What good old days? Examining the structure and sense of journalism

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · September, 2000

[This article appeared in the Texas Observer, September 22, 2000, pp. 15-17.]

a review essay of
SLANTING THE STORY: The Forces That Shape the News.
By Trudy Lieberman.
The New Press.
208 pages. $21.95.
THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM: Ten Leading Reporters and Editors on the Perils and Pitfalls of the Press.
Edited by William Serrin.
The New Press.
203 pages. $16.95 (paper).

One of the temptations for press critics these days is to hearken back to the golden age of journalism, the good old days before corporate consolidation when journalists were free to fight the good fight. The fact that so many critics – even some on the left – give in to the temptation, reminds me of both the strength of the mythology of the crusading journalist, and the lack of serious structural and ideological analysis of the news media. My point is not that there have never been crusading journalists, but that a complete analysis of an institution looks at the routine practices and overall effect, not just exceptional cases. From that view, it’s not clear when the good old days were, or that they ever were so good.

Two recent books, Slanting the Story and The Business of Journalism, reminded me of this problem. Trudy Lieberman’s Slanting is an important chronicle of the rise of right-wing think tanks and foundations, and their effect on journalism and public policy debates. William Serrin’s Business is an uneven but occasionally useful collection of lectures by journalists about the state of mainstream journalism. But what both books do well could be enhanced by attention to a deeper critique.

One caveat: Any such discussion depends, of course, on a definition of journalism. On the margins of society there have always been people writing for a popular audience who offer a deep critique of power (such as the journalists who produce this magazine, for example). In this essay, I’m focusing (as do these books) on mainstream journalism, the journalism of the for-profit, predominantly corporate world that sells itself as neutral and objective (more on that later). That is not to ignore the contributions of alternative journalism, but to recognize that the majority of people in the United States get their news from the mainstream.

In the past few years, a good-old-days critique of news media has emerged that has achieved wide acceptance. The story goes something like this: In the past, U.S. journalists could “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Then, as large media conglomerates ascended and locally-owned outlets disappeared, the bottom line began to trump journalistic values. Slowly, investigative journalism and attention to public policy began to be replaced by superficial reporting, an obsession with celebrities, and fluff stories.

This analysis gets some things right, but is wrong on the more crucial questions. Certainly, much of what is called journalism today is frivolous and silly. The willingness of journalists to describe information about the latest romantic encounter of the latest big movie star as “journalism” is annoying, as is the tendency of journalists to rationalize their invasions of individuals’ privacy and obsessions with the sex lives of public figures as essential to their watchdog function. But far more discouraging in contemporary journalism is the lack of a sustained critique of the underlying assumptions of the institutions and systems that run our lives, the routine deference to people with power, and the failure to challenge the taken-for-granted ideology of the United States as the benevolent giant, “the greatest nation in history.”

So, the question is: When was it really any better? All of those problems have been present in mainstream U.S. journalism, as long as it has been dominated by a commercial press, dependent on advertising sales for the bulk of its revenue. My point is not that nothing ever changes – clearly, the specific manifestations of the problems change over time, as the society changes. Nevertheless, it’s important to see the problems as structural: as problems that are inevitable given the institutional structure of mainstream journalism.

For example, after the ferment of the Sixties, journalists in the U.S. operated with a bit more latitude in criticizing power because of the ways that social movements (especially the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements) had opened up the whole society. Certainly there were stories written in the Seventies that couldn’t have been written in the politically locked-down, Cold-War hysteria of the Fifties. But the political success of the right wing in the Eighties took back some of that space; in the Nineties and into the new century, it has been a mixed bag. And throughout it all, the mainstream press has never presented a serious critique of class, race, or gender oppression in this society.

Seen in that context, Lieberman’s study in some ways charts one specific part of this story: the rise in the past two decades of right-wing think tanks funded by right-wing foundations, and how those groups have pushed public policy debates in the United States to the right, in part by skillful use of the media. Selling ideas like products, she writes, these “roaring publicity machines” such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Hudson Institute, and Manhattan Institute have worked to mobilize mass opinion and to neutralize any opposing elite opinion. Their basic goal: “unfettered markets that allow business to pursue its quest for profits without the shackles of government interference while at the same time making the less fortunate fend for themselves.” The book’s case studies of Social Security, Medicare, Head Start, and Food and Drug Administration regulatory powers show how the conservative groups pushed debate on the issues to the right, in large part through manipulation of reporters and editors – both “clubbing” and “courting” the press, in Lieberman’s terms.

Lieberman’s research is first-rate, and she explains why the effects of these campaigns on journalists and public debates should disturb us. But on larger questions of the news media’s role, the book has little to offer, in part because it falls into the “good old days” trap. For example, she talks of “today’s simplified journalism,” but was yesterday’s journalism so full of nuance and depth? Later she talks of how the right’s success of the past two decades “shows how outmoded the old precepts of journalism have become.” But when did those precepts ever produce a truly critical journalism?

Lieberman is on target in her critique of the rightward swing in national politics, but she doesn’t address the limits of centrist/liberal policies that she sometimes seems implicitly to endorse. From a more radical point of view (the most compelling framework for understanding media and politics), her analysis is incomplete. For example, in the defeat of so-called healthcare reform early in the Clinton administration, the question should not be simply, how did conservatives beat the administration? – but why did real reform, involving some type of national health insurance, never even make it into the policy debate?

