Shorter version: Arrogant journalists suck

Gregory Rodriguez of something called Zocalo Public Square:

Newspapers are in trouble. Not just because of the Internet and advertising and subscriptions. But because, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 28 percent of Americans think that journalists contribute a lot to society’s well being.

That’s pretty bad considering that journalists like to think of themselves as guardians of democracy. In other business enterprises, such public disdain would be a cause for alarm. But newspapers are different. Criticize journalistic professionalism, and you’re likely to hear a thing or two about the importance of the First Amendment, or my favorite catch-all self-justification: If people are unhappy with us, “we must be doing something right!” Really? Is that the only reason people might be unhappy with you?

Like most Americans, I understand the need for journalists as watchdogs. But the unquestioned primacy of its watchdog duties has given serious journalism an air of self-righteous adolescent rebelliousness and sanctimony.

Veteran journalist James Fallows has written about this phenomenon in more polite terms. By falling “into the habit of portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom,” he wrote in his 1996 book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, journalists foster greater public cynicism, which, ironically, hurts the business of journalism. “If people thought there was no point even in hearing about public affairs — because the politicians were all crooks, because the outcome is always rigged, because ordinary people stood no chance, because everyone in power was looking out for himself — then newspapers and broadcast news operations might as well close up shop. … If people have no interest in politics or public life, they have no reason to follow the news.”

If the press is to uphold its self-proclaimed duty to protect our system of governance, it has to envision itself as being more than an elite defender of the public interest removed from the social fabric. Instead, journalism should fully embrace a more affirmative — and dare I say grown-up — role as the very connector of that fabric, the web of communication that defines the contours of our diverse society. …

Covering the news isn’t the same thing as making a concerted effort to give voice to our nation’s people and places. Too few Americans see themselves in daily journalism today. And if hiring statistics are any indication, professional journalism may not even care whether it reflects the nation. Despite the major demographic shift in our country over the past generation, the percentage of overall newspaper staffers and supervisors who are non-white has remained unchanged since 1994.

And opportunities for non-journalists to contribute to newspapers are meager. The op-ed pages of major newspapers have long since been given away to professional opinion makers, interest groups and the powerful.

American journalism needs to discover new ways to bring regular people into the conversation. I’m not talking about more cheap social media tricks that ask people whether they agree with a court decision or what they plan to do over the long weekend. I’m referring to ongoing efforts to bring real people’s stories — with their conflicts of interest, their messiness, their refusal to be categorized in partisan terms — directly to the public.

The loss of thousands of journalism jobs in recent years has made journalists even more self-obsessed. This concern about the survival of their careers and their outlets is understandable but counterproductive. Journalists don’t look very useful when Americans constantly see them talking among themselves about themselves.

I could demolish much of this merely by posting this comment from Rodriguez’s piece:

“American journalism needs to discover new ways to bring regular people into the conversation.”

This is typical of the arrogance of big daily newspapers. Small weeklies, like the paper I run, have been a part of the community for more than 100 years. Our community is part of the paper. Our page 1 lead photo is more often than not submitted by someone in the community. About half our paper, or more, is items written by members of the community. In the past 20 years, my community has lost about 2,000 people (net decline of population) and my subscriber base has grown.

My community writes and takes the pictures I run. I just put it print for them.

That’s not how I usually do things where I’ve worked, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t and, if appropriate, wouldn’t do that. For one thing, advances in technology mean that someone can take a photo with a cellphone that is perfectly usable for newsprint. For another, try as I might, I cannot be in more than one place at a time.

Fallows was wrong, and therefore Rodriguez is wrong, as well about journalists fostering greater public cynicism. If anything, reporters aren’t skeptical enough about what government does at every level, including your local city council and school board. (Take away the D and the R, and you’ll discover that politicians can be as craven or as thoughtless at the local level as they are at the state and national level, even politicians who make a pittance to serve on the city council.) Wonder why incumbents have a reelection rate of almost 100 percent? It’s because the media gives them free, and generally uncritical, publicity every time there’s a city council or school board meeting. The bar for a challenger of an incumbent to overcome that free publicity is very close to the ceiling.

