June 23, 2004

Goodness and Tyranny

In conversations over the last several weeks – for ongoing projects – with journalists around the country, some who do their scribbling for the nation’s most elite newspapers, others who work in national obscurity but local prominence in heartland communities, I was struck by two characteristics that connected these otherwise disparate members of our profession.

The first was goodness, the deep, abiding desire by these reporters and editors to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.

The second was tyranny, the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis.

The traditions of journalism, especially newspapering, discourage innovation and progress in many ways, but most importantly by creating a restricted mindset – what Jay Rosen calls Pressthink – that cannot imagine new definitions of news.

The conventions of journalism – the beat system, for example, that separates crime from social conditions or the quality of education from the politically driven budget process that determines it, or the story forms and the structural biases they impose on those who use them – force journalists to pour life around them into pre-molded containers: The profile, the meeting story, the political he-said-she-said report, the upside-down pyramid. Today’s world demands flexibility of media, of adapting the form to the function, so to speak, but these hardened conventions cannot change. They can only break.

The production of journalism forces creative people, many insecure and iconoclastic, an equal number driven and ambitious, and quite a few more both of those things, to punch the clock on the news factory floor and destroy, by mandating narrow chores – you write captions, you edit letters, you do cops, etc. – any chance of whole newsroom thinking. The room is thereby divided into various and competing silos of Us’s and Thems. The result is an undermining of institutional responsibility – the copy was late, the photographer screwed up, it was Jayson’s fault – and no sense of collective accountability (what did we do today to make journalism better?)

Much as been made about the the New York Times’ decision not to name names in its self-ablution about reporter Judith Miller’s pre-war coverage of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. Aside from agreeing with those who say the note “From the Editors” should have run on Page 1 where so many of Miller’s stories did instead of on page A10, I think the Times got it right when it said:

“Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”

The Times’ failure was institutional. As was Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. As are the many more, and, frankly, more damaging to the future of newspaper journalism, daily transgressions of mediocrity that accept humdrum front pages filled with mundane stories as good enough to feed each morning to an ever decreasing number breakfast table readers.

We are all in this together – and we need to rethink how our newspapers are organized, what their role is in a disintermediated society that is inundated with “media” but hungry for understanding, what kind of people fill our newsrooms and how we make daily decisions about what ends up on the pages. If we don’t, we won’t be able to throw off the tyranny of journalism so we can get at the goodness of it.

Posted by Tim Porter at June 23, 2004 05:27 PM