Posts about journalism

Congrats

CUNY’s new Graduate School of Journalism, my perch starting next year, just got a $4 million grant to fund scholarships.

Edward R. Murrow: God or not?

Here are my probably contrarian views of Good Night, and Good Luck, the beautifully made movie about Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy:

As courageous and laudable as Murrow’s stand against American tyranny was – and it was – I also wonder whether it helped lead to the downfall of Dan Rather, the downsizing of CBS News, and perhaps even the decline of mainstream journalism itself.

For Murrow’s triumph led to a half-century-long era of haughtiness, self-importance, and separation from the public in the news. That may not be his responsibility – though he is shown at the start and end of the film dismissing the decadence, escapism, distraction, and amusement of television and America’s mass tastes (either out of snobbery or more likely out of shame, since he, too, catered to them on his own celebrity slather show). His disciples came to believe that the wattage of their broadcast towers entitled them to equivalent power in society. They thought they were no longer hacks looking out for the common man – as common men themselves – but instead the saviors of society (and rich ones at that). They were the ones who dubbed themselves the Tiffany Network. They thought they could do no wrong.

And then along came Dan.

Ain’t Edward R. spinning in is grave now?

These founding fathers of TV news could convince themselves of their invincibility because they came into journalism just as television itself destroyed competition in local newspapers and established an age of monopoly news, of one-size-fits-all mass media, of fewer voices and less diversity of views. And so CBS News pulled the rest of TV – and print journalism, too – up on a pedestal, above it all. The age of the oracles began, an age that – thanks to the internet – is just now ending, as declared by no one less than the current president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward.

Isn’t that ironic: The most mass medium in history gave birth to a class of media snobs. And the until-recently-exclusive medium (for the technologically sophisticated at the start) cuts them down to earth and once again empowers the little guy.

It’s equally ironic that after Murrow, we also came to find ourselves wrapped in an ethic of objectivity in news. Murrow was hardly objective, not in his finest moment. He was highly opinionated. He was on a crusade, God bless him. Yet soon after his triumph, we came to believe that objectivity was the highest virtue of journalism and of journalism school.

I’ve long ascribed that idolotry of the objective to our one-size-fits-all marketplace of media, from the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s (when the remote control reached 50 percent penetration in America) and beyond: If you had to be everything to everyone, you tried to offend no one and serve no side over another. It kind of made sense, given the circumstances.

But in the film, I think I got a glimpse of another root of the objectivity era. Murrow’s CBS News colleague and friend, Don Hollenbeck, was himself under whisper attack by the blacklisters and a dark, conservative Hearstian columnist: a proto’reilly. He committed suicide under the pressure.

And then they started talking about how the news was or was not slanted. The critics accused the journalists of slanting and the journalists denied it – the self-same journalists who had just slanted bravely against McCarthy and his fellow travelers. It struck me as a certain sort of pandering to the pressure: Instead of proudly standing up and saying, you bet we’re biased in favor of that little guy and against the tyranny of power, they cowered and said, ain’t no slanters here, just us chickens.

As much as I celebrate the exploding of media monopoly via the internet, Good Night did make me wonder whether we might end up longing for the power of the huge platform, for that power allowed Murrow to stand up to McCarthy and survive and help put the nation back on its democratic course. Well, he didn’t do it alone. But the power of major, mainstream, mondo, monopoly media helped, didn’t it?

In our new, distributed world, we have to re-aggregate ourselves into a powerful chorus of voices. We don’t have Cronkite finally disapproving of the Vietnam war. We have Porkbusters instead.

I don’t think I’ll miss the overpowering platform. But I wonder.

Another thing the monopolization of media did was insulate journalism from the pressures – and wisdom – of the marketplace.

That, I think, has proven to be every bit as damaging as the haughtiness. And this may, indeed, be Murrow’s fault. For we hear him lecturing CBS founder Bill Paley that news should not be subject to business realities.

We hear that same refrain today when reporters whine about cuts in the newsroom even as newspapers suffer the loss of audience – who no longer like or need their product – and of classified, retain, and circulation revenue, which have fled to better marketplaces elsewhere. If newsrooms had been more attuned to their marketplaces – not prostituting themselves, just listening and serving – they may have tried to update news and not leave it as it was that half-century ago.

If we take the atmosphere of the film as accurate, it’s striking how much the nation has changed, how much fear has stopped dominating public life. The reporters and the people were afraid not just of McCarthy but of government: of senators and the FBI and the military. And the people also feared the reporters: Murrow and company anxiously awaited the criticism coming out in the papers’ first editions; Hollenbeck killed because of the power of the press.

Today, we ridicule government and dismiss the power of the press. We have come a long way, baby.

And though the movie tries to draw parallels with today – “We cannot defend freedom abroad by abandoning it at home,” Murrow preaches to ironic (Iraqi) cackles in the New York screening room – it’s hard to paint red-baiting and terrorist-hunting with the same brush. For many reasons – some ethnic, some religious, some politically correct – we’re not likely to fear our neighbors wondering whether we are now or have ever been a member of al Qaeda or an Islamic fundamentalist fascist.

It so happens that I ran into my friend Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, and dragged him along to the screening (yes, they’re inviting bloggers to screenings) of Good Night.

The dramatic parallels are just too beautiful to pass up: I was watching the invention of one electronic medium as we live through the invention of the next. Nick had just finished saying that a reporter who wrote an article on the phenom he denies founding missed the real angle of the story, namely: “We don’t give a fuck.” And then I saw on the screen the genesis of journalistic haughtiness, which was very much about giving a fuck. I complimented Nick on the barbed and blunt coverage, of sorts, given Bush’s latest Supreme Court nomination by Wonkette: hardly fearless, just fearsomely snarky. And then I saw the journalists on screen refuse to cower under government’s power.

Yes, you could cut the irony – just like the smoke on the screen – with a knife.

This isn’t a movie review but if it were, I’d tell you to see Good Night, and Good Luck. I’d blurb it. This is a compelling story of courage and a brilliantly produced period piece that portrays its heroes with both admiration and wit. And though there are a few grandstanding speeches, there could have been more. David Strathairn as Murrow is remarkable and so is Clooney as the film’s producer. My grade: B+

Stairs down from the pedestal

Jay Rosen declares that The New York Times is no longer America’s greatest newspaper; The Washington Post is. Of course, I should recuse myself from this jury.

Jay is actually covering three discussions. First, what he’s really talking about here is The Times’ inability to tell its own story, again. He and I do not blame Kit Seelye’s account of Judy Miller’s homecoming to the newsroom; she covered what was there, which was nothing, in the business’ most thankless assignment this side of doing Katie Couric’s hair. (Maybe this is one case in which anonymous sources are OK: Wouldn’t you like to hear the real thought bubbles from reporters in that newsrooom at that hour?) Jay and Howard Kurtz and most reporters are eagerly awaiting The Times’ story on Miller… and wondering why they have to wait.

Second, he is talking about the rise of The Post and I’ve seen the same impressive velocity. It’s not just media coverage (I’m a Kurtz fan) and Washington tales in their backyard but also the way they’ve attacked big stories.

But third, what Jay doesn’t explore yet — and I hope he does — is the question of what makes a great newspaper today. What is that definition? Has it changed? Should it?

I do think that there are two miles-apart leagues at play: the national and the local. The Times, The Post, and The Journal are Jay’s best three papers — and I think he hints that renewed competition among them will be healthy — but that is, in part, because they are the only real candidates to be national papers.

A great local paper must be local. That’s why I was appalled when I read Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story about the clash of church and state at the LA Times (no, it’s not online, but you can’t blame me for that anymore). Aulette says that LAT editor John Carroll, who resigned in a budget snit, and Dean Baquet, his successor, cut the Orange County bureau from 200 to fewer than 20 and expanded the Washington Bureau and spent a fortune covering Iraq and opened more foreign bureaus than The Post. Screw what’s happening in Washington: we can find that out anywhere. What’s happening in Anaheim? “Carroll and Baquet’s obession with matching America’s best newspapers came at the expense of local coverage,” Auletta says.

