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Pulitzer Prize Winner 'Disses' Civic Journalism

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Pulitzer Prize Winner 'Disses' Civic Journalism

Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review

Political cartoonists are unabashed individualists. In the tradition of their great forbearer, Thomas Nast, the best are also rabble-rousers, iconoclasts, and avowed enemies of ambivalence and timidity.

It should be no surprise then that more and more political cartoonists are speaking out against the creeping influence of public journalism on newspapering. No one exercising the First Amendment privilege has more to lose from the philosophy and practice of public journalism than does the angry and agitated political cartoonist.

Mike Peters, syndicated cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, has joined other critics of public journalism in calling for an end to this so-called reform movement. Public journalism--with its calls for a news media devoted to the search for civic capital, common ground and community connectedness--is anathema to Peters.

"We need a Fourth Estate like the one Thomas Jefferson talked about," insists Peters. "We need a press that's dedicated to the watchdog role. We don't need a pipe organ for government and politicians. And we certainly don't need public journalism to save newspapers."

Anger is not what motivates Peters to speak out loud against public journalism. Try exasperation. Peters is astounded and frustrated that the demands for a kinder, gentler and more "solution-oriented" press often are coming from insiders--those who feign to practice journalism themselves.

Peters' particular brand of political cartooning, which is anything but "kinder and gentler," has found a place in hundreds of newspapers and magazines for more than three decades. Even in his early teens, he says, he was out "to step on toes" in his cartooning for the community weekly in his hometown of Webster Groves.

In 1981, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a hard-hitting piece he did in support of gun control legislation, a sketch that surely raised the ire of National Rifle Association (NRA) types. Five years before that coveted prize, he published the first of many books to come, entitled "The Nixon Chronicles."

As a political cartoonist, Peters has employed his poison pens and pencils against our country's debacle in Vietnam, against the corruption of Watergate, against the superficial jingoism of the Reagan years. He is in no mood to see turn-of-the-century journalism in America collapse into a mush of meaningful participation, civic engagement and deliberative conversation.

Peters has no patience for public journalism tenets which hold that today's news is too conflict-oriented, too negative and too prone to giving voice to the extremes on issues. He emphatically favors muckraking over public pulse-taking.

What news is

"Someone I admire gave me a definition of news a while back that I agree with: 'News is what someone else doesn't want you to know--and everything else is propaganda.' I think that's basically true," Peters says.

"If you want to have a news organization, you have to go out and hustle, and dig things up, and a lot of it's going to be negative," observes Peters. "But if you want to put out a chamber of commerce newsletter, then by all means be the chamber's newsletter, but don't call yourself a newspaper."

Peters shudders at 1990's public journalism projects that link up newspapers with civic commerce organizations and consultants. Many such projects have been designed to revive downtown cores or to attract new economic growth to depressed regions.

"I know my editor and publisher at the Dayton Daily News are very civic-minded. Being civic-minded in itself is not a bad thing," says Peters. "But civic-mindedness in place of news is a bad thing. And linking up with a bunch of corporate heads to try to revive a downtown is bound to compromise how business is covered down the road."

According to Peters, public journalists are too willing to abandon detachment in service of causes that are basically wimpy.

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