Play Taps… or get transparent

Play Taps… or get transparent

: Randall Rothenberg — Ad Age columnist, former NYT reporter, and mucketymuck at Booz Allen — writes an obit, or at least a dire diagnosis, for the news business. He waxes about Watergate as the golden age of journalism and then laments:

Three decades later, American journalism is at its nadir. Surveys indicate that journalists rank with ambulance-chasing lawyers and self-dealing executives in public disapproval. The most able of our youth are pursuing MBAs. Journalism schools are cranking out blow-dried twinkies for ratings-driven newscasts. Print editors are paid to generate buzz, not insightful scoops.

What happened?

In part, U.S. journalism is returning to its roots. In the century before philosopher Walter Lippmann gave journalists standing alongside other leaders as shapers and transmitters of public opinion, newspapers were hotbeds of unabashed partisanship and ballyhoo. But to assume nothing’s changed is to avoid the heartbreaking fact that newspeople are participating in the diminution of their own esteem.

Tabloid behavior used to be confined to the tabloids. Today, the erosion of boundaries between media forms and the chase for every last eyeball in the rapidly fragmenting audience have put the most traditional of mainstream news organizations on a collision course with credibility.

But he gives a different cause and cure than I would.

Rothenberg says the first problem is “the crawling I,” the spreading virus of first-person reporting and the “branding of newspeople… once-objective reporters are turning themselves into trademarks.” He links this to a strategy of infotainment in which “no sin is more grave than boring people.” He rends his shirt over The New York Times bold-facing names.

The second sin, he says, is that media “the tiresome obsession of the media with the media.”

I’ll certainly agree that both trends can be tiresome, overdone, even obnoxious. But I don’t agree that they are at the root of the problem or the solution. Nor do I agree with his wistful wish that we should return to an era of “objective journalism” (because we were never really there).

First, in some ways, we need to know more about reporters, not less — not because we want to make them stars but because we want to know their perspectives and biases and how that colors their reporting.

Second, media needs to police itself and it needs to do that in public.

Both are really issues of transparency and I spent the weekend (as you’ve already heard with all too much transparency) among media folks who were all beating that drum to one tempo or another. Rothenberg’s right that transparency can become an excuse for displays of ego and exercises in navel-gazing. But without efforts at transparency — revealing bias, agendas, process, and mistakes and turning news into a conversation — then journalist-priests will continue to try to hide inside the cathedral walls while their public is busy posting 95 theses to the door and using this new medium to start new churches.