Useless v. useful journalism

Useless v. useful journalism
: William Powers is half right.

In the National Journal, he argues that it is time for journalists to make trouble again:

The best journalists are troublemakers, pot-stirrers, naysayers, dirt-eaters. When the whole culture is saying “Yes, yes, yes” to some sparkly idea or popular leader, we love nothing better than to be the ones who rush in screaming “No, no, no,” brandishing the ugly evidence. To the noble hack, there is no smell sweeter than the skunk spray of a major political scandal.

Which is exactly what nobody wants right now. The perfume of patriotism is wafting from every direction, including the media itself, and the whole culture is high on it and weirdly checked out. After all those long months of anxiety and worry, it’s clear that the public wants a break from all things troubling and downbeat. Iraq is liberated, and the president is a flying ace. Let’s forget our worries and have a nice long party. Maybe the economy will even come back and foot the bill.

It’s high time for journalists to start making trouble again…

Well, yes, but not trouble for trouble’s sake: pot-stirring as a sport and an end in itself.

Powers gives as an example of such good troublemaking the tempest in a thimble this week over the cost of Bush’s landing on the Abraham Lincoln.

That’s not good reporting. That’s just partisan pissing and network time-wasting that tires and disengages and pisses off the voters. IT HAS NO IMPACT ON OUR LIVES.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the essential test of news: It has to have an impact on our lives. It has to matter. Or it’s not news.


Sorry, I’ll stop shouting now.

But I’m tired of partisan pissing — whether the urinal is George Bush’s flight or Bill Clinton’s sex life; both are fun for a gossipy giggle but neither matters about our lives; neither is the result of real reporting.

I’m tired of the morning shows turning into a showcase for emotional voyeurism. Every time a child disappears or a soldier dies, we get Couric or, God help us, Curry asking, pianissimo, how the survivors feel.

I’m tired of overlong, underedited thumbsucking stories in the big national papers (damnit, I’m busy: find the nearest period!).

I’m tired of quoting stars as if we should listen to anything they have to say that isn’t out of a script.

I tired of seeing politicians uselessly pissing at each other, egged on my media.

I want to see media demanding constructive work from leaders; I want to see them exposing issues involving not private parts but the public good. I want to see them do it with brevity, impact, and force.

Attack our desperate need for health insurance and the shameful cost of health care…. our continuing vulnerability in homeland security…. the ongoing accounting scandal not only in private industry but also in government (for example, New York authorities hiding revenue so they can get a fare increase)… the failures of education we can witness at any Burger King… the unspun need to get a grip on firearms and crime… the threats we face abroad even from some of our allies…

The list goes on and on.

That’s the kind of troublemaking Powers should be yearning.

Everything else is just gossip.

  • kkl

    Hear, Hear!

  • annie

    Amen, and keep shouting. News has deconstructed into a quivering mass of self-absorbed goo. Blogs are creating a landscape of facts, thoughts, humor, and reality.

  • Catherine

    Ditto Jeff.
    Frankly, even if I end up disagreeing with you on how to fix the insurance problem (when I didn’t think about until I went back to school and waitressed – I took my company coverage for granted like everyone has it), I think we should be talking about it and other things.

  • Jimmy

    The only way this will change is if viewers and readers demand that it change. If we’re tired of hearing celebrities voicing their constitutional rights, stop watching them (but we all still do, don’t we? Gives everyone something to bitch about). If we want to see our politicians do something besides “piss” away their time, demand it from them with our votes (of course, because we’re so polarized between Republican and Democrat we can’t see that each party has good people who are being trampled by the wing nuts). I get so tired of people griping about celebrities, dumb-downed news, and partisan politics because we are the ones who have allowed this to happen. As with everything in life, it is the everyday American with the power to make change, we just have to get off our ever-increasing television-watching asses. But do we do that? No. What’s popular in television news? Fox with its dumbed-down entertainment version of news. Are any of the other networks trying to change this? No. They

  • The fuck is Bill Powers to be telling journalists they should be trouble-makers? All he does is write the same dullard C.W. media column again & again for some lobbyist trade magazine, and that’s all he’ll ever do. What “nobody wants” right now is more bullshit media columns from these tired old frauds.

  • Damn straight.
    But it’s blogs that will lead the way. I honestly believe this.
    Look at what Bill Hobbs did on the Bush/AWOL story.
    In fact I’m surprised you weren’t all over that one, Bill. This was real Blogger Journalism, as good as it ever gets.

  • Exactly what journalism is involved in digging up old news links in a biased manner? Blogging is almost exclusively opinion journalism, and we need to realize that. Most of us would be contentless without the newspapers and networks.

  • Pyecraft

    Of course you’re right Oliver. But will the lard-assed big boys press for outlawing blog sites?

  • Ann

    Powers’ view is exactly what the problem is. We are tired of conflict for the sake of conflict. We are tired of stories about the “horse race” instead of why the race is important. Politics is one big competition, who has power, who lost it, according to reporters. So, instead of explaining the issues, most journalists retreat into their cubicles grumbling that Americans just don’t want to hear the bad news. They moan that “patriotism” is sweeping the land and causing us to stick our collective heads in the sand. I argue that journalists are the ones with their heads stuck in the sand. Are they the only ones confused about why they are so mistrusted? This myth that they are the only people willing to risk righting wrongs and “making trouble” is delusional at best. At worst it prevents them from addressing the real issues. I don’t believe Americans suddenly have a case of denial of any negative news. I think we had a fairly bad case of this during the 90s, but our rose colored glasses came off, mostly, over the last two years. Unforunately, many in the media are stuck in 1997.
    I think what distinguished most of the reporting in Iraq and after Sept. 11, was that reporters became part of something. As an industry, there is controversy about this, but both produced some of the best reporting in years. For many of them, perhaps for the first time, they weren’t just on the outside finding fault and problems, searching for the controversial headline. They were people first and didn’t forget that as they told the story.