Uninformed Sources

If journalism is a doomed profession, as so many grim omens suggest, please grant us a dignified exit, with heads and even subheds held high. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, pray our lost tribe through purgatory to some smoky, ink-stained subheaven where our homely few virtues are appreciated. Hear my prayer. And deliver us all, sweet saint, from civic journalism.I pick up my morning paper and see that the editor has a column headlined "Your voices strengthen the paper." I don't need to read it. I know it's bad news, the latest bulletin from the sickroom of a patient whose recovery is unlikely.I read it anyway. The editor of The News & Observer, a worthy and well-laureled daily sold recently to a national chain, begins with the proud announcement that he has appointed a special citizens' panel to critique his newspaper. For some time, he adds, readers have been included in daily editorial meetings. Call-in and write-in "packages" -- extra pages of readers' opinions on various issues -- are now a regular feature. But if that's not enough feedback, what about printing the reporter's phone number and email address at the end of every local story? Done, says the editor.And while we're at it, why not replace Insight, the Sunday section that includes most of the week's longer, more serious articles and commentary, with a new section "that will be built, in large part, around readers' views on pressing issues."Coming right up, he promises.That's about as civic -- and as silly -- as it gets. "Civic journalism" is the rallying cry of media running scared from the techno-revolution. Disguised as democracy, responsiveness and good-neighborship, this "Ask them -- don't tell them" is actually a panic response generated by marketing consultants. If talk-show formats saved radio, why not newspapers?Sure, it's considerably more trouble to record, edit, print and distribute the formless jabber of lonely cranks. But after a while the reader, thus empowered, will hardly miss the professional reporters and editors who used to hold forth. Who wants to be the reader if he can be the pundit? How can the public abandon us, these newspapers reason, if they look at us and see...themselves?We can trace the rise and fall of American journalism from Joseph Pulitzer, who said that a newspaper needs no friends, to these Mister Rogers ("Won't you be my neighbor?") chains who believe that newspapers can afford no enemies. Local focus and unlimited reader participation sound harmless, even healthy for a medium whose mandate is to "serve" the community. Outside the newsroom, it may not seem strange that so much of the precious space reporters fight for is now devoted to the prose and prejudice of individuals who are not obliged to establish credibility or even mental stability to appear in print.Clergymen, psychiatrists and marketing consultants agree that America is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, with side effects ranging from voyeurism to helpless rage. The climate favors inclusive, client-friendly institutions. But the open-mic strategy dear to broadcasters and Netheads has become a cynical retreat for your daily newspaper, even a final flight from responsibility. Professional journalism subsists on credibility. Once the unpaid contribution of every Tom, Dick, Moe and Larry is valued and featured as much or more than the work of the professional staff, there's no secure place for professionals.As the Internet's hilarious rumor riots and verbal cannibalism seem to prove conclusively, information is no business for amateurs. Ideas are complex, even facts are very slippery. Let's say the average layman misjudges, misinterprets or erroneously accepts or rejects about 70 percent of the information presented to him -- conservatively. The average journalist probably mishandles 40 percent. But that 30 percent is critical to the survival of a political system like this one. It's a democracy's working margin. To make that claim is no more elitist than insisting that only surgeons should perform difficult operations. Journalists spend a lifetime learning enough stuff to maintain that measly 30 percent advantage.You'd better believe that the specialists at the other end of the information spectrum -- those who cut, shape, chisel and twist it in order to sell products, ideas and politicians -- are ruthlessly professional. A competent professional press corps is all that stands between the public and an absolute tyranny of tainted information. CBS pioneer Fred Friendly, who ran the broadcast news division at the Columbia School of Journalism, used to remind us that a professional class of journalists represented a hard-won victory, recent and fragile and never to be taken for granted.That was just 30 years ago. Now broadcast journalism has been all but eviscerated by profit pressures and entertainment values. (If you don't believe me, try current and former network luminaries like Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Katie Couric, Connie Chung and Tom Brokaw, who tell everyone who will listen that network news is a tabloid jungle). It's a lemming race toward irrelevance, with your daily newspaper running just behind. But I think Friendly saw the main threat to the profession coming from government and corporate censors, not from faceless chain vendors who want to hug and kiss and quote you instead of telling you the truth.Since no one outside the newsroom