Tuesday, July 12, 2005

In defense of journalism

Some weeks ago, a PeP reader wrote a comment in response to one of my semi-weekly diatribes against Katherine Kersten. This reader took issue with the notion that journalism is a respectable profession, as have many people across today's political spectrum.

Journalists have displaced lawyers as the new publicly favored punching bag. From bloggers to media critics to politicians to the everyday citizen, disapproval with the press has reached an all-time high. Journalists, however, are a necessary and vital part of a civil society, and it appears that the public has begun to take journalism for granted without realizing its importance.

A comparison of journalism and law aptly describes the point I'm trying to make. There is perhaps no other profession as reviled and respected as law. There are a million lawyer jokes out there, people consider them parasites and ambulance-chasers who are only out for themselves. Yet, the majority of lawyers do very noble work. Everyone loves to hate lawyers, and at the same time everyone loves to know a good one.

In the same way, journalists are being demonized today. Many consider them bloodsuckers who only look for stories that sell, which is why you see so many reports on sex, missing children, shark attacks, and so on. Journalists and their parent companies, as the argument goes, look at the bottom-line, and so what's produced is what titillates and strikes fear. Yet, while everyone loves to bitch about "the media" we still have newspapers, magazines, 24-hours news channels, among other sources, and we are dependent on them for stories that matter to us.

This dichotomy serves the classic paradigm of a love-hate relationship. We love the media when they're telling us something we want to know; we hate the media when they're telling us something we don't want to know, don't believe, or don't want to believe.

This is also a sign that the media is doing its job. Conservatives have rallied against journalism for decades because of a perceived liberal bias. Liberals, within the last decade and particularly since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lead to massive deregulation of the media industry, have lambasted the press for a perceived conservative bias (see Fox News Channel and the Rupert Murdoch media empire) due to the conglomeration of news outlets into the hands of so few. When such criticism is coming down on an institution, at times venomously, from such diametrically opposed viewpoints, the press is doing a great job. The truth will always piss some people off, so if everyone's pissed off it seems that there's a lot of truth-telling going on.

I will not argue with the fact that there is some awful journalism out there; not in the sense of fairness, but in the sense of newsworthiness (if you need an example tune into any of our local news broadcasts). This fact, however, is more the result of the sheer volume of news that is consumed today, far more than at any other time in history. If you think back five, ten, 20 years ago to the amount of news available, you'll realize the massive amount of news that surrounds us. The result has been quite a lot of fluff and fantasy. Yet, there is still exceptional journalism being practiced. You just have to separate the wheat from chaff.

And, of course, the PeP is the place to do just that.

Note: This post makes me a renegade in bloggerdom, because most bloggers think that we are the next generation of journalists. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Blogs, which love to rail against the MSM (mainstream media) are so dependent on the MSM that they couldn't exist without it.


xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Andy, I couldn't agree with you more about the overall importance of journalism. I dispute the notion that there is an increase in truth telling or competent journalism, at least so far as the MSM goes. If that indeed were the case it would seem that the MSM's truth telling has fueled a major boom in alternative sources of media at its own expense. Question Topic: Journalists and the law.

Ilya said...

The cover of The National Review a few months ago pictured an open toilet with an arrow pointing down. Above the arrow was the headline/feature story: "Insert mainstream media credibility here." I take Piper's post to be something like a rebuttal to such wide-ranging attacks on the MSM, reminding us, amid high profile scandals at high profile newspapers and magazines, that journalists, while we have long suspected them of motives other than the sober search for the truth, are indispensible to our society, and dare I add to democracy (and blogs!) as well. And I don't think the MSM, or at least responsible journalists, can be praised too often enough, for unfortunately their irresponsible accomplishments and their bad effects are remembered longer than their triumphs.

Let me remind those who have read this far that being a jouranlist is not easy either. Max Weber (who had a lot to say about political journalism as an avenue into politics) wrote in his famous lecture (1918) "Politics as a Vocation": "The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press.'"

Hammer said...

Speaking of Katherine Kersten, over at Three Way News, it's been our mission to link the phrase "Minnesota's Worst Writer" to Kersten. As of right now we're winning!

Ilya said...

Richard Posner quite eloquently sums up the parasitic relationship between blogs and the established media:

"How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend."