When journalism went bad

Sam Smith

YOUR EDITOR has occasionally noted that when he started out in what was then the trade of journalism, over half the reporters in this country only had a high school education. Ben Bagdikian, a bit older, describes in his memoir, Double Vision, an even less pretentious craft:

“Before the war a common source of the reporter was an energetic kid who ran newsroom errands for a few years before he was permitted to accompany the most glamorous character on the staff, the rough-tough, seen-it-all, blood-and-guts police reporter. Or else, as in my case, on a paper with low standards, reporters started off as merely warm bodies that could type and would accept $18 a week with no benefits.

“Prewar journalists had their talents and occasional brilliances, but the initial demand on me and my peers was the ability to walk fast, talk fast, type fast, and never break a deadline. And to be a male of the species. Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department’s annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is ‘sometimes preferred.'”

Even in sophisticated Washington ten years later, I kept quiet about my Harvard degree as I learned the trade. Then the trade stopped being a trade as not only a college degree but a masters in journalism became increasingly desired. Further, journalists – with the help of things like the Washington Post’s new Style section – began joining the power structure by increasingly writing themselves into it.

Then came yet another transition: the journalist as professional was replaced by the journalist as corporate employee, just another bureaucratic pawn in organizations that increasingly had less to do with journalism.

By standard interpretations the trend – at least from uneducated tradesman to skilled professional – was a step forward. But there is a problem with this interpretation. First, with each step the journalist moved further socially and psychologically from the reader or viewer. Reporters increasingly viewed their stories from a class perspective alien to many of those they were writing for, a factor that would prove far more important than the ideological biases about which one hears so many complaints.

This doesn’t mean that because of education, these reporters needed to lose the reader’s perspective and the best ones certainly didn’t. But it meant that they had to be aware of the problem and learn how to compensate for it. Too few were or did.

One reason was the second problem: as journalism was increasingly learned academically instead of vocationally, the great curse of the campus descended, namely the abstraction of the real. Reporters, regardless of their perspective or biases, became removed from their stories. Instead, they were merely ‘educated’ about them. And the news stopped being as real.

Finally, the corporatization of news meant that everyone in the system from reporter to CEO reacted to things with the caution of an institutionalized employee. Thus, the decline of investigative journalism as it was too much of risk for all involved.

In short, journalism has become more scholarly, more snobbish, and more scared and, in the process increasingly has separated itself from the lives of its readers.

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