Bad Work

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Bad Work


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists, by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession "armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of stories and the manner in which they should be presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits" focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned" profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.

Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet in crisis mode recently--at a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center--in hopes of figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with the deans, they're not really sure. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on TV?

As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.) Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news; swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its almost-certain end."

Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives.

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