seems to have any idea what we do or why we do it, journalists are wise to stick together. I get lonely playing the outlaw, now that I'm past the age of vanity. But this "civic" scam has become a sacred cow to so many publishers that most working journalists have no choice but to follow the cowbell. If anyone is going to stick a pitchfork in her, it has to be a graybeard like me who's under no pressure to conform.I expect no thanks, and I'm braced for a self-righteous backlash from captive editors, those unblushing hypocrites who agree with me in secret.A hypocrite -- an office-seeking demagogue, a radio rabble-rouser, an editor extolling the wisdom of his readers -- always marks his trail with the cloying scent of flattery. But what do newspapermen really think of these readers whose opinions have begun to rule their lives? I'm the first to admit that I've received letters graced by such learning, perception and even literary merit that I could publish a book of them, a book in no way inferior to the best one I could manage by myself. But what about the great volume of mail that newspapers receive, the daily "feedback" they profess to welcome and revere? Here are the standard readers' complaints and the standard newsroom translations: * I don't trust newspapers: Sometimes they contradict my prejudices.* They're too liberal: I'm a bigot, maybe a fascist if I could figure out what it means.* They're too negative: I'm stupid.* They're elitist and condescending: I'm ignorant.* They're anti-business: I'm a crooked businessman, or completely out of my mind.Do I overstate my case? Maybe the sovereign reader, puffed up with insincere praise, can benefit from a therapeutic slap in the face.A friend, hearing me warm up in this vein, protested that he takes a keen interest in the affairs of his neighbors, and even in their opinions. I asked him whether the village weekly and the Orange County daily satisfied his curiosity. He admitted that they did. The point is that the Bushville Bugles of the world do a perfectly good job of mirroring their communities, and do it in all sincerity.It's the flight to civic journalism by the big regional papers, the papers of record, that does such a disservice to their readers and their profession. They're not responding to a need, because the reader's ego has never been neglected. In fact it's always been pampered. And now the pampering has become pandering -- a patronizing false intimacy that fools no one but the foolish.These professional newspapers employ career journalists, mostly educated young strangers who've worked at smaller papers and aspire to larger ones. They're passing through, and they didn't study five years at Missouri or Medill for a steady diet of old Rev. Miller and his amazing bonsais, or his views on the GATT agreement either. We desperately need professional journalists -- we just don't need them masquerading as part of the gang at the soda shop.Civic journalism in the '90s is an absentee owner compelling ambitious transients to fake these "community" orgasms. It approaches the point of no return when The St. Petersburg Times, a prestigious regional paper like The News & Observer, devotes a three-column head and a photo to the story of a boy who lost his turtle. And in today's N&O (April 3), the entire Op Ed page -- not for the first time -- is devoted to the dreary ravings and ridiculous semantics of "creationist" cranks. (For the 900th time: Evolution is FACT, supported by more incontrovertible, in-your-face evidence than 90 percent of the facts accepted by science. The "theory" of evolution attempts to explain how evolution, as a process, is working. "Creationism" is crepuscular crypto-Christian crap.)A responsible newspaper should print all shades of opinion -- and have the guts to say which ones are moronic or mean-spirited. A professional newspaper is more that a chat room, an echo chamber, a vanity mirror for its readers. With the glut of useless, toxic information and the dearth of reliable news sources, this is the very moment of truth when a paper of record ought to read more like The New York Times and less like The Bushville Bugle.We used to place our trust in "informed sources," remember? A serious newspaper's most important jobs are to tell us what we can't learn by walking around the block or talking to our neighbors, and to show us things about ourselves that we may not choose to see. But the pincer movement of civic and celebrity "journalism" is squeezing the guts and brains out of so many decent papers, there'll be little left to mourn in 10 years when their conglomerates shut them down.This paper I'm mourning in advance, based on its editor's effusions, is the best one North Carolina has left. If I had a chance to debate with its editors, I'd suggest that their dilemma is derived from post-modern, relativist heresy: All opinions are equal now, like all texts, all aesthetics, all morals. But chain moguls aren't post-modernists. I'm afraid this is mostly gutlessness and greed. And desperation."Everyone is entitled to his own opinion" may turn out to be the epitaph of American journalism. Opinions based on worthless information aren't worth hearing, and most information is worthless when no one's livelihood depends on getting it right. Civic journalism is like filling silos with grain that no one will vouch for. There has to be someone to separate the wheat from the chaff.


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