Tom Stites, a former newspaper editor and a deep thinker about the journalism craft, gave a speech last summer that won plenty of well-deserved attention. In that talk — which we guest-posted here, entitled “Is media performance democracy’s critical issue?” — he posed a key question about our future.
Now he’s back with an essay about the need for great journalism. It appears here in four parts, which we’ll run today through Thursday. (You can also read the entire essay here; we’ll also post a PDF version soon.)
Here’s the first installment:
Needed: More Excellence in Journalism
First of four articles
By Tom Stites
The phrase just keeps gnawing on my mind.
The gnawing started in September as I read Michael Kinsley’s essay in Time entitled “Do Newspapers Have a Future?” In it he describes The Los Angeles Times as “long the industry’s leading example of needless excellence” for its “bureaus around the world” and its “huge Washington Staff.”
And by singling out The Times as the “leading example,” Kinsley suggests that it is not alone among perpetrators, that there is plenty of excellence that could be discarded.
Excellence is needless? Needless to whom?
Kinsley doesn’t say but we can speculate.
His phrase would surely resonate with investors whose only aim is cutting costs in pursuit of maximum short-term profits. But what about the readers, the citizens?
And, speaking of citizens, what about our flagging democracy?
The seismic changes that are shaking journalism’s established institutions are inspiring important innovations that help. The “placeblog” boom and citizen journalism are generating lots of justified excitement as they buttress or replace crumbling newspaper coverage in local communities, thus buttressing democracy.
But the foreign and Washington coverage Kinsley attacks as needless is not local. Emerging Web journalism offers promising tactics for enriching national coverage but so far it hasn’t shown that it can replace reporting by experienced Washington and foreign correspondents. These reporters, who not only cover events and institutions based on years or decades of practice, also do so much of the enterprise reporting that is the finest fruit of journalistic excellence.
There are still some kinds of stories that only a correspondent can provide: on-the-ground reporting in remote places, the ambitious search for meaningful national and global patterns and trends, and exposing secrets that the powerful love to hide. Exposure of the CIA’s secret prisons in Europe and of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program leap to mind. Stories like this couldn’t be further from needless.
UPDATE: This week’s Los Angeles Times is running a prime example of needed excellence that can be achieved only by spending lots of money on highly skilled professional journalists — not to mention very expensive legal counsel. The Times project about the Gates Foundation’s conflicting interests combines on-the-ground reporting in a remote place in Africa with resourceful investigative reporting to show the impact of corporate decisions on real people — and on the moral health of America’s biggest charity. Democracy really, really needs this kind of journalism
Because journalism is in an unprecedented state of flux it is the subject of vigorous public hand wringing, largely within two frames. One, exemplified by Kinsley’s piece in Time, is what will become of the companies that own big newspapers and the other mainstream media, and what will become of their properties. The other, largely an online phenomenon, is about the inherent biases and shortcomings of the MSM relative to the purer approaches of citizen journalism. Both of these frames yield useful discourse.
But there is a little-used third frame, a crucial frame that I’d like to hold up: What does our nation’s democracy need from journalism, and are we meeting this need?
Our democracy has rarely, if ever, been under such siege from forces working to rig our governments to do their bidding at the expense of the public interest: Corporations with the wealth and power of some nations flood Washington with dollars and lobbyists; the tiny number of Americans with vast and expanding wealth do the same; crony capitalists plunder the treasury with no-bid contracts, earmark deals, and tax giveaways; a theocratic strain of Christians pressures governments at every level to impose their narrow view of morality, and all these forces deploy ever-more-sophisticated communications tactics that drench Americans in manipulative messages.
Meanwhile, an imperialistic administration relishes using both open and insidious propaganda, paying journalists to place pieces spotlighting official views, turning out video press releases, and shaping monosyllabic yet symbol-laden messages like “stay the course” and “cut and run” to be hammered again and again not only in speeches and press conferences but also by talking heads and other allies in the media.
Liberals may take heart that by capturing both houses of Congress the Democrats should be able to limit some of the excesses, but this is likely to do very little or nothing to turn back the tide of dollars that overpower votes. Nor is President Bush’s acknowledgement that we’re not winning in Iraq likely to blunt the message-shaping genius of Karl Rove.
It is not journalism’s role to fix our broken democracy. But it is journalism’s role to serve democracy. The First Amendment — and the spirit of Tom Paine and hosts of his successors whose work calls forth the phrase public trust — enshrine that duty, a catalytic one in a democracy. I think it’s safe to say that this role is so crucial that unless journalism can find ways to strengthen itself and rise to today’s unprecedented challenges, other efforts to fix democracy are doomed to fail.
So, in this frame, all of us – media old and new, volunteer and corporate and not-for-profit, reporters and editors and photographers and bloggers, publishers and inventors, funders and investors – need to pour skill and energy into creating more excellence.
Now this is easy to say. Envisioning ways to strengthen journalism to the point that it’s seen as fulfilling the public trust in today’s challenging world is a task so daunting as to be a serious strain to the imagination. This will require not only a wide variety of committed journalists but also new journalistic institutions deep enough in resources that they can relentlessly create excellence that no sane citizen could ever consider needless. Some of these institutions will emerge from the energetic Web-based media. Others will have to be imagined, funded, and created. To me, the most challenging question is who, other than the deeply committed citizen journalists whose reach so far is so limited, has the right motivation plus the needed resources for strengthening journalism so it can do its crucial piece to save democracy?