Sam Smith, 2005 – One major differences between journalism today and when your editor started out 47 years ago is that there wasn’t as much bragging, pomposity, hypocritical self-analysis and professional narcissism back then. Reporters, in fact, were among those most skeptical of their trade and the public readily endorsed their judgment. HL Mencken put it this way: “The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.”
Even the far less contentious Richard Harwood remarked, “We were perceived as a lower form of life, amoral, half-literate hacks in cheap suits. Thus I was assigned to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Nashville in the late 1940s and, with other reporters, was given lunch at a card table set up in a hallway to protect the dining room from contamination.”
Moving from this dubious trade, a majority of whose practitioners hadn’t gone to college, to a profession graced by graduate schools and thence to a status part actor and part apparatchik of a rising corporate uber-culture, journalists became ever more prominent and self-referential even as they were losing touch with both their purported constituency and their purported purpose. They became the first group in human history to dramatically improve their socio-economic status simply by writing about themselves, self-casting themselves among the very elite from whom they had once been expected to protect their audience.
Ironically, the result was a status not only without substance but without honor. While this may appear a contradiction it is quite typical of early 21 Century power in which one finds such figures as Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, and George Bush notable for an authority almost inversely proportional to reputation, admiration or affection. So many individuals and institutions of power these days have become only that, impressive for the dominance they have achieved rather than for the virtues, skills and honor they have exhibited. Which is why we don’t see many Pope Johns, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelts, Beatles, Katherine Hepburns or Martin Luther Kings anymore. The only surviving requirement for being on top is being on top. And reminding others constantly that you are there. Everything else, from actual achievement to criminal conviction, becomes largely irrelevant.
Thus, despite the media’s rise in prominence, a Harris survey over nearly 30 years has found that as far as prestige goes, the press remains stuck, still ranked near the bottom just ahead of accountants, stock brokers and real estate dealers. This, of course, was probably also true fifty years ago; the difference is that no one then pretended otherwise.
But since no one else can get the airtime or column inches to point this out, the media can happily go about its business in deep denial and without challenge save for its own braggadocio parading as criticism in which minor flaws such as a single story going awry are subjected to portentous analysis while major media errors – like years of downplaying global warming or buying into false justifications for invading Iraq – escape scot free.
Take just one responsibility of the press, investigative reporting. Most investigative reporting these days is done by non-profit organizations, led by groups like the Center for Public Integrity, which probably has more investigative journalists usefully engaged than any media corporation in the country. Environmental organizations and governmental watchdogs have broken story after story that a real reporter would have been proud to have uncovered. And Ralph Nader has been one of the best investigative reporters this country has ever known. Further, non-profits, rather than the media, have been at the forefront of defending freedom of the press and government accountability, ranging from the daily work of the ACLU to freedom of information suits and the legal protection of government whistleblowers.
This outsourcing of journalistic responsibility both saves the media money and provides it with distance in case something goes wrong with a story. But non-profits don’t win Pulitzers so the myth of journalism as public savior goes on even though the profession is ever more in the hands of some of the least public-minded people in American history.
There are, however, a few recent signs that even the media is feeling a bit less secure upon the pedestal it has constructed for itself. The crowds no longer seem to be paying homage. . . or even attention. In fact a recent survey found that only 22% of Americans say they get most of their news from a newspaper, barely twice as many as say they use the Internet as their primary source. Radio is at a mere 15% while 50% rely upon the true church of our new Middle Ages – guardian of the faith, inquisitor of free market apostasy, perpetuator of sanctified superstition, lord of all men, judge of all things, which is to say, television.
If you look closely at this division of news curricula, one finds that just under a third of the public relies on media that by habit, methodology, and tradition are most likely to concern themselves with the rational and the factual. This does not mean that such matters are absent from TV, only that you won’t use up anywhere near your Tivo memory recording every Front Line, 60 Minutes and available equivalent.
