good old days?
would have us believe that there was a time -- before Drudge
and the Internet -- when journalism was a honorable activity
in which no one went looking for a restroom without first asking
directions from at least two sources (unless, of course, one
of the sources was a government official), in which every word
was checked for fairness, and in which nothing made the prints
without being thoroughly verified. There may have been such a
time but it wasn't, for example, on January 20, 1925, when the
Wall Street Journal ran an editorial declaring that:
is a private enterprise, owing nothing whatever to the public,
which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no
public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner
who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.
Nor was it a decade
or so later when a Washington correspondent admitted:
orders? I never get them; but I don't need them. The make-up
of the paper is a policy order. . I can tell what they want by
watching the play they give to my stories.
Nor when George
Seldes testified before the National Labor Relations Board on
behalf of the Newspaper Guild which was then trying to organize
the New York Times. The managing editor of the Times came up
to Seldes afterwards and said, "Well, George, I guess your
name will never again be mentioned in the Times."
Nor when William
Randolph Hearst, according to his biographer David Nasaw, "sent
undercover reporters onto the nation's campuses to identify the
'pinko academics' who were aiding and abetting the 'communistic'
New Deal. During the election campaign of 1936, he accused Roosevelt
of being Stalin's chosen candidate."
There was, too be
sure, a better side, including those who hewed to the standard
described recently by William Safire in a talk at Harvard:
I hold that what
used to be the crime of sedition -- the deliberate bringing of
the government into disrepute, the divisive undermining of public
confidence in our leaders, the outrageous assaulting of our most
revered institutions -- is a glorious part of the American democratic
In either case,
though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine, wrote recently:
didn't truly become a respectable profession until after World
War II, when political journalism came to be dominated by a few
big newspapers, networks and news services. These outlets cultivated
an impartiality that, in a market with few rivals, makes sense.
They also cultivated the myth that the American press had always
(with a few deplorable exceptions, of course) been a model of
decorum. But it wasn't this sort of press that the framers of
the Bill of Rights set out to protect. It was, rather, a press
that called Washington an incompetent, Adams a tyrant and Jefferson
a fornicator. And it was that rambunctious sort of press that,
in contrast to the more genteel European periodicals of the day,
came to be seen as proof of America's republican vitality.
In the late 1930s
a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the
It is almost impossible
to be objective. You read your paper, notice its editorials,
get praised for some stories and criticized for others. You 'sense
policy' and are psychologically driven to slant the stories accordingly.
Sixty percent of
the respondents agreed. Today's journalists are taught instead
to perpetuate a lie: that through alleged professional mysteries
you can achieve an objectivity that not even a Graham, Murdoch,
or Turner can sway. Well, most of the time it doesn't work, if
for no other reason than in the end someone else picks what gets
covered and how the paper is laid out.
There were other
differences 60 years ago. Nearly 40% of the Washington correspondents
surveyed were born in towns of less than 2500 population, and
only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist
candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington
journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists.
One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade,
lacked a college degree in 1937. Even when I entered journalism
in the 1950s, over half of all reporters in the country still
had less than a college degree.
In truth the days
for which some yearn never existed. What did exist was much more
competition in the news industry. If you didn't like the Washington
Post, for example, you could read the Times Herald, the Daily
News or the Star. While the number of radio stations in my town
has remained fairly steady, it has been only recently that 21
local outlets have been owned by just five corporations.
By the 1980s, most
of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer
than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations
controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all
dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these
chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers.
discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt
to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent
sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted
"market place of ideas." In the end, the hated Internet
is a far better heir of Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine, Frederick
Douglass, and Mark Twain than is the typical American daily or
TV channel; and H.L. Mencken would infinitely prefer a drink
with Matt Drudge than with Ted Koppel.
The basic rules
of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: tell the story
right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker
editor, Harold Ross, "if you can't be funny, be interesting."
The idea that the
journalist is engaged in a professional procedure like surgery
or a lawsuit leads to little but tedium, distortion, and delusion.
Far better to risk imperfection than to have quality so carefully
controlled that only banality and official truths are permitted.
In the end journalism
tends to be either an art or just one more technocratic mechanism
for restraining, ritualizing, and ultimately destroying thought
If it is the latter,
the media will take its polls and all it will hear is its own
echo. If it is the former, the journalist listens for truth rather
than to rules -- and reality, democracy, and decency are all
better for it.