Red Smith Journalism Lecture at Notre Dame
"Who Does a Journalist Work For?" On September 8, 2005, Ken Auletta delivered the annual Red Smith Journalism Lecture at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana
BY KEN AULETTA
Ted turner, who pioneered CNN and early programming for the cable industry, visited Germany several years ago to address a prominent audience. His staff prepared his remarks, but the always unpredictable Turner - who was once known as "the Mouth from the South" --chose to ignore the draft and wing it.
"You know," he began, "you Germans had a bad century. You lost World War I. You lost World War II. You were losers...."
The audience was shocked. Turner's staff wanted to dive under the table. But then Turner reclaimed his audience by declaring:
"But I know what it's like. When I bought the Atlanta Braves, we couldn't win either. You guys can turn it around. You can start making the right choices. If the Atlanta Braves could do it, Germany can do it." The audience was now laughing with Turner, not at him.
In the course of preparing a Turner profile, I asked him: "Why did you do that?" He said, "I don't know. I'm like Zorba the Greek. I just get up and dance sometimes."
What if I began today by telling you what I don't like about college students:
-- I don't like that you don't read;
-- I don't like your movies and websites;
-- I don't like your docility;
-- I don't like that Notre Dame beat Pittsburg last week, or that all you students seem to care about is sports.
Now that I've dug a hole, let me dance out by telling you: I don't believe in making sweeping generalizations, except to make a point. My point: beware of stereotypes.
This point was driven home to a roomful of reporters during the 1980 presidential campaign between President Jimmy Carter and challenger, Ronald Reagan. President Carter's Soviet Affairs advisor, Dr. Marshall Shulman, was briefing the reporters on how complicated relations between the two countries were when suddenly a reporter asked, "Isn't the problem with President Carter's dealings with the Soviet Union that it is too complicated and the public can't understand it."
"Ridiculous!" huffed Dr. Schulman.
"So explain to us, Dr. Schulman," shot back the reporter, "how you would simply explain Carter's policy so it could fit on a bumper sticker?"
"You cannot reduce foreign policy to a bumper sticker!" shot back Dr. Schulman.
"I insist," said the reporter.
"How many words am I allowed?" asked Dr. Schulman.
"Two," answered the reporter.
A devilish smile crossing his face, Dr. Schulman said, "My bumper sticker would read: 'Accept Complexity.'"
Good journalism must accept complexity. Today I'd like to talk about media complexity, as well as the business - journalism -- Red Smith and I share. Although he was a columnist and free to opine, Red Smith never painted his subjects as if they were cartoons. He reported. And when he reported he did not write to please team owners or athletes. He wrote for the reader. When Cassius Clay changed his name to Mohammad Ali and proclaimed, "I-am-the-greatest," or when he denounced the war in Vietnam, Red Smith had to be offended. But as David Halberstam writes in the introduction to "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century," Red Smith's "ability to change his mind about Cassius Clay/Mohammad Ali when most men of his generation were so offended by Ali's style, theatrics, and politics that they did not deign to see the brilliance of him as a fighter and the originality of him as a man, is part of his enduring legacy."
Smith was also a great story teller, which is vital to journalism. Among the best pieces of advice I received as a relatively young journalist came from William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker. The year was 1980 or 1981, and I was proposing a story idea. I told Mr. Shawn - everyone called him Mr. Shawn -- that when you rode the subways and saw the hostile faces, when you looked at the murder-by-stranger statistics or long-term welfare dependency or the swelling number of homeless people, something different was happening with poverty in America. People were more cut off, more hostile. They weren't just income poor. "I don't know what to call this group, or even the right questions to ask," I told Mr. Shawn. "But I know it's an important story."
"It sounds like a sociological yak piece," Mr. Shawn responded, politely. "You need a vehicle to tell the story." He gave me weeks, months, to find one.
Mr. Shawn understood, as did Red Smith, that story telling is critical to hooking readers. He also understood that a journalist needed time to gather facts and comprehend context. A year and a half later, The New Yorker published my three-part series - "The Underclass" -- which grew into a book. After the first two installments appeared in the magazine, we were editing the third part, which focused on what might be done to alleviate the underclass. I was told that for space reasons we had to cut it back 40 percent. I protested that this would gut the piece, that we owed it to our readers to pose possible solutions for the grim reality I had spent maybe 40,000 words describing in parts one and two.
