Let’s reinvent what it means to be “professional”

A discussion on Poynter’s ONLINE-NEWS email list this week raised the question of why Jon Stewart is the only one regularly showing inconsistencies in certain political claims. He’s apparently doing this quite well, because it caught the attention of many of the Big‑J types on the list.

Steve Outing asked:

Why is that technique restricted to the Daily Show? Is there some reason that it’s out of bounds for, say, the NY Times or CBS News to basically do the same thing the next time Cheney or Hillary says something that contradicts an earlier statement? Why not point that out and document it?”

Good question, to which Bob Wyman responded:

Since pointing out a contradiction involves interpretation and opinion, many papers would insist that such a thing could only be done by a columnist or on the editorial page — somewhere off the front page. But, there isn’t enough room on the editorial page for all the contradictions…

In any case, it probably wouldn’t be either very funny or even very interesting if a newspaper pointed out the contradictions — because of the way newspaper stories are written… When you try to represent “all sides of the story,” you simply can’t write with the same clarity, focus and impact as they do on the Daily Show or in an “unfair and unbalanced” context like Fox News.

Bob’s comments reflect what I see as the essential problem for journalists in the age of Jon Stewart, and that is that the rules and traditions of “professional” journalism don’t support the profession anymore. In fact, they so tie the hands of writers as to drive people away, and as I’ve said before, The Daily Show doesn’t do opinion as much as it does argument, and that’s what this country needs badly from its journalists.

The discussions on the Poynter list often deal with how to save newspapers, the keepers of the rules and traditions. But efforts to save the print media industry beg the question, “What is it about the print industry that needs to be saved?” The answer from traditional journalists usually falls along the lines expressed in this email group: that if the industry fails, so fails the model of journalism that goes with it, which then begs the question, “What is the model of journalism to which this refers?”

The failure of one isn’t necessarily the failure of the other, but you’ve got to honestly ask yourself if contemporary professional journalism is really all that valuable to our culture. I’m not convinced that it is, and the evidence is everywhere, for the failure of the press is reflected in the political and social ills about which it reports. Whether you believe it or not, there are two Americas, and we journalists have played a major role in the elevation of the élite at the expense of those who have nothing. Shining a light on problems doesn’t fix problems, and this is journalism’s failure.

When journalists share the same cultural status as those who gain at the expense of others, then what do we expect?

In his brilliant essay about the lost art of political argument, Chris Lasch wrote that Walter Lippmann’s (the father of professional journalism) vision was that an educated élite was necessary to rule the uneducated masses and that the press should be a part of it. Lasch also wrote that you could track the decline in involvement in the political process in the U.S. with the rise of the professional press.

So again, what is it about contemporary professional journalism that the culture will miss?

Moreover, Lasch wrote that Lippmann’s “objectivity” was really a ruse to create a sterile environment within which to sell advertising. Is this really the business of the fourth estate?

So what is it about contemporary professional journalism that the culture will miss?

What we need is a revival of journalism, not nostalgia, and I think the Web is the doorway to an awakening of the senses of justice and mercy that burn inside each of us and form the core passion around which we live and breathe. Such a revival would also stir a willingness to bring argument back to reporting. “Just the facts?” Bullshit. The First Amendment wasn’t necessary to protect facts.

Frankly, we need to stop sucking the tit of mother media and grow a spine! Our audiences are fleeing us, and it isn’t just because technology makes it convenient. If we want to be relevant tomorrow and beyond, we simply must reinvent what it means to be a professional journalist.

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  1. […] admin wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptWhether you believe it or not, there are two Americas, and we journalists have played a major role in the elevation of the élite at the expense of those who have nothing. Shining a light on problems doesn’t fix problems, … […]

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