Cynicism is an important aspect of the job of a journalist. People lie to journalists, or at least tell them something less than the complete truth, with depressing regularity. I was once told by the girlfriend of someone who was arrested that her boyfriend wasn’t going to be charged with anything in connection to his arrest. Before that, a grandfather whose sons set a house fire that killed his three grandsons and unborn granddaughter said that no, his sons didn’t do that. (His sons were sentenced to one life term per dead child.) The news of the following week disproved her assertion. How anyone can believe Hillary Clinton’s latest claim that she and Slick Willie had problems making ends meet after they left the White House in 2001 is beyond me. Indeed, watching some legislative bodies at work — full of people put there by the voters, of course — should make journalists swear off democracy forever. And journalists start the day in a sour mood because of the combination of traditionally low pay, long and irregular hours, and work environments that never win any Best Places to Work contest.

As for the rest of Rodriguez’s opinion, I suspect there are a lot of daily newspaper reporters who look down their noses at those who work for weeklies … at least until they become the victim of job cuts themselves. It is the height of arrogance to assert that quality journalism only takes place at The New York Times, or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (for whose parent company I used to work until one of those job cut things), or the Wisconsin State Journal (which has resolutely refused to hire me despite my literally lifelong readership).

Weekly newspapers, such as the perpetually award-winning Ripon Commonwealth Press and The Platteville Journal, cover their areas in far better detail than any daily newspaper could. People buy weeklies to find out what is going on in their area, not what is going on nationally or internationally, except to the extent national or international trends affect where they live. (A quarter century ago I commented that people where I was then living seemed to have a better grasp on what was important than where I came from, the People’s Republic of Madison, to which the husband of one of our employees said, “Yeah, never mind Nicaragua — where’s my sweet corn?”)

Being a good reporter requires, first, curiosity about people. I have written more stories than I can count about business owners. I want to find out two things — why they do what they do, and how they do it — how they make a product, how they provide a service, what is it they do that makes their product or service stand out. What could be better, after all, for a reporter than to write about interesting people doing interesting things? This is far from original or brilliant insight, but it apparently isn’t taught to that many reporters, since I often don’t see it where readers should see it.

That part about being “the very connector of that fabric” is a point Rodriguez doesn’t really explain, which makes me wonder whether he even knows what he’s asserting. So I will: It means not merely getting off your chair and out of the office to talk to non-politicians and non-public officials. It means getting involved in the daily activities of life. If you have kids, you become quite interested in their schools, even though you should be interested in your schools anyway as a taxpayer. Showing up at your kids’ activities as a parent — even if you’re multitasking — might convince your readers you don’t have fangs and bite. (Well, most of the time in my case.)

I worked in a daily newspaper newsroom in the early 1990s, as one of four reporters (in addition to a sports reporter). The number of married reporters in that office totaled zero. The number of reporters with children in that office totaled zero. The number of homeowners among the reporting staff totaled zero. The number of regular churchgoers among the reporting staff probably totaled zero. You can’t cover your community without, to use a cliché, skin in the game beyond a regular paycheck.

That, of course, is advice that late-1980s Steve would have ignored. Late-’80s Steve worked and lived in a community where, it’s safe to say, the number of people like me — college-educated and unattached — could be counted with, at most, two hands, out of a community of more than 4,000. (I dated two of them. Didn’t work out.) Some would also argue that entanglements prevent reporters from being impartial and unbiased. Impartiality is dangerously close to apathy, and eliminating bias is probably impossible among human beings, but being fair is not.

The other point that needs making, and the point journalists seem to need to be reminded of, is that the First Amendment doesn’t apply only to journalists. The First Amendment applies to all Americans, including those critical of the news media, and those trying to replace the existing news media with what they think is better. Journalists ignore their audience at the peril of their own employment.



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