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What good old days?


SAM SMITH
1998

Some journalists 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:

A newspaper 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:

Policy 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 heritage.

In either case, though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine, wrote recently:

Journalism 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 following statement:

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.

Today's diuretic 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 and reality.

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.