by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 27, 2009
TIMID, PASSIVE REPORTERS PRODUCE TIMID, PASSIVE JOURNALISM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There are many reasons why newspapers are in trouble.
No newspaper in America can honestly pretend that will produce a better product by having fewer people covering the news or by printing less news. But that is the end game after three decades of bad business decisions, an inability to adapt to new technology, changing demographics and a timid corporate culture.
But to me, the biggest reason why people aren't reading newspapers is because newspapers have abandoned them. They have ceased to be relevant to people's lives because too many newspapers are not being written for readers.
Quite simply, newspapers are boring and irrelevant. Most still haven't fully adapted to radio and television, let alone the Internet, and many are run by people who are uncreative and afraid of trying any thing or idea that's truly new or different. There are very few distinctive newspapers in America; almost all of them look and read the same. This has much to do with caution, with editors afraid to challenge readers and afraid of controversial subjects written in real language with attitude and a point of view.
This fear and caution is the byproduct of the cult of objectivity - something that I've long maintained is the biggest crock of all in journalism. We all read, see and hear each day the standard news story formula where Jane Politician is quoted saying "A," and then Joe Politician is quoted saying "B," and both positions are presented without context or explanation. This might be considered objective reporting, but is it accurate and fair?
The gaping hole in objectivity is that it creates passivity. You accept the official version of events because that's where the bulk of the news comes from. It's safe and easy. Challenge the official version of events and suddenly you find that no one in a position of authority returns your phone calls.
Anyone who has ever worked in the news business will tell you that self-censorship comes with the job. You learn quickly that there is a certain way to tell a story. There are certain people who you must talk to and others who you avoid whenever possible. There are certain issues that are permissible for discussion and others that are off the table. And the penalty for not going along is career death. Who wants to see their career go up in flames over a silly little thing like ideology? So, most reporters keep quiet and write only the things their bosses approve of.
"There is only one viewpoint which the entire press of the nation expresses, represents and works for: the viewpoint of business, money, wealth and power represented by what is generally known as The God of Things as They Are, or the Status Quo," the great press critic George Seldes once wrote.
That is the real bias of our nation's media. Conservatives know this, and that's why they've mastered the media game. In journalism's eternal quest for "balance," conservatives know that they can make the most outrageous statements and get away with them. That's because pointing out that conservatives might be lying is considered being "subjective," and is frowned upon by the corporate media. Likewise for pointing out contradictions between public statements and private behavior, or putting statements or actions into context. This, too, is considered subjective. This is how a reporter can cover a story, dutifully and accurately quote the people involved in it, and write a story that is honest but not necessarily truthful.
To me, the primary job of a journalist is to be clear and communicate the facts so that the reader or listener can understand what's going on. Good journalism analyzes, explains and puts events into context. But too much of what passes for journalism is either so loaded with jargon and insider talk that it's indecipherable, or it's so filled with trivia and sensationalism that it's useless.
Journalism is also about being an agent for social change. It's about telling people where their money goes and what decisions are being made in their names. It's about challenging the so-called conventional wisdom and telling truth to power. And fairness and truth, rather than objectivity, is what matters.
Some would consider the above to be merely a liberal's definition of journalism. But is it liberal to challenge the blather and lies produced by public officials, to be unafraid to be on the opposite side of an issue, to value the importance of, in press critic Ben Bagdikian's words, "telling people in a community what they most need to know to conduct their lives in a meaningful way and be informed citizens?"
That's why journalists have value. They provide the information with which democracy functions. When reporters are afraid to ask tough questions for fear that their careers might be ruined, journalism becomes just another form of public relations and newspapers become filled with unreadable crap.
We need more journalism that is written to be read, and that people want to read. We need original voices and people unafraid to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The irony, however, is that as fluffy as many newspapers have become, they remain the only news organizations with the resources to do real reporting. It is well-established that virtually every other news medium piggybacks on the work of newspapers. Read the blogs, listen to public radio or watch the nightly news, and you'll quickly see that much of what they're reporting has its genesis in a story from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today or one of the other major newspapers around the country.
The technology for news gathering and distribution continues to change, but it still comes down gathering facts, verifying them, arranging them so that they are accurate, interesting and understandable and getting the information into the reader's hands - be it on paper or a computer screen. And for all the talk about the "death" of newspapers, people still depend them for the depth and breadth of information that other mediums can't provide. But if you give the readers less and less and charge them more and more for their daily newspaper, they will start going elsewhere for news.
No business ever became successful by giving consumers less for their money. You can't expect people to keep paying for a crappy newspaper when they can get all the crap they want for free on tv, radio and the Web. You may achieve profit in the short term, but over time, you will eventually lose market share and ultimately go out of business.
Less is never more. Less is less, and expecting people to believe otherwise is a good way to run a business into the ground.< Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.