Mr. Shawn politely asked me to give him a half hour to re-read the third installment. Then he fetched me and I followed him into the composing room, where he said, "We cannot cut this piece back 40 percent. What are our options?"
He was told he could either cut whole sections of the magazine, like Pauline Kael's movie reviews or the arts section. Or he could add six pages to the magazine at a cost of about $80,000. He added the six pages.
That will probably never happen again. I'm not sure it should. But it does provoke the question I have chosen as my topic: Who does a journalist work for?
Shawn believed we worked for our readers, not shareholders. My friend Peter Jennings, who died last month, received a fat weekly check from ABC - as does your 2000 Red Smith lecturer, Ted Koppel - but at bottom each believed they served their audience, not their corporate parent. They worked their sources, but they did not trim their reporting to please sources. They, like the rest of us, sometimes compromised. Journalists in television too often chase ratings, while print journalists too often juice up headlines. However, day in and day out Jennings, like Koppel, tried to offer citizens the information we need to make decisions in a democracy.
They believed, as do the best journalists - or the best public officials - that they are public servants. What flows from this assumption are some pretty startling conclusions. If everyone in journalism, including the folks who sign our checks, truly embraced this assumption:
-- Media corporations would worry less about Wall Street, profits margins, and the stock price;
-- The definition of news would harden. There would be less Michael Jackson and Runaway Bride stories, and more international news;
-- There would be more investigative reporting because the press would highlight its watchdog role, the check and balance function that helps prevent the abuse of power;
-- The panic within news organizations to locate an audience distracted by so many choices - to make more noise in order to boost circulation or ratings - would sometimes be resisted by editors who remind their bosses that they hold a public trust;
-- Journalists would build in more checks and balances to our own abuse of power, welcoming more independent ombudsmen. We would encourage the kind of transparency we demand from government and corporations, and would prominently admit our mistakes.
Pretty radical, yes?
And what might the CEO'S who sign our checks say to this? They would probably insist that this is a cartoon. They would say that employees in public companies, including its journalists, are also concerned about the stock price because their pensions and stock are linked to it. They would say that without money from Wall Street investors, media companies will not be able to raise the capital that buys expensive printing presses or funds overseas bureaus. They would say that journalism that just gives its audience only what it thinks is important will continue to lose audience. They would say the press must abandon its elitist model and give the public more of what it wants rather than what we think it needs. For the public does not just consume news to be educated, they also wish to be entertained. Serious journalists may rail at Michael Jackson coverage, but there's an audience for it. The CEO who signs our checks probably believes journalists are unmindful of the real world. In the real world you have to listen to your customers, and we know the customers want Michael Jackson, and shorter stories, and less foreign and government news, and more infotainment. And more news they can use. Since fewer readers and viewers are buying newspapers or magazines, or watching network news, we have to try new things, they say. What's wrong with survey research and focus groups that reveal what the public is interested in? Isn't a good business supposed to understand its customers? And if we don't invest in survey research, how are we going to learn why young people are not buying newspapers and magazines or watching television news the way their parents did?
The research already tells us: spurred by the two-way communication made possible by the internet, the audience wants less of a voice-from-god journalism than a conversation. They want shorter stories. They want to lend their voice to restaurant or movie reviews. They want to be able to communicate via e-mail with reviewers.
Further, the people who sign our checks will say: if journalists are implacably hostile to the business side of their enterprises, they will fail to create a team culture every enterprise needs. After all, the sales force that sells ads or subscriptions does make possible the salaries of journalists.
These two worldviews suggest perhaps the biggest conflict within journalism: the cultural divide between journalists and their corporate owners. It is second nature for corporate executives to extol synergy, profit margins, share price, lowering walls between divisions, extending the brand, and teamwork.
The clash comes because the journalistic culture is so different. Journalists prize independence, not teamwork, more bureaus and spending on news, not profit margins. We want a wall between news and sales, and we often see synergy as shilling. Journalists worry more about their readers and viewers, and business people worry more about Wall Street. Business people abhor waste and usually want to quantify things. Journalists understand waste is inherent to journalism - waiting for calls to be returned, waiting to get a second source, waiting for plane connections, waiting to get someone to talk. And journalists know good reporting and writing is hard to quantify. There are business folks who understand this -the Sulzbergers of the New York Times do, as do the Grahams of the Washington Post, or Ted Turner.
