Category: Archive

Sifting the news from the noise

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

First, let me make a confession: I am one of the toughest critics of journalism and journalists today, and I do not exclude myself from scrutiny. In the 19th century Matthew Arnold defined journalism as “literature in a hurry,” and far too often the rush to be first overtakes the obligation to get the facts straight first. That’s why “corrections” or “errata” sections exist in newspapers.
I wince at the occasional typo or other mistake slithering into my published writing, and so has every other journalist not plagued by blinding ego or arrogance. I want to get it right not just for me but especially for you, the reader. That’s not platitude. That’s purpose.
When I taught an undergraduate course in critical review writing at Lehman College and a graduate course, “Old Modes, New Media: Journalism at a Crossroads,” in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University, I began by asking my students this question: what are the six W’s of journalism? Invariably I get five of the six: who, what, when, where, and why.
When I pressed for the sixth W, however, I was greeted with blank stares.
“Who cares?” I finally said.
After students shrugged in assent, I added, “No, that is the sixth W, the most important one of all.”
I explained that even if journalists adequately answer who, what, when, where, and why in their prose, it may still wobble badly without “who cares?” implicitly addressed.
If an instructor doesn’t care, why should a student? If a journalist doesn’t care, why should a reader? I teach and write as if the answer matters because I know it does. There is no substitute for being professional. Either you are or you aren’t.
On October 17, 2007, I took students in my “Old Modes, New Media: Journalism at a Crossroads” course at Drew to the Associated Press headquarters at 450 West 33rd Street in Manhattan, where they had a private, guided tour, after which AP President and CEO Tom Curley, a college fraternity brother of mine, spoke to them about journalism for 90 minutes. I wanted my pupils to see and hear how the theories and ideas we discussed in class are applied or modified in practice, and Tom cited several AP journalists who were risking their lives to chase down stories in various “hot zones” overseas. (On Aug. 11, 2009, two AP journalists covering the war in Afghanistan were wounded by a roadside bomb, and one of them lost a foot.) As my students and I descended in the elevator from our meeting with Tom Curley, I uttered this: “Thank God for the Associated Press.”
With over 4,000 global employees serving one billion readers, viewers, and listeners, the Associated Press is the largest and oldest (founded in 1846) newsgathering organization in the world. It is also trusted and trustworthy because it waits to get the facts straight first. Remember when network TV news anchors rushed to declare Florida for George Bush in the 2000 Presidential election before all the returns were in? It was AP that held off and then issued the correct wire story: Al Gore was closing in on Bush in the ongoing tally.
I shudder to think of what might happen if serious investigative journalism becomes just an Internet hobby. The specter bothering me most is that of dishonest politicians and avaricious corporate executives lighting their imported cigars from the bonfire of once pesky print media. Imperfect as they are, newspapers may be the last, Alamo-like stand against unfettered political, corporate, and other exploitation in America.
Last month when I saw the photos of 44 people, including three mayors and two state assemblymen, charged with corruption in N.J., my first thought was that this is the predictable, partial consequence of decimated newspaper newsrooms. When a newsroom staff is trimmed by 40 percent or more, as was the case late last year at New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, why wouldn’t the venal in the Garden State grow bolder and more confident? It’s also why a number of politicians are unlikely to lift a federal-government finger to bail out faltering newspapers, those dogged watchdogs that bark and sometimes bite.
That doesn’t get the New York Times and the Washington Post off the hook, however, for deplorable journalism or behavior in recent years or months. The Times was too easily hornswoggled over purported weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that helped to pave the way to war, and during this past July, the Post was exposed for planning to charge lobbyists and trade groups $25,000 or more for elbow-rubbing “access” to Post journalists in cozy salons organized by the Post’s publisher at her house. When you add in other scandals ensuing from fabricated articles filed by Jayson Blair at the Times and Janet Cooke at the Post, you’re left with two “newspapers of record” scrambling not only to stay solvent but also to salvage their reputations.
I share the public’s anger over such slipshod or sleazy practices, but I also firmly believe in the ability of great journalism to transform lives. Consider the “Points West” columns of Steve Lopez about homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers in the beleaguered Los Angeles Times that led to “The Soloist,” the title of Lopez’s book and the movie based on it. Think of the Pentagon Papers published by the New York Times and the Watergate scandal covered by the Washington Post (to give those newspapers their due), as well as exemplary magazine journalism reflected in John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” published in the New Yorker, William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” published in Vanity Fair, and, if you cherish sports writing, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” published in Esquire.
A crucial role of journalism is to help uncover blunt motives behind bland statements and harsh intent behind soft euphemism, and to prevent or, at least, reduce the incidence of public gullibility and deception at the hands of pols, plutocrats, and pop-up pundits shilling the latest snake oil.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”: Thomas Jefferson wrote those words in a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington 222 years ago.
They still apply.

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