Blurring the Lines Hurts Journalism
Lehrer, Jim, Nieman Reports
My message has to do with journalism. It has to do with 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. There's a long list of reasons, most of them obvious to anyone who has been paying attention. Former New York Times columnist Russell Baker has been paying attention: "Later, in one of those comically solemn conclaves at which journalists ponder the philosophy of their trade and eat high on the expense account, the news industry will struggle to understand the great media meltdown of 1998. If I am asked to contribute a monograph, it will tend toward the theory that something akin to road rage occurred in the Washington press corps. This produced actions that were variously foolish, shameful, dangerous to American democracy, and destructive for the reputation of the news industry."
My monograph would begin with the additional conclusion that journalism, as practiced by,some, has become akin to professional wrestling--something to watch rather than to believe. One of the reasons is the savagery that's become part and parcel of the so-called new journalism. It is marked by predatory stake-outs, brutally coarse invasions of privacy, talk show shouting and violence, no-source reporting, and other popular techniques. Another reason is something I call the new arrogance. The fact that some in my line of work have developed an approach in words, sneers and body language that says loud and clear: Only the journalists of America are pure enough to judge others. And judge we must. Because God really did die in the 1960's, and the journalists of America must take up the slack because there are no others who can, no others out there who are pure enough to do it.
Another reason could be our new problems with entertainment. Garrison Keillor spoke of it a couple of years ago at a big dinner of radio-TV journalists and semi-journalists. He warned about the danger of trying to be fascinating rather than just informing. And trying to be fascinating has resulted in some confusing personnel moves.
Jim Squires, former editor of The Chicago Tribune, wrote about this recently: "News events spawn new celebrities, who show up at a later event with a microphone, pretending to practice the craft of journalism. Actors, comedians, politicians, lawyers, infamous criminals--and some who fit all five categories--now regularly masquerade as reporters on newscasts and talk shows. Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Clinton White House political 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. Lawyer Johnnie Cochran may be on television standing beside a famous defendant one day and on another interviewing the same defendant from behind an anchor desk. Worse, many of the people signing the paychecks of those pretenders and making the programming decisions can't see any difference between real news and celebrity news programming.
On my list, the most serious reason for the credibility problem is the blurring of the lines among the three basic types of serious journalism: straight reporting, analysis and opinion. …