Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Rest of the Story: Whatever Happened to the 'Public Good'?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Rest of the Story: Whatever Happened to the 'Public Good'?

Article excerpt

We've all seen the annual surveys of public trust in The professions. Every year, journalists, like politicians, slide a little closer to the bottom of the heap. There's no mystery about journalism. Consider the recent story-fabrication scandals of Jayson Blair, Jim Kelly, and Stephen Glass. Think of flick Bragg admitting he didn't go where he said he did. Remember CBS' venerable Dan Rather apologizing because he and his crew didn't check out their sources. Few will doubt that journalism, like polities, is in crisis. But why?

A century ago, Joseph Pulitzer spoke eloquently of journalism's bottom line as the public good. Today, we might well ask how many journalists think of public good as the end purpose of their reporting. Certainly Blair, Kelly, and Glass weren't thinking that way when they made up their stories. Perhaps Bragg wasn't either when he juggled being in two places at one time. Was Rather thinking of the public good when he rushed to air his story on questions about President Bush's National Guard service? The bottom line in each of these cases wasn't the public good, it was a calculated effect--to get the story first, to make it colorful, to grab an audience.

PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY and accountability are sorely missing in much of our journalism and politics today. Partisanship and an endless appetite for news have driven us to glib sound-bites and the manipulation of both people and facts. Stories--whether Rather on Bush's avoidance of Guard service or The New York Times on Iraq and aluminum tubes--are rushed to print and air before the facts are clear. When that happens, all of us are victims of a news cycle spinning out of control. In other cases, journalists simply haven't reported all the facts, choosing to rely on undocumented information. Much has been made of the media's failure to fully report what the Bush administration did or did not know about Iraq's weapons capabilities before the war. Some of that was lazy journalism; some of it was simply partisanship, and it cuts both ways. …

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