Death Knell for 'Mainstream' Journalism

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic James Agee (1909-1955) observed long ago that journalism is "complacent to its own delusion ... that it is telling the truth." This statement is truer than ever today -- particularly among print dailies.  
  
Print journalism today stands at a bloody crossroads. Those who practice it must come to grips with certain realities, such as the declines in readership and circulation, and the reporters' tendencies to espouse personal agendas or to show slavish favoritism to their ideological pals.

Some wags might say, "Good riddance." But the loss of our daily newspapers plainly sucks. It leaves a hole in how and where we get our news, however mangled or tainted that news might be.

Mine is a crackpot theory, I believe that the prime function of journalism is to inform the public impartially without fear or favor. Color me naive. 

Journalists have not come around to recognize the question raised by novelist and critic James Agee in his landmark Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)

"Why is it that, written, facts lose so much of their force, and reality? Partly the writers' doing: as part-artist he [sic] feels the strength of need to select and then, to invent. Also, he is not aware that the truth is more important than any petty lie he may tell..."

Agee, who was also a journalist, decried journalism's "temptation to invent." Words can "be made to do or tell anything within human conceit," he wrote. Words were always bedeviled in two "centrally important and inescapable ways":

"(1) Falsification (through inaccuracy of meaning as well as inaccuracy of emotion) and the (2) inability [of words] to communicate simultaneity [sic] with any immediacy, greatly impairs the value and integrity of their achievement.... "

The credibility of newspapers and, to a degree network and cable TV news, is on the line. For most readers believing in the content of the news has become a matter of faith. Is the report true?  Is it accurate? What is the reporter's motive? 

Few news junkies trust the media nowadays. Surveys place news reporters somewhere between defense lawyers and used car salesman. Ouch!   (I was a young reporter once --with a high regard for the craft.  I cared.) 

Most young people today don't read newspapers. It's not "cool." Paperless households now are the rule, not the exception, as in my kid-salad days, when three newspapers landed on the doorstep to our house each morning.

Our current youth endure only brief, cursory brushes with the headlines. Reading is passé. God and parents know separating today's kids from their I-Pods and electronic gadgetry is hopeless. Larger issues, beyond Facebook, escape young folks, who live in a world of their own.  Subtlety is beyond their grasp. "Duh" is the operable response.

These young people become blank slates upon which demagogues play. They live in an insular world, a fools' paradise, unaware of the Big Picture, geopolitics, policy effects, or the consequences of inattention.

Our elections are akin to electing high school homecoming royalty. (The election of Al Franken in Minnesota is a recent example.) Popularity reigns.  Real issues matter little; perception is all. Even records of outright corruption are ignored.  

But newspapers rely on credibility for their very existence. Not reporting both sides of an issue is not an excuse.  This selective omission is a huge part of the problem. One-sided stories not well told -- and represented to the reader as the whole truth -- are frequently half-truths, or a quarter-truths.  Sadly, the omission depends on the political stripes of the news provider.  Slants are "in." Readers get suspicious and cynical.  The political bias (even the religious and cultural bias) is heavy, obvious, and too blatant to hide.

When a newspaper's credibility goes "poof," the gig is up. Pravda and Izvestia in the heyday of the USSR felt glowers of suspicion from skeptical readers for spouting the Party Line all the time.  Even enslaved peoples get fed up with spoon-fed "news."

Remarkably, a host of journalists don't give a rat's ass about their lack of credibility. They defend the indefensible. It is as if a vast, mostly liberal-friendly, agenda is repeating partisan talking points. Reporters cite political press releases as "facts" and put in "context-filled" sidebars.

Why am I not totally surprised?  Inbred journalism majors only reproduce what their inbred professors fed them.  For a lover of even-handed journalism, and an ex-practitioner like myself, the outlook is bleak. Time was, in my days in newspapering, street-smart blue-collar kids without fancy degrees entered the field if they could write intelligently and honestly.  Not rocket science, just tell the @#$%& truth.   The pay was not terrific; reporting was a relatively easy field to enter.  

Blue-collar kids worked their way to editor slots. They were not out to "save the [post-Watergate] world."  These cubs just reported what happened, and who said what, without inventing stuff.  "Go back," I was told by my crusty old city editor in my formative twenties, "to find out what the other side thinks of this proposal."  Fairness was supreme to the guy -- for all sides of the issue.  (I had not a clue as to his political persuasion.  I came to respect this more and more as time went on.)

