A Bad Week for Journalism

"Great minds focus on ideas. Average minds focus on events and small minds focus on people" - anonymous

I'm hoping this week is a better one for journalism.

Last week began with the American Society of Newspaper Editors reporting that 2,400 full-time newspaper jobs were lost in 2007 -- the largest annual drop in 30 years, bringing the total number of tanked news workers to about 15,000 over the past decade.

"It was an even larger decrease than the 2,000 drop-off in the recession year of 2001," laments Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poytner Institute.

Then, millions witnessed ABC's Democratic presidential debate moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson putting all of their feet (via their mouths) on the accelerator toward the collapse of modern journalism, in their trivial pursuit of "tough questions" on behalf of "ordinary Americans."

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the Washington press corps asked Obama if he's ever given someone the middle-finger and if so, what does that say about his character? "Mr. Obama, are you aware that one time, someone burned a flag somewhere in America at the precise time you were giving a speech. Does that say something about your patriotism?"

Notice when candidates are pilloried with red-herring inconsequential GOP talking points, campaign commentators point to the "wise" public, adroitly able to sniff out political flaws, as the reason. But when there's widespread public opposition to war policies or corporate-friendly trade agreements, the "wise" public turns back into the stupid, unthinking rabble the true elite have always seen it as, in need of a lecture about personal responsibility and what the experts say is in the "national interest."

And do you recall political reporters grilling W about cocaine allegations and his "character" when he was running? Neither do I. Bush said he didn't want to talk about it and that was that.

I won't belabor the absurdity of two highly paid "newsmen" claiming to have the slightest clue about the experience of "ordinary Americans" or the patronizing responses of Clinton and McCain, essentially arguing that economically-assaulted Americans are not obviously bitter, which implies the masses are enjoying the nearly $4-a-gallon ride. But Gibson thinks an annual salary of $200,000 is middle-class, when the overwhelming majority of Americans earn a quarter of that! And we're talking about Obama's elitism?!

Memo to Gibson and former Clinton confidante (conflict of interest?) Stephanopoulos: Other than "analyzing" the meaning of bitterness and the Sean Hannity inspired Weather Underground nonsense, Obama's "character" issues are well covered in David Mendell's book Obama: From Promise to Power.

Maybe you ought to read it, where you can learn why thinking Americans are way past you, having already read about why Obama begrudgingly accepted his campaign manager (David Axelrod's) advice to dumb-down his policy-wonkish speeches to better connect with ordinary people before he ran for the Senate, later criticized by Washington pundits, Clinton and McCain as being "empty rhetoric."

The book, published LAST SUMMER, covers everything from young Barry in Hawaii to the emerging Barack in Chicago who spent his post-Harvard years actually living and working with poor people (unlike his "regular folk" challengers). Mendell also explores Obama's relationship with the "controversial" Rev. Wright, since you can't seem to get enough of questioning the patriotism of a former Marine who happened to passionately articulate what a lot of "bitter" people are thinking and feeling.

If you want to keep a secret from "informed" Obama-critics, apparently the safest place to hide it is inside a best-selling book.

Though most public criticism I see and hear of the "mainstream media" doesn't distinguish between print journalism and TV news (and there are important differences, in terms of format, content and variety), it's still fair to ask: how are newspaper staff cuts and the Stephanopoulos/Gibson farce related?

Newsweek's Tony Dokoupil notes: "less than one person in five believes what he reads in print, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism" ... and a recent Sacred Heart University study found that nearly nine in 10 Americans believe that journalists are actively biased."

It's good that news consumers are skeptical but the internationally televised gotcha "debate" in Philly has only made a bad news biz situation worse. And when I say "bad," I'm speaking in relative terms. "Bad" means news organizations are only bringing in 20 percent profit, instead of 30 percent margins owners used to rely on. Not exactly the poorhouse.

Having been a reporter and columnist for 13 years and an assistant news editor for a year, I don't want to be too glib about what many of my colleagues consider as a "crisis in journalism." News gathering is an expensive, labor-intensive, boots-on-the-ground mission and the current business model is in serious financial trouble.

Why should non-journalists care about newspaper cutbacks and why should cynical bloggers hold off on celebrating a dying "old media"?

PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer provides a succinct answer. "Most of the major stories about which there is so much talk, consternation, blogging, and yelling on shout shows all began with a print news story," Lehrer told USA Today.

He's right. The overwhelming majority of original reporting is done by professional print journalists. Most stories covered on local TV news stations are culled from the morning paper. Talk radio wouldn't exist without newspapers and just about every political and news blog in the country is a literal para(web)site of print journalism.

"The fewer the resources that are devoted to (print journalism), the poorer the public." Take The Washington Post story about the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for example.

"Nobody would have known about that without The Washington Post devoting four months, with two reporters working full time, to that story. Those kind of resources won't be available if newspapers continue to cut back."

Without strong newspapers, "my worry is that nobody else is going to fill in that reporting vacuum."

That giant sucking sound you hear is democracy wheezing.

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