February 22, 2004

Alterman and Tomasky's Wake-up Call

Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky sense that the national news media is “starting to rouse themselves from their long torpor” in covering policy and politics, and proposes five things journalists can do to regain their standing as observers and interpreters of public life.

Their suggestions, made in this article in the American Prospect, reflect basic tenets of journalism, many of which have been trampled upon in the explosion of media, and although they were made with national politics in mind are easily translate to local news They are:

 Go beyond the "he said, she said" and tell us what you believe to be true and important about a story. In other words, to quote again from the 57-year-old Hutchins Commission report, A Free and Responsible Press: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

 Challenge the master narrative with genuine investigative reporting. Again, a journalistic basic applies: Challenge assumptions; don’t buy the party line (whatever the party).

 Show proportionality in covering controversies. Exercise some news judgment, reframe allegations of one side in the context of the larger debate, separate what matters from what is simply being said.

 A little solidarity on behalf of the truth, please. My favorite. It’s time for journalists to get mad, to unify against restrictions on the press and the flow of public information, and to openly resist – with words and actions – those who would redefine the First Amendment for their personal or political interests.

 Don't let non-news organs drive the news cycle. Excellent point. What Chris Matthews says is not reporting. Same for O’Reilly and Drudge. As journalists, we don’t have to repeat what they say. Nor do we have to report the name of a CIA agent leaked by an administration source. None of that is journalism. That’s all being played – and it’s time as a profession we relearned the difference and cherished it.

Alterman and Tomasky add that journalism’s finest moment in recent years occurred when the “profession experienced an all-too-brief injection of self-worth in the aftermath of the September 11.” They write:

“If journalists demonstrated the kind of tenacity in going after key political stories that they did during that brief shining moment, well, America will have an election worthy of the world's oldest democracy, and reporters and editors alike will be able to speak proudly of the charge given to them by its oldest written constitution: to protect and defend the public's right to know its leaders -- and to choose them wisely.”

These are lofty words and appropriately written to invigorate a profession that has allowed itself to be cowed into political correctness of all varieties – left, right and center – by a frameset of meta-messages that taint journalists as liberal pawns, conservative dupes or middle-of-the-road wimps. Taunted and attacked into stagnation, and therefore bereft of the serious purpose for which it, and it alone of all professions, is granted constitutional protection, journalism fills the void with faux news – Bryant, Jackson (both of them) and Peterson.

It’s time to start talking about what’s good about journalism and what can be done to make it better. It’s time to get off defense and take the offensive. It’s time, as Alterman and Tomasky put it, for the “ambitious men and women of the Fourth Estate to reassert their power and professional pride.”

 Eric Alterman Wake-Up Time

Posted by Tim Porter at February 22, 2004 06:29 PM