Journalism’s Slow, Sad Suicide

Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and now one of the Washington Post’s assemblage of conservative columnists, bemoans today what his headline writer calls “journalism’s slow, sad death.” It’s yet another paean to the demise of monopoly/oligopoly media that, at its best, did perform occasional acts of public service. (Like so many pieces of its ilk, the column complains, among other things, that all those bloggers and other Internet news sites are living off the work of actual reporters; but the column contains no actual reporting other than a visit to a museum of journalism.) He writes:

Professional journalism is not like the buggy-whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.

It wasn’t economic progress, but technological progress, that did in the buggy-whip industry. Did anyone ever mourn it, much less miss it, other than the people it employed and the communities where they lived?

Journalism’s social value is real. But the social value of the journalism business? Of the professional class of journalists that rose to claim white-collar, insider status and abused it so royally?

I suspect that what Gerson really misses is the subservient lapdog the Washington press corps, with a few honorable institutional exceptions, became during the early part of this decade.  And what, for example, is the social value of his own newspaper’s continuing refusal to acknowledge, much less correct, an egregious error on the editorial page that employs him?

My disgust with American newspapers grows with every such woe-is-us piece. They complain and complain about what we’re losing, and howl at the moon over the flaws of what’s emerging, even as they so often fail at remotely living up to their own proclaimed standards.

In my last posting, “That Hallowed Standard of Accuracy: Oops“, I deconstructed, at perhaps tedious length, a column by a Tennessee editorial page editor, Tom Bohs, who got so many things wrong in a piece that briefly discussed me and my work. The errors included misspelling my name and the name of a university with which I was once affiliated, and those were emblematic of the pure sloppiness and incoherence of the overall piece.

My name and the university’s have been corrected in the online column. But there is not even a hint that anything was wrong before — a correction method that holds ethical transparency in contempt –and none of the other points was addressed.

What kind of standards do these news organizations have? They don’t seem close to the allegedly professional ones Bohs and Gerson claim for their craft’s traditional members.

For years I’ve argued that we need to keep the good things that newspapers and the (vanishingly few) good broadcast journalism outlets do in the course of their work. We do need good journalism, but it’s increasingly clear that we’ll have a lot of it from the new entrants in the digital media ecosystem.

As for the old guard, I’ve just about given up caring. Their organizations are committing slow-motion suicide. Maybe the people left in the business, apart from the few serious innovators, lack the imaginations and/or talent, or are so overworked by corporate bosses that they can’t even try. But I’m not sure anymore what we’d really lose if their organizations all died tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Journalism’s Slow, Sad Suicide”

  1. TV and Internet journalism do not provide the depth of coverage on important news stories or nor do they often state an editorial position.

    I and others will be less informed citizens if we have only TV and the Internet for news and opinion.

  2. John Mullen – I don’t see any reason Internet journalism can’t provide deep coverage. I do find that now on certain stories. There is no constraint to column inches like there is to any print medium where cost rises as presses have to print more pages.

    As for TV journalism, I see the merging (“see” as it’s already happening) of the video space with the Internet space. The depth of a story might be in the textual coverage with a summary in the video or you can watch in-depth interviews and discussions a la Jim Lehrer.

    We have so many more ways to cover it all to the depth that we want.

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