Turner created CNN on faith, not management studies proving CNN would be a great investment. The studies said the opposite. And though Turner became a billionaire and pressed for ever higher profits, he is lionized by many journalists who worked for him at CNN because he often made decisions that cost money but built the CNN brand. He created the first world news network. He aired documentaries on weighty subjects at a time when CBS, NBC, and ABC had largely abandoned them. He kept his team in Bagdad to cover the first Gulf War in 1991.
Where do I come out in this debate? Let us concede it is wrong to portray our corporate bosses in cartoon-like fashion as greedy capitalists unconcerned with anything but maximizing profits. Most business executives I've covered do not wake up each morning determined to do something bad. They, like the rest of us, want to be proud of their work, even if they don't always do things to merit that pride. Let us also concede that most journalistic enterprises need to make a profit, and to make a profit they must be like supermarkets, offering a range of choices to their customers - international news, weather, sports, business, gossip, movie reviews, cartoons, the results of planning board meetings, etc. But too often those journalistic supermarkets have become specialty stores. In news, they too often promote one product to the virtual exclusion of others. Look at what's happened to the network documentary units that once probed poverty or the Defense Department or public education. Now NBC devotes entire hours to "exclusive" interviews with the Runaway Bride or Amber Frey. CBS's "48 hours," which once vividly took viewers inside hospital emergency rooms and government meetings, is now called "48 Hours Mysteries." ABC's "Prime Time Live" thinks it's got a "scoop" when they snare actor George Clooney for an at-home interview, as they have this fall.
We journalists are baiting our own trap. Today we are threatened by many forces, none more so than our lost trust among the public. According to a recent Pew Poll, 62 percent of Americans believe the press is biased. Two-thirds of the American people don't trust us. This lack of trust is a dagger aimed at journalisms' heart.
It is often said that journalism has an ethics problem. Usually when we speak of ethics we refer to some form of dishonesty - like Jayson Blair of the New York Times or Jack Kelly of USA Today, each of whom made up stories. Lying is, of course, a serious and alarming problem. But lying is not, I believe, at the heart of what ails journalism.
What most ails journalism are vices that can be captured by five bumper sticker words: synergy. brand. humility. hubris. and bias.
Let's start with synergy. We see synergy at work when:
-- tv networks choose to air shows produced by their own studio factories, and then they get their morning news shows to conduct interviews with the stars, forging a great promotional platform for these shows. This past year, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America" every Friday, giving the audience a taste of what the show would feature Sunday night. And again on Monday morning, GMA featured out-takes or an interview with one of the stars. NBC used to do the same thing when it had "Friends" on Thursdays, just as "The Early Show" on CBS does with "Survivor";
-- Texas-based Clear Channel Communications, the largest owner of radio stations, pushed on its stations the music performed at the clear Channel Concerts it runs;
-- media companies like News Corp or Gannett or Tribune - or take your pick - justify their many acquisitions by saying they can achieve "economies of scale." And they do save money by combining finance or human resources or other functions. But they have another synergy in mind as well. News corp has as part of its business plan, that their Fox News can promote stories from their New York Post or Sky News or Times of London, just as their book publishing arm can lock up their stars - or give book contracts to powerful figures, like the daughter of China's Premier, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. News Corp. is hardly alone.
Business executives also believe these synergies can build the corporate brand, which brings us to a second vice - the infatuation with brands. Few business buzzwords are invoked more tiresomely, and are less understood.
-- Yes, NBC extended its brand by doing an hour-long news special on "Friends," but at what cost to NBC News' credibility?
-- Yes, "60 Minutes" attracted a lot of notice for their exclusive in September 2004 about George W. Bush and how he served in the National Guard. But when it came out that CBS rushed its report during the presidential election and made serious mistakes, what did this do to CBS's credibility or brand?
-- Yes, Clear Channel gained leverage over performers, just as Sinclair Broadcasting used its political muscle last year to air an attack on Democratic candidate John Kerry on all its stations. But this exercise of power alarmed citizens, and sparks a movement to curb big media.
-- Yes, doing ABC's "Good Morning America" from Disney World promotes the brand and is good corporate synergy. But if ABC News is perceived as shilling for its corporate parent, it loses credibility.
In news - and this is the part business executives often miss -- credibility is the brand.
It would be a too simple bumper sticker to blame all journalistic vices on an imposed business culture. The august New York Times printed a long, boxed editors note last May in which they apologized to readers for not being rigorous enough in reporting on weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq. A major reason, the note declared, was as old as journalism itself. It read: "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
The brand - the credibility -- of the great New York Times was tarnished -- as was that of CBS and Dan Rather - for chasing scoops.