Despite these limitations, Lieberman does an excellent job documenting the right wing’s strategies, which are important for opponents of the right wing to study.

Serrin’s edited volume suffers from deeper problems; with a few exceptions, there is not much in these eight essays to recommend. The book should not be mistaken for left-progressive, or even liberal, analysis of the news media. In fact, there’s not much analysis at all. The Business of Journalism grew out of a lecture series sponsored by the New York University journalism department, and it reflects that origin in both content and tone. University journalism departments, directly webbed into the economic and political structure that produces the commercial media, are hardly known as hotbeds of radical analysis of journalism. And the chapters read like informal talks; it appears little or no reworking of the original lectures was done to make them more substantial for publication.

Even with that problem, however, there are a few good stories. Pat and Tom Gish, owners and editors of a weekly paper in Kentucky since 1957, recount their struggles to tell the stories of coal miners and other regular folks, all the while battling coal companies and a community that sometimes didn’t want to hear bad news about poverty and strip-mining. For their efforts, they faced resistance from advertisers, and got a firebomb tossed through their office window. Although the Gishes’ Mountain Eagle would hardly be called a radical paper, the editors’ rejection of traditional conceptions of objectivity and embrace of a populist sentiment is radical for U.S. journalists: “We decided very early that the coal industry had enough publicity people to put its views before the public, and we made it our business to be spokesmen for the coal miners who had to work in unsafe conditions and the landowners whose property was being destroyed by strip-mining or whose wells were being ruined by deep mining.”

Also engaging is E.R. Shipp’s discussion of how enterprising reporters can manipulate editors and the system to get important stories into the paper. As a reporter for The New York Times, Shipp learned that the mostly white, upwardly mobile editors were not necessarily interested in stories about the “voiceless” for whom she hoped to speak, but that “the fuzziness over the definition of news” gave her some leeway. Vanessa Williams, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, also does a good job of explaining how a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom constricts coverage of communities.

But the rest of the chapters suffer from various combinations of inadequate analysis, superficiality, and arrogance. Particularly self-indulgent are the pieces by John Leonard (CBS Sunday morning television critic and The Nation magazine book critic) and James Warren (Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief). In the end, in many of the pieces, there’s just not much there.

And what is there often sends readers down the wrong trail. On this count, Sydney Schanberg’s chapter disturbed me the most. Schanberg, who spent most of his career at the Times, is often held up as an example of a leftist in the mainstream news business (which has always confused me, since he doesn’t seem to hold many left views). His essay would disabuse anyone of the idea that he has a deep critique of the news media, or of the society within which it operates. For example, when confessing his own mistakes, he chooses the example of the feeding-frenzy coverage of the death of former New York Governor and Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller (who died in the company of his mistress), which Schanberg says he contributed to as a Times editor. That certainly was not a high point for journalism, but it was hardly the most shameful moment either, given the repeated failures of a paper like the Times to challenge powerful people and institutions. As disgraceful as the performance of journalists sometimes is on stories involving sex, that is not the heart of the crisis.

The problems with Schanberg’s analysis can be seen in the last paragraph of his contribution: “The First Amendment doesn’t exempt journalists from the need to be responsible. It’s our house. No one else can clean it but us.”

That perspective reflects a kind of professional insularity that is at the heart of the crisis. “Critics” such as Schanberg continue to see the contemporary failures of the news media as lapses by individual reporters and editors. If that were indeed the problem, then the answer would be for those reporters to buck up and be more diligent in upholding traditional journalistic values. No one can do that, says Schanberg, but journalists.

But such a view badly misunderstands the nature of the problem as well as the potential solutions. The issue is not primarily the behavior of individual journalists, but the structures in which they work. It is institutions, not personalities, that explain why the news looks the way it does. And the reasons that journalists so often act as stenographers to power cannot be fixed solely within journalism. As long as journalism is done primarily within for-profit corporations, journalists will be constrained, and individual effort will be able to overcome those constraints only in isolated situations, with limited results. And as long as journalists place a na•ve notion of objectivity and rigid conceptions of neutrality at the core of their professional identity, they will, over the long run, collectively serve the interests of power.

For journalism to become a force that fosters real democracy rather than impedes it, journalists and social movements will have to win space for significant non-profit, community-centered journalism. And journalists will have to let go of the tired professional rhetoric of neutrality, and realize that social movements, not lone crusading journalists, produce social change. Journalists can either be part of those movements, work against them, or attempt to remain “neutral.”

But in the last analysis, what is “neutrality”? Myles Horton, the legendary founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, is one of many who have critiqued the act of claiming neutrality, which he described as “an immoral act.” Neutrality, he said, is “a code word for the existing system. It has nothing to do with anything but agreeing to what is…. Neutrality is just being what the system asks us to be.” For those who want both democratic media and a meaningful role for journalists in democracy, the real goal has to be the creation of institutions that don’t demand that journalists be what the system asks.

U.S. journalism history is full of inspirational figures who have refused to be what the system asked them to be – the Jack Reeds and I.F. Stones. But the journalistic landscape they worked in was not necessarily any better than what their contemporary counterparts face. That is to say: we’re still waiting for the good old days.