September 17, 2003

Eliminating the Bimbo Factor

I began First Draft more than nine months and 150 entries ago with the idea of understanding better the frailties of newspapers and exploring those remedies that might reinvigorate them.

Since then, I have read more studies about the nature of journalism and the habits of readership, more debate about what should be done to arrest the continued declined of newspapers as a mass medium, more criticism about the obdurate refusal of the industry to act on matters it knows must be addressed as a matter of survival, and more news stories, magazine pieces and commentary about newspapers' successes, failures and business habits than I ever did in the 24 years I worked for newspapers.

I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did. Hindsight, of course, clarifies and age, if we allow it, deepens perspective. Still, while working in a role dedicated to informing the public, I had precious little information about my own profession, about its best practitioners (or greatest charlatans), about its history and role in the development and preservation of democracy, about its standards or even about the people I intended to inform - the community around me.

To my surprise, and I say surprise because I didn't foresee this happening, producing First Draft fills that gap and rewards me with a growing body of knowledge about newspapers and their role in the larger purposes of journalism.

To my delight, this knowledge connects me to a network of people who care as deeply as I do about quality journalism and enables me to eavesdrop on and, in a small way, occasionally participate in their world of ideas about communication, readership, credibility and relevance.

To my even greater surprise, I feel compelled to return to the newsroom, something I never would have predicted because I left it disillusioned by the rigidity of its hierarchy, by the desperate but substantively hollow grasps for readership and by the creeping acceptance of mediocrity as an editorial standard, the latter often rationalized with complaints about lack of resources or the penury of publishers, as if good journalism would suddenly materialize if somehow a newspaper had 100 reporters instead of 80 or even 10 instead of eight.

I am thinking about these things because of a speech delivered earlier this year by Tom Rosenstiel of the Committee for Concerned Journalists. I hadn't read the speech before and found it linked from the Committee for Concerned Journalists' new newsletter, @Journalism.org.

Rosenstiel, speaking at the University of Oregon, chastised those journalists who defensively reject professional standards and asked: "Why do professionalism and a thorough discussion of ethics and high standards in journalism scare people? What about that is frightening?"

Rosenstiel spoke in response to Washington Post column written by Robert Samuelson, who vilified plans by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to move journalism education beyond craft training as "journalism by an elite for an elite" and "snob journalism." Said Rosenstiel:

"These are bad ideas," Samuelson went on, "that, if adopted, would reduce journalism's relevance and raise public mistrust. They might also worsen journalism's central problem: loss of audience."

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe a journalism school education or a degree is needed to be a journalist. Neither does Rosenstiel. But I agree with him that "the bias against journalism degrees is part of something bigger that I do take issue with." He said:

"There is a long vein of thinking of journalism as something instinctual, some kind of mystical art, a kind of news voodoo-and voodoo and instinct cannot be explained or theorized about. News is something you smell, or taste, or sense. I even once had an editor tell me he liked me because I walked like a journalist. Tom Goldstein, the former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has described this as a deep strain of 'anti-intellectualism.'"

Rosenstiel goes on to debunk two myths: Doing journalism is an exercise in craft and public distrust of the news media (the credibility problem) is rooted in journalistic arrogance.

Critics of professionalism like Samuelson who argue for more emphasis on craft over theory are confused. "These are tools of journalism," said Rosenstiel, "but not its core principles. This tendency to define journalism as a series of techniques rather than responsibilities and principles has added to many of journalism's contemporary problems." He adds:

"This confusion of technique with principle has also contributed to what New Yorker media Ken Auletta has called 'The Bimbo Factor.' By Bimbo Factor, Ken does not mean putting good-looking women with empty heads on TV. He means producing stories that look good but are empty of meaning. The Bimbo Factor is why we see so much technically slick and skillfully put-together journalism that is empty, unthinking, and unimportant.

"It's exposes into stinky hotel sheets, killer bras and "will your ice tea kill you?" It's the tendency to reduce our understanding of the war in Iraq to tear-jerker interviews about joy and relief with family members of returning soldiers; its merchandising stories like Lacey Peterson's murder into non-fiction soap operatic drama on morning and prime time TV news magazines. These are slick stories that tell us too little about our lives and our society."

How could Samuelson, or anyone, argue with that?

The craft of journalism, said Rosenstiel, needs to "connect to a larger purpose a definition of integrity and intelligence." He followed with quote by legendary Columbia J-school professor Marvin Mencher: "The major emphasis should not be on how to write but on what to write, lest the prospective reporter become an empty flask, all form and no content."

Americans have lost faith in journalism, according to polls cited by Rosenstiel in which fewer than half those surveyed viewed the press as "a caretaker of democracy," for "sensationalizing stories to sell newspapers and build ratings and doing it either for money or to enhance their personal careers." He added:

"Samuelson is simply wrong in his facts. Rather than self-importance, survey after survey and focus group after focus group shows that it is a perceived lack of professionalism that stirs public resentment."

The roots of journalistic professionalism, said Rosenstiel, are grounded in "the idea that if you bind the press to the interests of citizens-and by citizens I mean members of the society rather than in the legal sense-people will better recognize why journalism matters to them. In that sense, far from elitism, professionalism in journalism is closer to a kind of populism."

Clearly, I am taken with Rosenstiel's remarks. Journalism does matter, especially when endowed with what Rosenstiel describes as its single purpose: "to put information that was once held by the few into the hands of many so they could be sovereign. Without journalism democracy is not possible. Without democracy, journalism has no purpose other than profit. Journalism and democracy will rise and fall together."

In that broad but enlightened view, journalism is not limited to college graduates or employees of media companies. It is a principle that embraces the free flow of information and discourse put into practice using a variety of techniques and distributed via an increasing number of platforms.

I am not endorsing journalism school. I am endorsing a greater self-awareness among journalists about our role in a democratic society. I am endorsing acceptance of and adherence to the professional standards that will enable us to fufill that purpose and eliminate the Bimbo Factor.

(Others wrote about Samuelson's column long before I, among them Charles Peters in the Washington Monthly [scroll down], Bill Dennis, the Education Gadfly, and Columbia's own newspaper, the Spectator.

Links
 Tom Rosenstiel Snob Journalism: Elitism Versus Ethics for a Profession in Crisis

Posted by Tim Porter at September 17, 2003 09:30 AM
Comments

My wife left journalism 10 years ago to do social science research. After earning two advanced degrees (English and public administration), and after much reading and thinking about her former practice, she's going back to journalism. She starts on Thursday at her old job. One of the things that excites her most is what she now feels she can bring to the job based on her deeper understanding of theory and practice. Oh, and she was a j-grad of the University of Missouri in the post-Watergate days.

Excellent post. I've mentioned it on Rhetorica.

Posted by: acline on September 17, 2003 10:52 AM
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