A synonym for credibility is trust. Think of the trust CNN gained when Ted Turner insisted that CNN stay on to report from Bagdad as bombs were falling during the 1991 Gulf War. CNN may have lost money producing an epic twenty hour series on the origins of the Cold War, but how quantify what this Ted Turner decision did for CNN's credibility and trust? Edward R. Murrow lost sponsors when he reported on the demagogic behavior of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties, but it is one of the reasons CBS came to be called "the Tiffany network."
There are more subtle issues that engender trust. Do we, as reporters, always remember that we work for our audience? Think of White House reporters or others who sometimes pull their punches so as not to antagonize a source? Think of sports writers who worry too much - as Red Smith did not -- about how a General Manager might react to a story? Think of reporters who turn too many stories into soap operas populated by cardboard figures?
Journalists only gain trust when we are transparent, which brings us to the third vice: lack of humility. Humility is what CBS lacked for 12 days after it aired its report asserting that it had documents proving that George W. Bush got into the National Guard to avoid military service in Vietnam, and did not meet his military obligations. CBS insisted that its documents were real. They were wrong, yet it took them 12 days to acknowledge this.
Humility is the backstory of good journalism. In many ways, it is the most vital quality possessed by a good journalist. A journalist shines, of course, who can write well, and is accurate, and can think clearly. However, before we write a word we must ask questions and listen to the answers. Do the blow-hearts on cable TV listen? Think of the weeks prior to an election when a talking head was asked, "Who's going to win?" You can count on one hand the number of times you've heard them answer, "I don't know."
In journalism today a premium is placed on sharp opinion, on wow. It is very easy to get very full of yourself. Appear on tv and often you become a mini-celebrity. Your lecture fees go up. People want to know your opinion, even when your main task as a journalist is supposed to be to gather the opinions of others. I'm always amazed watching shows like "Crossfire" or "Capital Gang" when they have as a guest the Speaker of the House or a Cabinet member, and they have the official wait as they opine on what is really happening in Washington. The official was there less as a source of information than as a prop.
We reporters enjoy first amendment protections, but we don't have subpoena power. People don't have to talk to us. They do for many reasons, among them that they trust we are searching for the honest truth. The less we listen, the less they will talk to us.
They also talk to us, sometimes, because we promise them anonymity, which is why the case of Judy Miller of the New York Times is so important. By refusing to divulge sources she promised confidentiality, Miller is standing up for all journalists. Name a scandal - Watergate; insider trading; Enron; political corruption; Abu Ghraib. How many of these would have seen the light of day without anonymous sources? Very few. We protect the public's right to know when we protect sources who want the information out in the public arena, but don't want to lose their livelihoods. Yet if those sources believe journalists will not protect their confidentiality, we all lose.
Lack of humility often leads to a fourth vice: hubris. There's a fine line between losing the humility to listen and becoming truly self-important. After she brilliantly exposed Abu Ghraib prison abuses, CBS producer Mary Mapes became so full of herself that she became too convinced of her own infallibility, too zealously determined to prove that George W. Bush cheated. He may have. But journalism is about proving, not asserting, facts.
Howell Raines lost his job in 2003 as editor of the New York Times not because he wasn't a good journalist, but because of hubris. Like Caesar, he thought most of those in his employ were inferior. He would abuse and insult them, hold meetings in which the dialogue went one way, be cheap with compliments, and somehow they would raise what he liked to say was "the metabolism" of the paper. Raines helped the paper win a miraculous seven Pulitizer Prizes because of the brilliant job he did as editor after 9/11. But by the time of the Jayson Blair revelations in 2003, he had wasted all his capital, and the newsroom rose up to demand a less hubristic chief.
Hubris, of course, is common to the business world. The merger in 2000 between AOL and Time Warner failed because of hubris. Executives behind this deal thought they could ignore cultural differences between the companies, thought they could will the two companies to grow by 30 per cent per year - and when they couldn't meet this arrogant goal, their stock collapsed. Dennis Kowalski, the former CEO of Tyco, came to think of himself as an emperor who could charge to the company the cost of an extravagant birthday party for his wife.
