Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An era when journalists made a difference...

So many journalism professionals -- those who have been in the business for decades, as well as those who leave today's J-schools after tutelage from those former journalism curmudgeons -- long for the era when the Fourth Estate had the power to sway public opinion.

They pine for the day when a news anchor like Walter Cronkite had so much sway that he could declare the Vietnam War unwinnable, and it would be so. For the time when people believed every word emanating from ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post because those institutions proclaimed their accuracy and independence and because, well, there was little other choice.

Some of them even think they still hold that power, so they grasp at any thread that makes them believe their influence is still waxing, refusing to accept the premise that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They're sure the next Watergate is just around the corner.

But the result is Dan Rather's Texas Air National Guard memo; the New York Times' periodic revelation of classified information that helps our enemies and does nothing in our country beyond feeding the left-wing fever swamps; and various episodes of misconduct that usually come to light via other media.

The Oregonian's Steve Duin, writing in the Sunday opinion page, puts himself squarely in the camp that holds old-school journalism as the savior of society's ills. He suggests that the problems of modern-day journalism -- "circulation is down, buyouts are up, newsrooms are aging, news holes are shrinking" -- can be resolved by seeking those stories that make a difference (which, by implication, they aren't currently doing), by being "on the right side of a great story."

Duin's commentary is mostly a review of a book called "The Race Beat," which recounts the role of journalists in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. It also includes examples (perhaps from the book, but that's not clear) of the bigotry that tried to keep journalists from covering the black angle with fairness. But in pining for "an era when we actually made a difference," by suggesting that the media needs to seek the right side of a great story, he doesn't seem to recognize that this position also puts him and his colleagues in the role of taking sides, of advocacy in place of balance.

He acknowledges the ills of his profession (most notably exemplified in the industry's circulation numbers), but fails to recognize that a significant contributor is the myriad attempts to artificially sway public opinion by focusing slanted attention on a certain story to the exception of the opposite viewpoint.

And it is this role -- in which examples include unequal treatment of Iraq, global warming and politicians from different parties -- that has caused the decline of old-school journalism as consumers realize the deficiencies of the industry; filling the void caused by that decline, new media like blogs and talk radio have shattered the monopoly of old media that could obscure the inconsistencies between journalism's claims of fairness and its record.

The Society of Professional Journalists lists an extensive ethics code, which suggests that journalists should:
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
But it also says:
  • Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
I think the former items are clear examples of the industry's desire not to take sides in a matter, while the latter is sometimes used to ignore that standard in favor of trumpeting a certain perspective.

It's clear that journalists like Harry Ashmore overcame the good ol' boy network whose membership included many of his colleagues, and used his position to shine the light on the civil rights perspective that was left wanting by centuries of bigotry. That was not so much advocacy (at least in the news pages) as it was a willingness to cover the side that was receiving no attention. I am in no way suggesting that the press shouldn't have covered the civil rights movement with a wider scope than that given by a journalism industry that Duin called "overwhelmingly white" and "painfully inattentive."

But in Duin's desire to return to the golden era of journalism, he goes beyond exposing the uncovered and into the role of cheerleader. Perhaps Duin is only thinking of his job as a columnist, where he's expected to advocate a position. Perhaps he's simply encouraging his colleagues to focus on all sides of the story and refuse to be intimidated or bought off a certain angle.

But he never says that, explicitly or otherwise. Instead, we're left with Duin's rallying cry to be "on the right side of a great story," which is explicitly not where journalists who believe in fairness and balance should be.

It's one thing to cover different sides of a story, but it's quite another thing to take sides.

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  • At 1/03/2007 4:48 PM, Blogger MAX Redline said…

    seeking those stories that make a difference

    That's precisely the problem with what passes for "journalism" today. They don't want to report the facts - which was what journalism used to be all about. Instead, they want "to make a difference".

    And that, my friend, is why circulation's dropping so fast.


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