So last semester, those of us in Ethics were introduced to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s treatise on The Elements of Journalism. Much of it was to be treasured, but rethinking it now for Social Role, I’m inclined to wonder if they’re weren’t howling at the moon just a bit too much.
As John writes in his class intro, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. To them, journalism exists to offer up the “independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”
It’s State of the Union-type language – flowery and high-minded, and were it delivered live it would certainly generate the applause track every president looks for when he pushes for, say, enhanced funding for cancer research. Who doesn’t want to cure cancer, and who doesn’t want better journalism?
The thing is, I don’t believe the industry needs the course correction the authors seem to imply is required to remain relevant in the 21st century. Kovach and Rosenstiel are obsessed with wondering when and from where the next Walter Cronkite will emerge. But I see new Cronkites all over the media landscape, including a few in this class and in Kent’s program.
This semester we’re studying the media’s relationship with the society it serves. My experience in print spans — Lord help me — nearly three decades. I say honestly, it is harder to be a responsible journalist now than when I was covering zoning meetings in Greenwich, Conn. in the late-1980s.
Competition was limited, standards were enforced and the morning-after glow from a great Watergate victory lingered. If not wholly respected, print media was at least considered alongside mosquito repellant as one of those things essential to everyday survival.
As I read Kovach and Rosenstiel, I came away convinced that their primary observation was, that somehow it all went very wrong. I didn’t buy it then, and I ain’t buying it now.
Perhaps you all as full-time educators had a different reaction to the book than I did. Perhaps the Malbec I’m sipping has elevated my sensitivities. But I just can’t get past the notion that these guys seem rather smug in asserting journalism’s need for redefinition.
In 30 years, I’ve never once been in a news meeting where the subject of “will this sell papers” or “will that generate web traffic” has been mentioned. And were it, I assure you we editors would vote with our feet and walk out of the meeting.
Because it’s not some half-baked idea of what the public wants in its newspaper that led my colleagues and I to spend winter days measuring railroad platforms in New York City for code violations; or interviewing survivors of the Hudson River miracle. Nor did it lead us to investigate concussion protocols in high school athletics years before the Will Smith film saw the editing room.
We did it because we all have a bit of Cronkite in us, and no matter what aggrandizements Brian Williams might pull off or fabrications Jayson Blair might concoct, this remains an industry populated by people determined to do right by the readership.