Finally, a fifth vice: bias. There is much discussion these days about press bias. And I believe we do see examples of political bias in the press. If you were watching Fox News during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you could not fail to notice that they often rooted for their conservative commander in chief. If you read the New York Times accounts of abortion or gun control - or poverty - you will sometimes discern a liberal bias. You would see bias at CNN when Ted Turner was in charge and the network ran pro environmental stories.
But I don't believe the dominant press bias is political. Deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove said in a speech in April, "the press is less liberal than it is oppositional." Every Pesident, be he a Democrat or Republican, complains about the press, just as most every mayor and governor do. And what they most often complain about is that we spend unhealthy amounts of time seeking out conflict.
There's another way to describe this bias for conflict. It is often a market driven bias -- for conflict, for sizzle, for wow, for keeping our audience entertained -- and, of course, for getting scoops.
Some believe Dan Rather has a liberal bias. But if Rather got a story about John Kerry faking his wounds in Vietnam, he'd run with it. Just as the so-called "liberal" New York Times pounced on stories recounting the quick profits Hillary Clinton once made in the commodities markets.
One sees the bias for conflict in press coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans, or of Bush and the National Guard, or of the endless caravan of polls we conduct, telling readers or viewers who's ahead this week.
At the same time, the press too often downplays vital issues a President must confront. While we gauge who's ahead in the latest poll, we often ignore what Bush's tax cuts will do to the budget deficit, or how much Kerry's promises would have cost. With Baby Boomers about to retire, we don't sufficiently explore how our Social Security contract will be fulfilled. We did not pay attention when the President and the Congress cut appropriations to secure the levees in New Orleans. The media often finds these stories boring. In truth, the public probably does as well.
We see a bias for conflict and sizzle elsewhere, in the W.W. III-like coverage of the Michael Jackson trial, or of a missing teenager in Aruba.
We see it in a preoccupation with ratings and circulation.
We see it, as mentioned earlier, in our horse race coverage of campaigns and polls.
These, too, are ethical issues, for the people who sign our checks want more sizzle, more got-cha stories that attract more customers. They have a market-driven bias that can distort good journalism.
Interestingly, this analysis is shared by many on the left and the right. The left is comfortable talking about market-driven biases, about the excesses of capitalism. In doing a story nearly two years ago on the Bush White House and the press, I was surprised to learn that Bush shared this analysis. Of course, the Bush White House did not condemn capitalism. But they did condemn the press' search for the sensational, for selling more newspapers or finding stories that would boost the ratings.
Believing that the press is interested in the sensational, which is too often true, the Bush White House goes overboard and treats the press as a special interest, not as people who serve the public interest. And if we don't represent the public, they don't have to talk to us. "What about the press's check and balance function?" I asked White House chief of staff Andrew Card. "You don't have a check and balance role," he said. That is the role of Congress and the Courts. This is a major reason the Bush administration has held fewer press conferences than any modern president, and is often so hostile to the press.
What's the solution? I don't have an easy antidote. I do start with this: in journalism, form dictates content. Tell a reporter he or she has only 500 words - less if it's a tv story - and they need a lead and "a nut graph" that gets to the essence of the story right away, and that form almost surely dictates the content of the story. So what would I do?
1) I would give journalists more time, and more space. Too often, journalists are like firefighters. The alarm rings and we race to cover. Many of these are false alarms. They are stories we are reacting to, not thinking about. Or we spend our time at the press briefing asking sharp, conflict-oriented questions. Many of these are mindless questions.
Live news has some of the same problems. Technology is a great friend of journalism. We can go live from anywhere in the world. Light, and hand-held cameras allow us to travel quickly. Bloggers circulate post their opinions instantly on the Web. First faxes, then cell phones, then the internet, allowed citizens in the most repressive countries to communicate with the outside world, to become our eyes and ears. But journalism is about sifting information, finding different voices, trying to get at the complex truth, offering context. It is not just a birds-eye view. Live can be like fireworks, dazzling, awesome, but soon the sky is dark again.
We see the value of time and space with the contextual coverage of Hurricane Katrina days after it struck New Orleans. We see it in Bob Woodward's second book about Bush at war, where we learned how the president really made decisions. We saw it in Seymore Hersh's accounts of the war in Afghanistan or Abu Ghraib in The New Yorker.
2) Journalists and their editors and the people who sign our checks have to be willing to risk boring our audience by reporting on dry but vital subjects like budget deficits or under-funded Social Security. It's not easy, but good story tellers can find ways to make the turgid come alive.