As a Journalism school graduate I emerged with the quaint, rather new notion, that "interpretative journalism" (a term found in the very name of our 1960's textbook) was Gospel. Context was king. It was the pathway to "acing" the public affairs course. Inserting "frame of reference" into our stories was a must.  I was graded down without "context" gratuitously offered. 

When I entered the profession, my wise old city editor (a high school graduate) quickly disabused me of the notion of "context."  "Leave the interpretation to the editorial side," he'd say.  

Today the field is rife with highly educated reporters. Fresh from their university indoctrination, they are out to save the world ... or save something.

Sometimes news is made up.  (To wit: Jason Blair at the New York Times; Dan Rather and Mary Mapes at CBS-TV.)   Watch their dust as they try to remake the world and try to fabricate bogus issues, or try to take down their least favorite candidates.  (Imperious, is that the word for it?)  Journalists spill bias into their stories, slanted in favor of their like-minded ideological kin who turn out to be, nearly exclusively, "progressives."

These overly educated reporters do not respond well to criticism. They chafe. They lash back. They viciously name-call those who disagree. As one reader of my online columns wisely observed a while back, "Argument is beneath them, because they are the Gate Keepers!"  The media's patronizing message is "Heel, reader. I have all the answers."

Editors also brush aside harsh criticism. They do this reflexively -- calling any criticism "right wing." Such a response becomes a red herring escape from issues. 

Meanwhile the invisible "left wing" gets no mention, none at all.  Curious. (When was the last time a reporter for a major newspaper called Barack Obama "left wing"?)

The late, great critic, James Agee spoke wisdom for the ages in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

"Journalism is true to the same sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it...but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, and its enormous power to poison the public with the same delusion, that it is telling the truth."

Simply reporting "straight" news without adding "context" (which turns out to be, more or less, the writer's opinion) is a worthy, perhaps impossible goal, worth striving for, honestly.  Agee's timeless words are timeless, worth framing in the nation's newsrooms:

"It is probably never really wise, or even necessary, or anything better than harmful, to educate a human being toward a good end by telling him lies."

Amen.

Gary Larson is a former newspaper reporter and editor, not the cartoonist of the same name.  He is a graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic James Agee (1909-1955) observed long ago that journalism is "complacent to its own delusion ... that it is telling the truth." This statement is truer than ever today -- particularly among print dailies.  
  
Print journalism today stands at a bloody crossroads. Those who practice it must come to grips with certain realities, such as the declines in readership and circulation, and the reporters' tendencies to espouse personal agendas or to show slavish favoritism to their ideological pals.

Some wags might say, "Good riddance." But the loss of our daily newspapers plainly sucks. It leaves a hole in how and where we get our news, however mangled or tainted that news might be.

Mine is a crackpot theory, I believe that the prime function of journalism is to inform the public impartially without fear or favor. Color me naive. 

Journalists have not come around to recognize the question raised by novelist and critic James Agee in his landmark Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)

"Why is it that, written, facts lose so much of their force, and reality? Partly the writers' doing: as part-artist he [sic] feels the strength of need to select and then, to invent. Also, he is not aware that the truth is more important than any petty lie he may tell..."

Agee, who was also a journalist, decried journalism's "temptation to invent." Words can "be made to do or tell anything within human conceit," he wrote. Words were always bedeviled in two "centrally important and inescapable ways":

"(1) Falsification (through inaccuracy of meaning as well as inaccuracy of emotion) and the (2) inability [of words] to communicate simultaneity [sic] with any immediacy, greatly impairs the value and integrity of their achievement.... "

The credibility of newspapers and, to a degree network and cable TV news, is on the line. For most readers believing in the content of the news has become a matter of faith. Is the report true?  Is it accurate? What is the reporter's motive? 

Few news junkies trust the media nowadays. Surveys place news reporters somewhere between defense lawyers and used car salesman. Ouch!   (I was a young reporter once --with a high regard for the craft.  I cared.) 

Most young people today don't read newspapers. It's not "cool." Paperless households now are the rule, not the exception, as in my kid-salad days, when three newspapers landed on the doorstep to our house each morning.

Our current youth endure only brief, cursory brushes with the headlines. Reading is passé. God and parents know separating today's kids from their I-Pods and electronic gadgetry is hopeless. Larger issues, beyond Facebook, escape young folks, who live in a world of their own.  Subtlety is beyond their grasp. "Duh" is the operable response.

