Professional journalism’s continuing slide

There is clearly an unraveling underway of the bullshit that passes for much of what is “news” these days, and I think that’s a good thing. These are amazing times in which we live, for we’re witnessing the birth of something significant, although none of us knows yet whether it’ll be a boy or a girl.

Ed Cone points to a Bill Moyers’ speech on the media that was delivered Sunday in St. Louis and has received a lot of favorable press. I think the guy’s full of himself, but he gets a lot of respect in the news world, and he’s certainly been one of the top-level players for many years. Here’s one quote from the speech that’s particularly troubling to me:

“I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity.”
This strikes me as being the ultimate in pedestal-dwelling thought and the essence of everything that’s wrong with contemporary journalism. It is cynicism gone to seed. It speaks of a brand of reporting that assumes a point-of-view up front but wraps itself later in the cloak of fairness and objectivity. This statement is the core of gotcha journalism, and it’s destroying more than just the industry itself.

Consider the Newsweek mess. In the comments to my post yesterday about the deadly mistake made by the magazine, Kevin Newman writes:

So is the lesson that the media shouldn’t report on anything that the reporter didn’t witness firsthand? That government officials are not trustworthy sources? I see a great deal of celebration in many right-wing blogs about the Biggest Mistake Evaaaar, but I don’t see any real commentary on what journalistic sins Newsweek commited.
Here’s some good commentary, Kevin. Jay Rosen says it’s not so much about journalistic sins as it is the increasing weakness of “periscope” reporting when it comes to unnamed sources.
Newsweek, which I will call S1 for our first level source, and for which we have names (Michael Isikoff, Mark Whitaker, John Barry) said that it had sources (S2) without names, who in turn said that other sources (S3) also without names, working as investigators for the government, have learned enough from their sources (S4), likewise unnamed, to conclude in a forthcoming report for U.S. Southern Command (finally, a name!) that unnamed interrogators (S5) dumped the Qur’an into toilets to make a point with prisoners (S6) who are Muslims but also not named.
Tim Porter is also making his usual good sense in reaction to Newsweek’s retraction, and here he nails it:
There is a deeper issue behind the reliance on unnamed sources: Values.

Reporters and news organizations wield anonymity as a tool to gain what many of them see as their most prized possession — a scoop, an exclusive, a “The-Daily-Blatt-has-learned” story.…

The obsession with being first was so strong that the wire services or networks routinely crowed (or at crow) if they beat the competition by minutes.

That day is gone. News today is a continuüm. It flows ceaselessly from producer to consumer and, more and more, back again to the producer. It can be stopped and recorded for consumption later, it can be sampled at any hour of the day or night, or it can be ignored altogether, as it increasingly is.

This news environment needs a new set of values. I outline some pairs of old and new values last month. Here’s the pair that applies to the Newsweek débâcle:

Old Newsroom Value: Competition. The obsession with being first leads to a buffet line of bad journalistic behavior — deal-cutting, anonymous sources, lop-sided stories (with follow-ups often receiving lesser play than the original, errors, out-right chicanery and plagiarism.

New Value: Context. Thoroughness serves readers, not sources. Information, with more reporting, becomes education. Transparency trumps anonymity.

I’d add another value change. Get off your damned pedestal!


  1. S-townMike says

    “It speaks of a brand of reporting that assumes a point-of-view up front but wraps itself later in the cloak of fairness and objectivity.”

    You are overgeneralizing and thus being unfair.

  2. S-townMike says

    “the ultimate in pedestal-dwelling thought”

    One might say the same of your monologues on what you interpret postmodernism to be.

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