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The Rise of Professional Journalism (cont’d)

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A return to explicit partisanship?

Some have concluded, after a rigorous accounting of the flaws in professional journalism, that we would be far better to return to a more explicitly partisan form of journalism. Let’s cut the flawed pretense of neutrality and professionalism, the reasoning goes, and let all sides have at it. The problem with this argument is that it accepts the premise that the type of professional journalism that emerged in the United States is the only type possible, and the only alternative to it is explicit partisanship. In fact, there was a major debate in the 1930s over what constituted professional journalism between the newly formed journalists’ union, the Newspaper Guild, and the press barons. To George Seldes and Heywood Broun of the Newspaper Guild, the reliance upon official sources and the internalization of the owners’ biases was anathema to genuine professional journalism. They argued that a truly independent journalism required journalists to stand outside of partisan institutions, assuming the perspective of those outside of power. As the legendary expression goes, journalism should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

For Seldes’s vision of independent professional journalism to take hold, it would require that journalists use their union to prevent owners from having any control over the editorial contents of the paper, to make the Chinese Wall impermeable, and for the staff to be accountable directly to the public. Unfortunately, Seldes and the Newspaper Guild lost this fight to the extent it was ever much in play. By the 1940s the Guild became a conventional trade union, and what we know as professional journalism was on the verge of being adopted by all U.S. news media with the exception of a few cranky holdouts, like William Loeb in New Hampshire. But the Seldes vision of independent professional journalism has survived on the margins, in the work of journalists such as Seymour Hersh, Bill Moyers, Charles Lewis, and Amy Goodman, to mention but a few. It is dismissed as partisan by those who dislike the glaring light of public attention upon those in power, and because sympathy with those out of power is regarded as unacceptably ideological. But what makes this journalism so powerful is that it actually applies the same hard look at all in power regardless of party affiliation.

Professional journalism enjoyed a golden age of sorts in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although there was sharp criticism of mainstream journalism during this period in the alternative press, and in journalism reviews edited by working reporters, the resources, autonomy, and institutional strength of professional journalism were arguably at their peak during these years. On the heels of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon resignation, professional journalism enjoyed considerable prestige and was regarded as a central force for good in the nation. In the classic 1970s film drama Three Days of the Condor, the film ends with Robert Redford’s character entering the New York Times building to turn over his evidence of government chicanery. The insinuation was that journalists would slay the dragon and we would all live happily ever after.

A more contemporary Hollywood drama on journalism, The Insider, a few years ago told the true story of how management pressure led CBS News to spike an interview with a tobacco industry whistle-blower. Today, the expectation that journalists could or would provide a happy ending turns out to be unrealistic, unless the film is a farce.

The commercial assault on journalism

Since the 1970s, professional journalism has been under sharp attack on two fronts. First, a wave of media consolidation and conglomeration combined with loosened federal regulations unleashed a commercial attack on the autonomy of professional journalism. Increasingly, the deal between media owners and journalists–the Chinese Wall separating church and state, commercial interests from journalistic values–no longer made as much business sense to the owners. Why should they lavish resources on news divisions unless those divisions generated the same returns as the other branches of the corporate empire? After all, the argument went, this is a business, not a charity, which must be accountable to shareholders’ needs for profit maximization above all else. If the market does not encourage journalism, then people must not want or need journalism, or at least the quaint old journalism of yesteryear. Because the deal between owners and journalists was never in writing, it has eroded under steady commercial pressure.

Understood in this context, much of what has transpired in journalism over the past two or three decades makes sense. On the one hand, there has been a decrease in resources for journalism. On the other hand, journalism standards for what is considered a legitimate story have gradually transformed to incorporate the newly commercialized environment. All in all, the autonomy of professional journalism is disappearing in a manner similar to the Amazon rainforest or the ozone layer.

The reduction in resources for journalism has been widely chronicled. It means many fewer resources for investigative reporting. Roberta Baskin, who has won seventy-five awards and two Peabodys with ABC and CBS, among others, says that investigative journalism became the first area cut over the past two decades as corporate values conquered the newsroom. Moreover, investigative journalism went from being a protected and encouraged entity to something viewed by corporate managers with suspicion. “The lawyers for the media firms have always checked our stories for possible legal issues,” Baskin states. “But whereas the lawyers were once sympathetic, playing an advocacy role to the journalists and trying to get their stories on the air, now they’re representing the perspective of the owners, that investigative journalism is a lot of trouble and the less of it the better.” As Charles Lewis has noted, much of what passes for investigative journalism today simply involves an insider leaking a story to a reporter.

International coverage is also on the kill list. Expensive correspondents produce lots of red ink and very little black ink. Veteran CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton wrote a devastating account of the decline of international coverage in the U.S. media, especially television news, in his 2005 book, Bad News. Fenton notes that the amount of coverage in U.S. newspapers and on TV news devoted to foreign affairs dropped by 70 to 80 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. Fenton outlines in depressing detail the utter lack of interest corporate media executives have in covering the world. By the time the 9/11 attacks occurred, the news media had left the American public with no grounding to evaluate what had taken place and why. An American arguably had to devote enormous attention to scouring obscure sites on the Internet or pursue an advanced degree in international politics in order to have the same sense of the world that many Europeans had from exposure to their mainstream media. And despite a lot of hot air immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the news media would begin to cover the world again, such rhetoric was never taken seriously by corporate media managers.

The reduction in the number of reporters overall means increased reliance upon public relations news releases as the basis for news stories. On television, journalism is replaced by uninformed punditry and pointless prognostication, an inexpensive and entertaining way to maximize profit, but nothing remotely close to journalism. Indeed, the real revolution brought on by the FOX News Channel is less its turn to partisanship as it is its replacement of costly journalism with relatively inexpensive pundit blowhards. It is a winning business model, and highly attractive to all media owners. The other alternative is the outright elimination of news, as has happened on many radio stations and on a growing number of television stations. In town after town, there are barely a handful of journalists on the job, and issues of considerable importance get only cursory mention or no treatment whatsoever.

This means that the traditional malady of professional journalism, that it basically reports debates between elites, becomes a cancer. It is one thing to report on debates and then do some investigation, some journalism, to ascertain what the truth of the matter is. It is quite another thing to report on debates and competing claims and wash one’s hands of any responsibility to examine the claims. In journalism today it is increasingly the rule that if a journalist challenges a politician’s claim, they are accused of being partisan, which is anathema. It is left to the politician’s opponent to make the challenge and produce the evidence, not the journalist. But since a political opponent can always be dismissed as partisan, a politician can lie with impunity. Journalists spend much more time evaluating whether politicians can successfully spin the public–i.e., lie–than they do holding politicians responsible for lying. Our journalistic environment today is a liar’s paradise.

This excerpt of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, was published with the permission of The New Press.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington D.C. correspondent and the associate editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc. His articles have appeared in many newspapers.

Robert W. McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former editor of Monthly Review. He is the author of many books, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He hosts Media Matters on WILL-AM radio.

McChesney and Nichols have co-authored the books It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press) and, most recently, The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation's media-reform network.

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