Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Big Chill

I was over at Jay Rosen’s PressTink for a discussion of things taught in journalism that are no longer believed. I left a comment, but I have fleshed it out a bit more for this post.

Blogs are the best thing to happen to journalism since the First Amendment.

Seems that nothing, not the move from yellow journalism to objectivity in the first half of the previous century, not the take over of MSM by journalist taught in school instead of learned on the job, not the impact of radio and then television news reporting, nothing has affected journalism as much as blogs. And this is only the beginning.

I dreaded the influence of “All the President’s Men” had on young people who thought journalism would be a “cool” course of study. They could dream of becoming Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman. I feared the journalism market would become crowded by the time I got back to my studies after my hiatus brought on by low grades -- in other subjects -- and the draft.

However, after getting my degree, I did not become a reporter. The profession seemed to be more people oriented than I cared to practice. I liked the research part of it more so than the interviewing and questioning of either friendlies or unfriendies. I don’t do journalism unless you believe that journalism is the study of writing for your audience, in which case, I do by writing technical reports and evaluations for bureaucrats. However, purest would say that is not journalism.

And then along came blogs. Look at me Mom, I’m a columnist! I’ve got a byline.

In any case, the chill in enthusiasm for journalism in young people may be the shift away from the idealism brought on by Woodward’s book and the movie. (Who wouldn’t want to have a shadowy Hal Holdbrook as a source? Sorry Mr. Felt, you’re no Hal Holdbrook.) That and the right wing campaign to paint anything in the MSM that doesn’t agree with them as liberal bias may have had an impact in young people’s mines. You know, if you are far enough to the right, the center looks liberal to you; objectivity is seen as bias; the truth as a smear.

One day, people are going to wake up and realize they are being lied to by right wing extremist and for selfish reasons -- not all the people but enough of the people.

Jay, as your post argues, there is much that is wrong with journalism. However, it is nothing so noble as partisan politics. The competition for the news consumer and personal ambition can and has lead to many failures in professionalism which, as part of the terrain, are aired in public for all to see. This washing and exposure of dirty laundry may give journalism the appearance of the same taint as business had in the 1960’s when the capitalist dream appeared more like some gross exploitation instead of recognizing the latest disclosures as the shake out of bad journalism.

To me, the worse offence is the use of unnamed sources. I was taught that no bit of information should be used that is not attributed to some source. In Washington, this is especially ignored -- which is in violation of a journalistic rule since the most important newsbyte in a story like this is why the bit of information was leaked. I can understand why it’s published. A juicy bit of un-attributed news that would move the story onto the front page, above the fold, or lead off the broadcast is hard to resist. Reporters will always maximize their position; it is the duty of editors to see that first draft of history is accurate and in context as much as possible.

And who comes to the rescue to see that what is taught in schools, bragged about at seminars and ensconced in pundits is actually fulfilled: blogs. Blogs may be the savior of journalism more than any letters to the editor, ombudsmen or previous forms of feedback such as tar and feathers could ever hope to be.

By the way, have you thought about other disciplines and the dislocation between what is taught and what is practice? The medical field? Law enforcement? Political Science? Are journalists better or worse than these in practicing what they were preached? Context anyone?
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