A blog by Barry Edelson

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The Deplorable State of American Journalism

On a radio program not long ago, a reporter interviewed an obscure climatologist, at an equally obscure midwestern college, who ranks among the very few scientists on the planet who doesn't believe that the Earth's surface temperature is rising. The reason why this undistinguished professor was on the air at all is precisely because climate scientists whose minds are functioning properly, and who interpret the available data as evidence for global warming, outnumber those who don't by a factor of several thousand to one. In the eyes of contemporary journalism, being that one, even one who may have been consistently wrong throughout his career, and whose being consistently wrong is at least partly responsible for his consignment to instructing reluctant freshmen at East Podunk State College (or the equivalent thereof), makes him a man to be reckoned with. The reporter predictably touted his "discovery" of this lone contrarian as a major journalistic coup.

This brand of oppositional journalism bears no resemblance whatsoever to the profession that I studied at New York University in the late 1970s, a field in which unyielding standards of accuracy and an excruciating attention to detail were applied to the daily task of impartially reporting the news, and to conscientiously digging until something turned up that the public didn't know already. The journalism professors whose classes I attended all those years ago must surely be despondent over the downward spiral of their profession during the course of the intervening decades. Those who are no longer among the living are no doubt rolling in their graves. I once received a grade of 'F' on an otherwise excellent story because I carelessly misspelled a proper name. My professor, a reporter named William Burrows who had already had a successful career writing for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among other papers, had a simple rule about mistakes of this sort: a misspelled name is a factual error, and if a fact is wrong the story's credibility is fatally undermined. Period.

How is it, you may wonder, that a reporter could have worked at different times for two newspapers whose editorial perspectives are so drastically opposed to one another as the Journal and the Times? To most contemporary consumers of the news, the idea that a newspaper's editorial perspective might have no bearing on the objectivity of its reporting probably seems terribly quaint. The question itself only makes sense in the context of today's dark age of reporting, in which the line between the news pages and the editorial page, and consequently the distinction between fact and opinion, has been hopelessly blurred. For the vast majority of Americans who get most of their news from radio, television and, alas, the Internet, the practice of journalism has been reduced to institutionalized bias masked by a thin veneer of "balance" — mostly in the form of famous people shouting at one another. Hence the unknown climatologist's 15 minutes of fame. Whether the subject is as mundane as taxes or as consequential as genocide, journalists routinely attempt to shield themselves from charges of bias by inviting someone to give "the other point of view". No matter that the other point of view may be the overthrow of the government or denial of the Holocaust. The news media's meager defense is always the same: We're just reporting what people are saying. A defensible argument in court, perhaps, but what does it have to do with the integrity of the fourth estate?

Right around the time that I was a journalism student, "Network" appeared in movie theaters. The truly great writers are always prophetic, and Paddy Chayefsky's depiction of news reporting gone haywire has turned out to be uncannily accurate about numerous aspects of the demise of journalism: the confusion of news and entertainment; the quest for ratings; the intrusion of corporate interests into the newsroom; the introduction of fortune-telling into news reporting; and, most vividly for the present moment, the incitement to rage. In the three decades since "Network" was made, journalism in America has "progressed" from a serious profession in which crackpots were treated with gentle condescension or ignored completely, to one in which crackpots were increasingly quoted as legitimate sources, to the present day in which the crackpots have become the hosts of their own daily shows. The hypocrisy, abuse and venality of powerful people, which journalism at its best was supposed to expose, has been replaced by the hypocrisy, abuse and venality of the news media itself, offering abundant fodder for satire on "The Daily Show" and "The Onion", among others. Jon Stewart is the first to admit that too many young people get their news from his fake news show instead of the real news media, a dire symptom of the affliction that his show attempts to treat every evening

There is hardly a story or interview on cable news today, and far more than a representative sample on the networks, that my journalism teachers wouldn't have given a failing grade. These were not a bunch of grumpy old men clinging to some old-fashioned notions about news reporting. Without exception, they were mature men with recent experience in the real world of newspapers, radio and television. There was a great deal of classroom discussion about professional standards and journalistic ethics. Lazy reporting, exemplified by questions like "How did that make you feel?" and a reliance on sources who offered nothing but their own opinions, was shunned and ridiculed. If you didn't measure up, you were strongly encouraged to think about a different career. Public humiliation was a potent tool in their arsenal for weeding out the truly committed aspiring journalists from would-be TV celebrities.

What changed? The spread of tabloid-style journalism is surely among the culprits. The British writer-director Dennis Potter, in a television interview shortly before his death in 1994, said that if he had the physical strength, the one thing he would like to do before he died was to murder Rupert Murdoch. (He called his cancer "Rupert".) But while Murdoch's invasive species of British and Australian news has certainly infested journalism in this country, it would not have been successful without a receptive audience. A pervasive failure of critical thinking may be laid at the feet of our educational system, but this too falls short of explaining the collapse of journalistic standards, and smacks of blaming the consumer for the shoddy goods produced by the manufacturer. In any population, there are people who are susceptible to demagoguery, but that doesn't absolve the news media from their responsibility to rise above, rather than descend to, the lowest common denominators among their audience. Unfortunately, Chayefsky's prescription for disaster holds the key to our understanding of the news calamity. The rise of the Internet, on which anyone with a keyboard and a modem can spout any nonsense and often make it stick, has coincided with a gradual decline in the public trust of institutions of all kinds, newspapers included. It is a perfect storm in which greed and ego have been swirled into a toxic mix of ignorance and intolerance. The bankruptcy of one daily paper after another is both a symptom of the disease and a cause of its further conquest.

If there is any hope in this disheartening situation, it may lie in a lesson that Prof. Burrows taught in his reporting class 30 years ago. He asked, "What do all Americans have in common?" He told a story, by way of exploring the question, of an election for a Congressional seat in Boston. Many heavy hitters, including the Catholic Bishop and a number of prominent national politicians, threw their weight behind one candidate in order to defeat his opponent, whom they deemed an unacceptable upstart. Their strategy backfired, and the upstart won handily. The professor pointed out that American history is rife with examples of citizens getting their backs up whenever outsiders attempt to impose their will on them. (A similar scenario just played itself out in New York's 23rd Congressional district, where many national conservative blowhards succeeded in driving a mainstream Republican out of the race, only to see the district's overwhelmingly conservative voters elect a Democrat for the first time since the 19th century.)

So what is that single quality that Americans from their thousand different backgrounds share? Our class concluded that the best word to describe it is ornery. Americans are mostly descended from immigrants who came from places where they weren't permitted to say or do what they wanted. We are therefore particularly sensitive about being told what to do. Despite the ceaseless sermonizing and haranguing that is labeled as journalism today, many Americans still have an extraordinary capacity to defy conventional wisdom and think for themselves. Perhaps most people really do know the difference between news and entertainment, and watch cable news for the sheer spectacle of it. Perhaps most citizens actually realize that radio and TV personalities are interested first and foremost in their ratings, not in the political ideologies they claim to represent. If only the contemporary practitioners of a once-venerable profession were capable of such discernment.

November 22, 2009

[Note: The preposterous quotation in the title of this essay came not from a downmarket tabloid or a cable news program, but from none other than the Gray Lady herself, The New York Times.]

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