These young people become blank slates upon which demagogues play. They live in an insular world, a fools' paradise, unaware of the Big Picture, geopolitics, policy effects, or the consequences of inattention.

Our elections are akin to electing high school homecoming royalty. (The election of Al Franken in Minnesota is a recent example.) Popularity reigns.  Real issues matter little; perception is all. Even records of outright corruption are ignored.  

But newspapers rely on credibility for their very existence. Not reporting both sides of an issue is not an excuse.  This selective omission is a huge part of the problem. One-sided stories not well told -- and represented to the reader as the whole truth -- are frequently half-truths, or a quarter-truths.  Sadly, the omission depends on the political stripes of the news provider.  Slants are "in." Readers get suspicious and cynical.  The political bias (even the religious and cultural bias) is heavy, obvious, and too blatant to hide.

When a newspaper's credibility goes "poof," the gig is up. Pravda and Izvestia in the heyday of the USSR felt glowers of suspicion from skeptical readers for spouting the Party Line all the time.  Even enslaved peoples get fed up with spoon-fed "news."

Remarkably, a host of journalists don't give a rat's ass about their lack of credibility. They defend the indefensible. It is as if a vast, mostly liberal-friendly, agenda is repeating partisan talking points. Reporters cite political press releases as "facts" and put in "context-filled" sidebars.

Why am I not totally surprised?  Inbred journalism majors only reproduce what their inbred professors fed them.  For a lover of even-handed journalism, and an ex-practitioner like myself, the outlook is bleak. Time was, in my days in newspapering, street-smart blue-collar kids without fancy degrees entered the field if they could write intelligently and honestly.  Not rocket science, just tell the @#$%& truth.   The pay was not terrific; reporting was a relatively easy field to enter.  

Blue-collar kids worked their way to editor slots. They were not out to "save the [post-Watergate] world."  These cubs just reported what happened, and who said what, without inventing stuff.  "Go back," I was told by my crusty old city editor in my formative twenties, "to find out what the other side thinks of this proposal."  Fairness was supreme to the guy -- for all sides of the issue.  (I had not a clue as to his political persuasion.  I came to respect this more and more as time went on.)

As a Journalism school graduate I emerged with the quaint, rather new notion, that "interpretative journalism" (a term found in the very name of our 1960's textbook) was Gospel. Context was king. It was the pathway to "acing" the public affairs course. Inserting "frame of reference" into our stories was a must.  I was graded down without "context" gratuitously offered. 

When I entered the profession, my wise old city editor (a high school graduate) quickly disabused me of the notion of "context."  "Leave the interpretation to the editorial side," he'd say.  

Today the field is rife with highly educated reporters. Fresh from their university indoctrination, they are out to save the world ... or save something.

Sometimes news is made up.  (To wit: Jason Blair at the New York Times; Dan Rather and Mary Mapes at CBS-TV.)   Watch their dust as they try to remake the world and try to fabricate bogus issues, or try to take down their least favorite candidates.  (Imperious, is that the word for it?)  Journalists spill bias into their stories, slanted in favor of their like-minded ideological kin who turn out to be, nearly exclusively, "progressives."

These overly educated reporters do not respond well to criticism. They chafe. They lash back. They viciously name-call those who disagree. As one reader of my online columns wisely observed a while back, "Argument is beneath them, because they are the Gate Keepers!"  The media's patronizing message is "Heel, reader. I have all the answers."

Editors also brush aside harsh criticism. They do this reflexively -- calling any criticism "right wing." Such a response becomes a red herring escape from issues. 

Meanwhile the invisible "left wing" gets no mention, none at all.  Curious. (When was the last time a reporter for a major newspaper called Barack Obama "left wing"?)

The late, great critic, James Agee spoke wisdom for the ages in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

"Journalism is true to the same sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it...but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, and its enormous power to poison the public with the same delusion, that it is telling the truth."

Simply reporting "straight" news without adding "context" (which turns out to be, more or less, the writer's opinion) is a worthy, perhaps impossible goal, worth striving for, honestly.  Agee's timeless words are timeless, worth framing in the nation's newsrooms:

"It is probably never really wise, or even necessary, or anything better than harmful, to educate a human being toward a good end by telling him lies."

Amen.

Gary Larson is a former newspaper reporter and editor, not the cartoonist of the same name.  He is a graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.