October 08, 2005

Lessons - and a Legacy - from Murrow

Jeff Jarvis goes into a screening of the Good Night, and Good Luck, the Edward R. Murrow biopic, and emerges with a thoughtful connection between the ascendancy of Murrow and CBS and "decline of mainstream journalism itself."

Here's a sampling (my emphasis):

"(Murrow's) disciples came to believe that the wattage of their broadcast towers entitled them to equivalent power in society. They thought they were no longer hacks looking out for the common man - as common men themselves - but instead the saviors of society (and rich ones at that). … They thought they could do no wrong.

"These founding fathers of TV news could convince themselves of their invincibility because they came into journalism just as television itself destroyed competition in local newspapers and established an age of monopoly news, of one-size-fits-all mass media, of fewer voices and less diversity of views. And so CBS News pulled the rest of TV - and print journalism, too - up on a pedestal, above it all. The age of the oracles began, an age that - thanks to the internet - is just now ending, as declared by no one less than the current president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward.

"Isn't that ironic: The most mass medium in history gave birth to a class of media snobs."

Most journalists, at least most newspaper journalists, especially those working at mid-sized and smaller papers, would cringe defensively at being labeled a "snob." They would point out their desire to illuminate wrongdoing, champion the underdog and generally, as one reporter once told, keep an eye on the scoundrels.

This desire leads to much good work, but it also masks the more commonplace realities of daily journalism - the stories that don't question, don't probe and don't give readers context for the humdrum reporting of official fact and bureaucratic blather as news.

Worse, though, is the snobbery of values held by most journalists, chief among them the belief that they decide what is news, what is important, what is grist for the national, regional or local conversation. This authority is self-conferred and eroding rapidly as the public finds and places trusts in new voices - many of them bloggers, many of them truly experts in their fields and many of them their neighbors.

The journalistic value of authority needs to be replaced. Let's try humility; let's try to accept, as Dan Gillmor says, that our readers know more than we do. The journalistic value of answers - as in, we've got 'em all - needs to be replaced with questions - as in some issues cannot be solved or summarized easily, but we'll keep after it with the goal of providing understanding. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]

In fairness to the journalists, their self-image as the gatekeepers of news is so ingrained in the values and the ethics of the profession that they see any challenge to it as also attacking the principles of journalism. This leads to the type of defensive thinking heard when journalists (typically editors) complain about how blogs cannot be trusted because they traffic in rumor and unsubstantiated fact -- as if the mainstream press doesn't (hello, Jayson.) If journalism is going to transition successfully from mass to class, from mainstream to Main Street, it needs new values.

Jeff also notes that the bigger the news media got, the more it removed itself from the marketplace. The result: News that was out of touch with a changing audience. He writes (my emphasis):

"Another thing the monopolization of media did was insulate journalism from the pressures - and wisdom - of the marketplace. That, I think, has proven to be every bit as damaging as the haughtiness. And this may, indeed, be Murrow's fault. For we hear him lecturing CBS founder Bill Paley that news should not be subject to business realities.

"We hear that same refrain today when reporters whine about cuts in the newsroom even as newspapers suffer the loss of audience - who no longer like or need their product - and of classified, retain, and circulation revenue, which have fled to better marketplaces elsewhere. If newsrooms had been more attuned to their marketplaces - not prostituting themselves, just listening and serving - they may have tried to update news and not leave it as it was that half-century ago."

This is a simple concept: In order to preserve the principles of journalism, we must create journalism we can sell. [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary and Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally.]

I know journalists recoil from the word "market," so I'll use two other words that are more newsroom friendly - "public" and "community." If the public doesn't want our journalism, which it indicates by not buying it, or if the community rejects us as a member in good-standing, which it does by ignoring our presence - both of which are happening - then we need to re-think what we do and how we do it.

More on the movie:

 Jack Shafer, Slate: "If Jesus Christ no longer satisfies your desire to worship a man as god, I suggest you buy a ticket for Good Night, and Good Luck."

 A. O. Scott, New York Times: "The free press may be the oxygen of a democratic society, but it is always clouded by particles and pollutants, from the vanity or cowardice of individual journalists to the impersonal pressures of state power and the profit motive."

 Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: "This is a picture about a turning point in the media that also helped force a turning point in history, and a movie that asserts, by example, that contemporary news media have let us down."

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Posted by Tim Porter at October 8, 2005 10:11 AM