So I’ll ask Jay: What is the proper ambition for a newspaper today? What makes a paper great?

More than facts

David Weinberger does a far better job than I did trying to explore the notion that facts are a commodity — once they are known:

First, I think most of us agree that facts by themselves aren’t enough. Unless we’re looking things up in an almanac, we want facts assembled into stories. Now more than ever. I don’t know about you, but more and more, I read newspapers through weblogs….

Second, Jeff was speaking informally, I’m sure, when he said that “anyone” can get the facts. [Yes, thank you – ed] Obviously, some particular facts are hard to dig up. Some are a pain in the tuchus to unearth but you know exactly how to get them (digging up birth records), and some require months of foot-numbing research and Yoda-like intuition (“All the President’s Men”). Some are mired in Louisiana muck, emotion, and political ambition, like the facts in the Russert case that Jeff and I were originally commenting on. So to say facts are commodities (as I have said before) is not to say that they are all equally easy to come by. But once they’ve been disclosed, they become commodities in the sense that they are low-margin entities and I don’t much care where I get them. If I want to know who Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court or who won the Sox game, there are a gazillion places I can find out. And tomorrow there will be a gazillion + 100.

Well- said (as in, I wish I’d said it that way). We have to grapple with the notion that holding onto facts until we decide to tell the world is not going be sustainable. Facts fly.

This matters insofar as newspapers still consider their value to be the reporting of facts. I think some papers are being forced further into this belief because of the “onslaught” of bloggers. That seemed to me to be the position of John Lloyd of the Financial Times yesterday at the Accountability conference. He defended the news media’s traditional turf by talking about objectivity vs. opinions. I took him to be saying that opinions are easy but facts are hard, and newspapers do the hard and skilled work of fact-finding. Yes, they do. But having done that, the facts then become commodities. Our shared concern is who is going to do this if newspapers can no longer afford to pay reporters. (As far as opinions being easy goes: Yes, but interesting opinions are not commodities.)

Maybe enough citizen journalists will become skilled reporters that we don’t need professional newspaper reporters. But we shouldn’t let the promise of citizen journalism distract us from the evident fact that another key value of the news media has already devolved to the citizenry: We’re already providing the editorial judgment on which the media so pride themselves. I no longer look at the front page of the NY Times to tell me what’s important. I look at it to see what people like the editors of the NY Times think is important. I’m finding the news that matters through the Internet recommendation engine: Blogs, emails, mailing lists, my aggregator, websites that aggregate and comment on news, etc. With the growth of social filtering and whatever some genius in a garage is inventing, the Internet is only going to get better at this. While we wonder if and how citizens will replace reporters, citizens are rapidly replacing editors.

Are we not human?

Here is one incredible side-effect of journalism’s separation from its public: A news photographer feels he has to explain, hide, or apologize for putting down his camera to save people’s lives.

Biello isn’t used to putting his camera down — journalists are trained to be observers, not participants. But the human misery caused by Katrina put these instincts at war with reality, and made many journalists rethink how to do their jobs amid calamities….

He’s convinced he did the right thing, the human thing. But Biello still felt he had to explain to CNN management why he wasn’t spending all his time working. Those conflicting feelings are partly why he hasn’t told his story publicly until now.

CNN management has fully supported him.

“I think it’s heroic and laudable and praiseworthy,” said Jon Klein, CNN/U.S. president. “I’m proud to work with a guy who would do something like that. It’s a cliche at this point, but we are human beings first, and if you are the only thing standing between another human being’s life or death, you really don’t have much of a decision to make.”

Other reporters have talked about the frustration of being on the scene well before rescuers, and said they gave away supplies when they could.

Strict rules about staying on the sidelines aren’t always practical, said Roger Simpson, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a University of Washington communications professor.

The assumption behind that is incredible: It is as if journalists became crewmen on the Starship Enterprise with a prime directive not to interfere with the life below them.

Journalists are still citizens, neighbors, humans and when we forget that, we forget our real mission: Helping our communities. [via Lost Remote]