Yet far from welcoming their colleagues in cyberspace, the print media has gone out of its way to disparage and ridicule digitized news, with particular disdain for bloggers who dare to occupy space the archaic press believes belongs to them. There is of late much talk about the social and professional status of bloggers who are presumed not to be as properly credentialed as, say, Jason Blair, Robert Novak, Geraldo Rivero, Bill O’Reilly, the broadcast staff of defense contractor General Electric, or the 400 journalists who moonlighted for the CIA in times past.
But Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and Frederick Douglass did not have press passes either, nor did anyone give them credentials before they commenced their unlicensed practice of the First Amendment. And where does one go these for such a license anyway? Usually to the government or to a committee comprised of employees of large media corporations whose interest is not in dispensing news but in owning its profits and who hire numerous lobbyists to manipulate the same White House and Congress their ace reporters are covering.
There are, of course, good bloggers and there are bad ones. There are gay prostitutes pretending to be objective cyber-journalists and there are internet journalists uncovering answers to questions conventional reporters don’t even bother to ask. A simple test of the average quality of these efforts would be to invite nothing but bloggers to the next presidential news conference. Can anyone doubt that it would be more interesting and useful than a room full of David Gregorys asking questions so predictable that the president already has the answers on paper?
Something of the same effect could be achieved by ridding the White House news confabs of media prima donnas and replacing them with that quiet body of lesser known reporters who cover truly tough beats such as Congress – a task at least 535 times more complex than trailing a bubble wrapped president. Science reporters, investigative journalists who don’t usually have time for show business, hacks who know federal agencies inside and out, not to mention well-informed advocacy scribes from right and left, would serve the country far better than the present club of servile stenographers.
The archaic media’s discomfort with the Internet began early. I collected some examples for my book, Why Bother?:
– Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote a column, headed ‘Internet Could Become A Threat To Representative Government,’ warning against the direct democracy of the Internet and saying it could threaten the “very existence” of Congress.
– A commentator on Court TV argued that acceptance of government regulation of the Net was the equivalent of growing up.
– Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes called for the removal of undesirable information from the Net. Asked on what grounds, Stahl replied, “That it’s wrong, that it’s inaccurate, it’s irresponsible, that it is spreading fear and suspicion of the government; 10,000 reasons.”
– A writer in the Washington Post warned that without gatekeepers of information — e.g. the Washington Post — “our media could become even more infested with half-truths and falsehoods.”
– On Crossfire, Geraldine Ferraro breathlessly warned that “we’ve got to get this Internet under control.”
– A front page story in the New York Times was headlined ‘Term Papers Are Hot Items On The Internet.’ Other horrors in the Times’ series included a story that the Net had caused Dartmouth students to forget sex, socializing and drinking; another on how to spot your computer addiction; and, finally, how the same technology that encourages celibacy at Dartmouth encourages flagrant and prolific sex everywhere else.
I went on to note that “those not in media elite have found something quite different on the Net. They are creating a cyberarchy of transformation — as different from the hierarchy of traditional information and politics as the vast wilderness of America was from the taut geography of 19th century Europe. The old dukes and baronets, clinging to their decadent landscape of conventional thought, rail against the primitiveness, the raucousness, the freedom of the new media, but theirs is effete whining in a happy hubbub of people discovering the ubiquitous potential of a new frontier. The ways of the Net have become inseparable from the ways of new politics — they are the smoke-filled room, the Tammany Hall, and the political picnic of a new age.
“With the heady discovery of how many of us there really are has come a sense of incipient rebellion based not on ideology but on dreams and values — a shared faith that truth, freedom, the individual, community, and decency still matter.”
I have been a radio reporter; have edited newspapers and newsletters; have written for local, national and foreign readers; have had articles in more than two dozen publications; and then ten years ago I took to the Internet. Nothing has made me feel closer to the guardian angels of journalism and more a honest part of the free press than this latter adventure, while nothing has made me feel more distant from those who haughtily claim custody of journalism’s holy grail even as they dishonor its most hallowed traditions. Anyway, in the end, there is only one journalism credential that really counts: telling good stories well – and truthfully.