November 03, 2003

Criticism Richly Delivered

Don't read Frank Rich's column in the Times if you want to drink from journalism's half-full glass. His is mostly empty.

Rich laments the ethical lapses of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and the "celebrity culture that no longer values truth more than hype," as ex-Post reporter Carl Bernstein describes the illness that he says has infected daily journalism.

These sins, though, says Rich, are "relative misdemeanors" compared to those committed by reporters who "cozied up to Saddam Hussein," as Times' reporter John Burns accused some colleagues in Iraq of doing, or of CNN, which its own correspondent Christiane Amanpour charged, in Rich's words, with "muzzling itself during the war in Iraq and not asking 'enough questions, for instance, about weapons of mass destruction.'"

Tainted by these transgressions and others, says Rich, journalism suffers and public credibility sags even further, falling to the level that Lenny Briscoe, the sardonic detective on the ubiquitous "Law and Order" quips during an episode featuring a Blairsian character writing for a fictional New York paper: "You guys are rising to the top of America's most despised list." Says Rich:

"The public, like Lennie Briscoe gets the drift. It sees too many reporters showboating Geraldo-style on camera, whether on 'K Street' or in the middle of hurricanes, catastrophic fires and wars. They see a famous columnist reveal the name of a C.I.A. agent and never say he's sorry. They see news media less preoccupied with the news than with boosting their own status in the entertainment firmament that now literally owns most of them."

I don't disagree, but Rich's view of journalists and the media is myopic, compressed into that narrow (and, yes, influential) tunnel that extends from Times Square to Dupont Circle. He needs a broader view.

Not all reporters showboat. Few concern themselves with entertainment firmament. Fewer still concoct stories. Most work on mid-sized or smaller newspapers and must deal with the daily realities of journalism - short deadlines, tight newsholes, lousy pay and uninspired leadership.

Their sin, if we choose to find them guilty of something, is not higher ambition but lowered expectation, the acceptance of "good enough" in place of the demand for excellence.

Most journalists do want more. They care about quality, about good journalism, about the responsibilities of a free press in a civic society, but in too many newsrooms, even those with the best intentions, these values remain unarticulated, and, therefore, unattained.

Unlike Rich, I don't deplore the culture of celebrity. Celebrities by their very nature - those who are celebrated - are of public interest. Gossip has always been part of news. There is room for it under the journalism umbrella, as there is for news about food and cars and sports and fashion and other things that are not "serious journalism."

No, what I care about and what journalists doing, as Bernstein told Rich, the "not very glamorous, hard-slogging reporting" care about is the sustainability of a newsroom environment that values and supports quality journalism. Let us not worry that The Globe and Bonnie Fuller are printing photos of Kobe Bryant's accuser. Let's concern ourselves instead with why millions of Americans find their local newspapers irrelevant to their daily lives.

You want to talk about sins? Here's one: The erosion of value-driven leadership in the news industry. Good journalism requires passion and demands obsession. It flourishes when fed these characteristics and wilts when denied them. Focused leadership works (here is the audience, these are our values, go get the stories); diffused decision-making does not (we're urban, we're suburban, we want to younger readers, we don't want to lose older readers).

Celebrity journalism is a cross-over hit from the tab to mainstream press because the mainstream is confused and lost and lacking direction. It's easy to fill that void with pictures of pouty lips and exposed navels and stories about indicted superstars and missing teenage girls.

Good journalism is not easy. It's hard. It does involve a lot of slogging. But it's worth it. It informs the electorate. It helps preserves democracy. It makes those who doing feel good about themselves. That's the message we need to be sending.

 Frank Rich So Much for 'The Front Page'

Posted by Tim Porter at November 3, 2003 08:40 AM

Tim: I almost wrote about Rich's column but I decided to follow your "no more whining" dictum. Rich's piece is just another "woe is journalism" rant that's long on windbaggery and short on useful insight. Sure, we have problems, but so does our easily distracted audience. Rich told me nothing helpful in figuring out how to make them pay attention.

Posted by: Tom mangan on November 3, 2003 09:32 AM

Rich is a me???? No. I have facts and figures.

Posted by: dbrabin on November 3, 2003 04:59 PM
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