3) "Objectivity" is a false god. We are human beings, and we screw up or have biases that are hidden from us. But fairness is possible; balance is possible; not stereotyping the people we write about is possible; conveying complexity is possible. We can be skeptical without being cynical.
Journalism need not seek a false balance. we need not say, "it is alleged that the Bush administration claims it is shrinking the deficit." We can find out if that claim is true or false. We are not reporting on a ping pong match, where we report the ping and the pong of the contestants. If we are to serve the public, sometimes the press must referee. We are not there to judge who is right or wrong, but we are there to adjudicate facts.
4) As we need many voices and localism in media, so we need diversity in our newsrooms. Big media tends to homogenize, but so does a newsroom that is not made up of diverse races and religions and political views.
5) There are those who believe a partisan press is an answer. They believe different newspapers and magazines and tv networks openly championing a party or a point of view - as was true in America in the 19th Century, or is often true in Europe today - will produce a marketplace of ideas. I believe the opposite is true. If you think what I and other journalists report is dictated by partisanship, then we will further polarize American society. Conservatives will seeks facts from their outlets, and liberals from there's. There will be no common set of facts. The press will be even more distrusted than it is today. And the consensus on which a democracy depends, will be harder to achieve.
6) Journalists need better communicate to the business folks who sign our checks. We have to find a language to help them understand that they will not be able to build a valuable journalistic brand without good journalism, which is expensive. This communication chasm between us will be hard to bridge.
7) If we truly shared the same assumption that journalists were public servants and had a public trust, we would better address the five deadly vices. If journalists were constantly reminded of their public trust, we would be humbler. We would make more effort to combat our biases. We would worry less about synergy and brand and more about trust and credibility.
8) Finally, be prepared to be fired.
You might wonder: am I alarmed that many of these eight points feed the perception that journalists are elitists? I am not.
If journalism wants to call itself a profession, and if democracy depends on information, then journalists work for the public interest not by granting the public a vote over what we do. We can't be like a politician who just follows the polls. Our job is not to just shovel at the public what they think they want, because what they want changes. Or is sometimes wrong. Look how it changed after 9/11. Before 9/11, the public was less interested in Islam and international news. After 9/11, they asked why the media hadn't told them more about Osama bin Laden and Islam. The public wants more Angelina and Brad, more Run-away Bride. But does that mean we must give it to them?
A decade ago in Dallas, I interviewed Intel CEO and Chairman Andy Grove at the annual meeting of the American Ssociety of Newspaper editors. The Internet was just taking off, and people were predicting that in the future we would not need middlemen, neither editors nor networks. We would program for ourselves. So I asked Grove: "In the future, what will be the value of the editors in this hall?"
He looked out at the sea of 1,000 editors and said, "Zero. In the future we will not need you. We will create our own newspapers online. We will design it ourselves. We will not need an 'intelligent agent'. If I am interested in health news and sports, that is the news I will read. But you will not decide. I will decide. It will be my newspaper."
Three years later, I was questioning Grove on another public stage and I asked: "You once predicted that newspapers would have little value in the future because the Internet allowed everyone to create their own my newspaper. Do you still believe this?"
"No," he said. "I was totally wrong. I did not appreciate the value of serendipity. I could not predict that I would want to know about Sarajevo or Rwanda. I realize that we do need 'intelligent agents' to help us sort out important information."
Ted Koppel said here five years ago, that anyone can be a journalist. Bloggers and the Internet and cell phones with digital cameras have deputized citizens to act as journalists. This is great, and when the tsunami struck South Asia or Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi, the first horrifying pictures came from citizen journalists who turned their digital cameras and e-mails on to describe the giant waves and horrible devastation. But not everyone can be a good journalist. A good journalists is trained to give context, to get all sides of a story, to be fair, to be accurate, to give more than a birds-eye view of reality.
So who do we work for? You don't always know it, and sometimes we don't live up to it, but journalists are as much a public servant as the people you elect to office.
So the next time you wonder: how do I square my sense that the press screws up with the argument that the press serves a vital public service? How do I square the sensational and the serious, the way the press got weapons of mass destruction wrong and got right the failure of the Bush administration to respond quickly enough to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina?
I think F. Scott Fitzgerald had the correct answer to this riddle when he said, "The mark of an intelligent person is someone who has the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time and still function."
That, my friends, is a long but pretty accurate bumper sticker.