Journalism on the Precipice This Is an Excerpt of a Speech Given Wednesday at the International Center for Journalists' First Annual Excellence in International Journalism Awards Dinner in Washington

By Lehrer, Jim | The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Journalism on the Precipice This Is an Excerpt of a Speech Given Wednesday at the International Center for Journalists' First Annual Excellence in International Journalism Awards Dinner in Washington


Lehrer, Jim, The Christian Science Monitor


My small message has to do with our line of work called journalism and why, according to the polls, we are now down there with the lawyers, the Congress, and the child pornographers in the public's respect and esteem. And there is a long list of reasons.

One reason is the new savagery that has become part and parcel of some of the so-called new journalism. It is marked by predatory stakeouts, brutally coarse invasions of privacy, talk-show shouting and violence, no-source reporting, and other techniques.

Another reason is something I call the new arrogance - words, sneers, and body language that say loud and clear: Only journalists of America are pure enough to judge all others. Another reason could be our new problem with entertainment. Garrison Keillor a few years ago warned about the danger of trying to be fascinating rather than just informing: "When you slip into the field of entertainment, then you will be expected to be fascinating. This is going to shorten your careers. Nobody can be fascinating for long, but people can be accurate and responsible for an entire career." Another reason may be confusing personnel moves. As Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote recently: "News events spawn new celebrities.... Actors, comedians, politicians, lawyers, infamous criminals now regularly masquerade as reporters.... Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Clinton White House adviser George Stephanopoulos are both now widely considered to be journalists. Former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and civil- rights activist Jesse Jackson go from being story subject one month to storyteller the next. Worse, many of the people signing the pay checks of these pretenders and making the programming decisions can't see any difference between real news and celebrity news.... It never crosses their minds that their position in charge of news organizations carries with it a responsibility to protect and preserve the values of real journalism." The most serious reason is the new blurring of the lines among straight reporting, analysis, and opinion. When I began in this business more than 30 years ago, reporting was done by reporters; analyzing by carefully labeled and credentialed analysts; and the "we" or "I" thinking by editorial writers, columnists, and commentators. Reader, or listener, or viewer knew the differences because they were part of the contract between mainline news organizations and their audiences that has changed dramatically, and without much discussion or explanation. My experience is that the public is very confused. It sees network reporters on the nightly news as straight reporters, then on weekend programs as commentators or pundits. …

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