Stone's Defection Major Defeat for Public Journalism

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, November 1998 | Go to article overview
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Stone's Defection Major Defeat for Public Journalism

Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review

Journalist and academician Chuck Stone's repudiation of public (or civic) journalism in this issue of SJR is a major blow to the 1990s movement. Stone's stature lent credibility to public journalism in significant ways. His repudiation is significantly damning.

It's also a setback for Cole Campbell, a leading practitioner and advocate of public journalism.

Some public journalists saw one of Campbell's first moves as the new editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch - ringing in Chuck Stone as the paper's mayoral election ombudsman - as a public journalism initiative.

Stone's function was, in part, to "connect" the paper with the St. Louis black community, which has traditionally been suspicious of the paper's motives. One of the primary missions of public journalism is "connectedness," to connect with disenfranchised segments of a newspaper's community.

The black community's skepticism was at a peak when the St. Louis daily initiated coverage of the 1997 mayoral race between incumbent Freeman Bosley Jr. and challenger Clarence Harmon. The paper's coverage of the candidates drew fire and charges of racism both within and outside the Posts newsroom.

Stone's five-month stint at the Post was rocky at best, and had mixed results, according to the ombudsman's own admissions in a piece he penned for SJR in June 1997. Nevertheless, Stone endorsed editor Campbell's public journalism approach and commitment to a movement that promotes community dialogue.

Now, Stone is repudiating his early allegiance to public journalism and its initiatives. He notes that despite "my gut-acting-up misgivings and because of my respect for public journalism advocates like Cole Campbell, I thought the new fad deserved at least a tryout."

Stone says the tryout has proven to be a failure and that too many editors and reporters have forgotten what their jobs are about as they grasp for the grants being dangled in front of them for nefarious projects contrived and branded as "civic" or "public."

Like other critics of public journalism, Stone is alarmed at the growing number of "public journalism money-making advisers, consultants and 'experts,'" many of them without any previous experience in day-to-day journalism.

Stone also hints of racism in his several years of observing the grant process and with regard to the recipients of public journalism largess. "Most of the grants, as is the staff of the Pew Foundation, were aggressively white. Like the roundup of the Casablanca inspector's usual suspects, the usual token gestures were made to minorities."

Blow to civic academics

Chuck Stone's repudiation of public journalism is not only a blow to practitioners, but it's also a reversal for so many academics in journalism who have grasped the new movement to the heart, if not always so securely to the brain.

Stone himself is the distinguished Walter Spearman professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism/Mass Communication. Before launching his academic career, Stone was a former White House correspondent, past editor of three newspapers, a commentator on NBC's Today Show and two-time nominee for the Pulitzer Price.

As an academic and scholar, Stone has authored three books. He is a founding president of the National Association of Black Journalists, which awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. He holds three honorary degrees and has won four excellence-in-teaching awards at two universities.

Naturally, journalism academics in support of public journalism have been elated to count Stone as one of their own. In fact, the Scholastic Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) named Stone as its 25th Annual Honors Lecturer at the 1997 AEJMC Convention in Chicago.

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