The journalistic navel

September 14, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Journalism, it seems, is not in high repute these days. Even before the death of Princess Diana forced thousands of commentators to learn how to spell paparazzi in order to denounce press irresponsibility, the news media had been taking hits from all directions.

The press is variously seen today -- as it has been seen for at least a century -- as pompous, trivial, ignorant, elitist, populist, inaccurate, sensationalist and dull, among other things. And while at times it may be all of those, it is also the most self-absorbed of institutions, endlessly fascinated by itself and what it modestly sees as its mission.

Thus, earlier this month, something titled ''A Statement of Concern'' appeared on editors' desks. It was signed by 28 people from in or around the media, many of whom had been important at one time or another. The Statement declared (thunder of drums) that ''This is a critical moment for journalism -- in America.'' Then the thunder gave way to a plaintive sigh that ''many journalists feel a sense of lost purpose.''

Oh dear, how sad. And why might this be? The Statement's authors think there may be confusion between ''our responsibilities as businesses versus our responsibilities as journalists.''

In other words, the age-old tussle between the newsroom and the business office is still going on. For generations, reporters have known that if you write about the local banker's exorbitant interest rates, he may pull his advertising out of your paper. Then, if your newspaper doesn't back you up, you may risk the loss of your job as well as your sense of purpose.

Or, as happened to The New Republic's editor only the other day, you can lose your job if your publisher doesn't like your politics. These things aren't nice, and they often don't reflect well on those involved. But they've been happening for about as long as there have been journalists.

New technology

The Statement also frets about technology, not a new concern either. For a century, technology has continually changed the communications business, mostly for the better, but not without casualties. (Stereotypers and Linotype operators, where are you now?) The newest technology has given news-and-information consumers many competing alternatives from which to choose, which is one reason why newspaper circulation is declining, and why so many Americans no longer feel the need to watch television network news.

In the world of today's journalism, observes the Statement incredulously, ''there is even doubt about the meaning of news.'' That must be why different newspapers and broadcast outlets often emphasize different stories, which some of us weren't even aware is a journalistic problem. Disappointingly, the Statement doesn't define news for us. (I always liked one of the old definitions, which holds that news is anything that happens to, or comes to the attention of, a newspaper publisher.)

The Statement implies that there should be a new code of conduct for all journalists, whether they work for the National Enquirer or the Philadelphia Inquirer, but it doesn't provide one. In fact, it doesn't offer solutions of any sort. Much like Sheldon Hackney of the National Endowment for the Humanities calling for a ''national conversation'' so that Americans can learn the right opinions, the Statement proposes ''to summon journalists to a period of national reflection.'' Public forums around the country are envisioned at which journalists ''and other interested individuals'' will express their concerns.

Now all of this is probably constructive, up to a point. If people in journalism want to get together to ask themselves why the public seems to be down on them, it won't do any harm. They could ask the public too, of course. But when the public gives its reasons -- inaccuracy, political bias, sensationalism, whatever -- the journalists always retort that the public doesn't understand the news business.

According to the New York Times, the Statement was underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a major foundation which has been pushing something it calls ''civic journalism.'' Just what this might be isn't exactly clear, but mostly it seems to involve newspapers inviting selected groups of do-gooders in to tell them how to run their business.

Personally, I'd think it would make more sense for journalists to ignore the opinions of the do-gooder groups and of other journalists, no matter how eminent, and concentrate on providing the sort of news their readers want.

On the National Enquirer, this might be sex and scandal; on the New York Times, it might be lucid and intelligent coverage of the Bosnian elections. Both are news. If the job's done well, over the long run the readers and the viewers will let that be known. Then the news organization will succeed, and the business office will probably be happy, too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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