“Have you read by blog today?”

“300 million little USAs”

After only Springsteen and U2, Five for Fighting is among my favorite bands. Yet, I have no idea if John Ondrasik had been reading Rosenstiel and Kovach when he added those lines to his song “Slice” a decade ago.

Ondrasik’s ironic commentary on the consequences of the social media phenomenon seemed perfectly in “tune”  with the thinking put forth by the authors in Blur, who in their last few chapters seemed wistful for the days before this social media thing made everything so damn complicated.

Ondrasik sees it too. At its best, social media serves a basic human need to connect. We humans are social animals and love nothing more than to feel bonded with those who have brought joy to our lives.

Of course, the “B side” is that social media has muddied the waters of clarity so profoundly that we quickly are becoming “300 million little USAs,” each with his or her own blog of opinions and nothing left to unite us. How ironic: While feeding our desire to bond, social media has left us very little over which to bond.

I do wonder about a culture lacking in unifying realities, including an appreciation for the First Amendment. Because without a shared heritage or values, what happens when an overzealous high school administrator decides that his students have enjoyed enough of the First Amendment? Will those students rally around a unique American liberty or find the principle not worth getting bothered over? And if that happens, will crusader journalism disappear from high school or college programs?

I hope not. Because while I am on the back nine of my career, I still care enough about the profession to make sure it doesn’t become just another “slice” of American pie, destined for quaintness like a Don McLean song.


A mentor’s new mission

I had to chuckle this week when one of the assigned readings referenced Howard Schneider, formerly of Newsday and now at Stony Brook University here on Long Island. Howard was for a long time my boss at Newsday and the grand poobah of the newsroom. His dismissal from the paper sent shock waves across the community that still are felt today.

I am not trying to offer a career retrospective here, but in many ways I learned more in five years as his graphics editor than at any time in my career. He was demanding, eccentric and sometimes a bit over the top, but you always sensed he had the readers’ best interest at heart. That’s a person you want to work for.

As a newsroom manager, he was, well, energizing. And I can only imagine how inspired his students feel after one of his lectures. I’ve never sat in on one, but I am sure his wisdom serves students well. (For the record, Howard was let go by Newsday when he refused to lay off 20-plus newsroom employees; in falling on his sword he said it would be foolish to think Newsday could make the kind of civic contribution it has minus those assets. History has proven him right: We won 18 Pulitzers from 1947-2007; only one since.)

But as to his message, it surprises me little that he and associate Jim Klurfeld would advocate for a culture rooted in the values of journalism. He always was a champion of critical thinking mixed with personal creativity, and what industry does a better job of cultivating that? Good for them too that they cherish verifiable information over the propaganda that filters through the Internet. If Stony Brook’s news literacy course teaches students anything, I am sure it is, that in this misinformation age we must be active skeptics and not passive recipients.

I did stutter when I read that my former boss would seem to minimize the gatekeeper responsibility of journalists, passing that off instead to a more educated class of news consumers. Howard, when I knew him, was a fierce defender of traditional journalism against a rising tide of user-generated content that he (and I don’t mean to speak for him) sensed lacked perspective.

Perhaps that’s where Howard is now as an educator; perhaps that’s where journalism is an industry. In framing political revolution, Yeats observed  that the best “seem to lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Such thoughts seem perfectly timed for the fundamental transformation under way now in traditional media.

Humility and Defiance: The Legacy of Bob Woodward

I am old enough to remember Watergate as it unfolded. I remember the investigations, the Congressional hearings and, most of all, the landmark work done by the Washington Post and, in particular reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

In fact, I would not be lying if I suggested that my admiration for the pair,  especially Woodward, was fundamental to my decision to pursue a career in print media. If Gina found a hero in Edward R. Murrow, I found one in that parking garage crusader Woodward.

I have always admired Bob Woodward, perhaps even more now as an elder statesman for the profession of journalism. His takes on securing and verifying information reinforce what I have always believed about the industry: that among the best qualities to possess as a reporter are doggedness of purpose, humility and respect for the readership.

This week we debated media excess. Well, If ever a story threatened the future of a news organization it was Watergate. How much more excessive could a story be than one that triggers a Constitutional crisis and takes down a president? As the great Jason Robards said in “All the President’s Men”: “There’s nothing riding on this story … Just the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

Predictably, the Nixon White accused the Post of practicing shoddy, near reprehensible journalism. It was precisely the kind of ad hominem attack used by administrations (perhaps even high school administrators) who know the facts will not defend them.

Years ago, a mentor—in fact, a real guiding light to an aspiring editor—offered this bit of advice: “James, remember this: The more you think you know, the less you do.” His point was well-made: This industry can humble you in a hurry, so make sure things are true; make sure they are right.

That was in 1984. In the post-first, think-later world  of 21st-century instant media, I can think of few things more  enduring.

Am I Really Defending The Donald?

I can’t believe I am writing this, but it seems rather clear to me that Donald Trump, America’s favorite presidential blowhard, was wronged by the media this week. Especially the instant media, which latched onto his abortion comments faster than a drunk grabs another New Year’s Eve cocktail.

Trump was, of course, pilloried for his statements advocating penalties for women who have abortions. While he was light on specifics  — Trump always is — he was also rather clear in suggesting that these penalties would apply only if abortion was made illegal, which is unlikely since Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land.

Not that such a distinction should matter to the tweet-first, post-first media, whose operating methodology seems to be headline now, context later (if at all). And didn’t we all read this week about the need for context and authentication even in the digital age?

Full disclosure: I can’t stand abortion. But as squeamish as I am about the subject I don’t think reasonable people want to imprison women who have them. For that matter, I don’t think Trump does either, as long as Roe v. Wade remains in force.

And that was the context Chris Matthews of MSNBC offered in the interview. Yet, the anti-Trumpsters in the nation’s instant press would have voters believe the candidate would do worse for women than a return to back-alley procedures. He’d actually send them away, as in to prison.

Look, I can’t stand Trump and at this stage it would take an act of heaven to inspire me to vote for him. But in this instance I believe he was wronged. And I believe he was wronged in  a way precisely outlined in our assigned readings, namely media senses blood, media posts chum, feeding frenzy follows.

Who cares if the information is as light on context as Trump is on policy specifics? The only things riding on such information are a presidential election, the First Amendment and the future of the republic, not that any of that matters.

Apologies for paraphrasing the great Jason Robards, but it’s worth repeating: We in the press wield enormous power, both in what we say, how we say it and these days how quickly it’s repeated. It would nice to have it all right on occasion.