work of reporting the facts on what the law actually will do. According to Todd, it is not his or the rest of the media’s job to challenge either the Administration’s claims of benefits or the Republicans’ charges of harms.

If that’s not Chuck Todd’s job, then why the heck do the networks pay him such a large salary?  Why do we, his audience, bother to listen to him at all?

If journalists aren’t willing to be a trusted source of unbiased information about issues that must inform our democratic discourse, then what is journalism for?  I certainly don’t benefit from the insights of a bunch of wisecracking pundits to chat about the prospects for the next election, although I might sometimes find it entertaining.

Even breaking news, where journalism used to excel, merely demonstrates the failings of many of those in the profession.  On September 16, when the Navy Yard shootings in DC were playing out in real time, we all would watch our smart phones relay different narratives from print and broadcast news outlets.  Yes, news was fluid, and unclear. That’s why you’d like news outlets to say just that: “There are reports that four people have been killed but we can’t confirm that number. We will continue to update you as we confirm.”   But that’s not what these outlets did.  They kept reporting what they heard as facts, and then let time sort things out.

Of course, cable news coverage of the shootings was often much more egregious. Jon Stewart’s commentary best points out the problem of stream of consciousness reporting.  It’s no better than your great-aunt Betty telling you what she sees.  It lacks any judgment, any perspective.  It doesn’t help anyone arrive at the truth.

We don’t need a new definition of journalism.  We need more journalists who actually live up to the definition we have.



Post Op-ed Gained Attention but Not Respect

In Blog on September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

I guess if The Washington Post was attempting to provoke strong reader reaction to an op-ed questioning whether sexual relations between teachers and minor students should be criminalized, the paper got when it sought. My daughter brought my attention to the opinion piece, published August 30th, and by the time I looked at it on September 1st, it had more than 3,000 reader comments.

But surely attention shouldn’t be the only goal for the opinion pages of what is still considered one of the nation’s most prestigious papers.  I often read Post op-eds and disagree with them, but this op-ed was written by someone who seemed to have no actual data or expertise around which to marshal her pretty outrageous arguments.

The news peg of the op-ed was the very light sentence a Montana teacher, who pleaded guilty to non-consensual sex with a 14-year-old student- or what many would call a rape- received in August.  Two years after the assault that student committed suicide, an event her mother felt was brought on by the trauma of the rape.  The teacher, who had failed to follow through on a plea deal that included mandatory treatment for sex abusers, was hauled back into court and the Montana judge gave him a 30-day sentence.  The judge averred that since the sex didn’t involve extreme violence or a stranger, it really didn’t count as a “forcible beat-up rape,” and implied that the 14-year-old in question may have been  more Lolita  than an innocent victim. (The judge did apologize for some of his remarks, but stood by his sentence.)

The judge received much criticism, including a very good editorial from the Washington Post, calling for the judge’s resignation.  For reasons I can’t fathom, The Post then decided to give very valuable column inches to a non-expert, described as a “writer and former lawyer” to rebut its editorial position. She opined that she had lots of friends in the sixties and seventies who had sex with teachers in high school, college and law school, and they’re in her estimation, just fine. To be a law student and have sex with a professor is unwise, but surely it can’t be compared to being a 14-year-old having sex with a teacher.

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