Journalism Is Not a Plot

And that brings me back to the point. I think we all can agree that traditional journalism is dead. Not newspapers—they would have died anyway. Journalism. The calling. The business of seeing something that other people cannot—a forest fire, a war, a school-board meeting, a bit of corruption—and describing it clearly for those who aren’t there. The conscious practice of keeping one’s opinion out of the story and allowing those involved to speak for themselves.

I am well aware that journalism has never been perfect, and that the media have always been used to shape public opinion, but at its best the profession of journalism served society well.

And it’s gone with the wind.

Several things contributed to journalism’s demise. If you’re actually still sitting and reading this, you’re participating in one of those things. The old saying that “the Press is only free to the man who owns one” is now passé. Everybody has a means of shouting into the crowd.

Another cause of death was the realization by “leaders” of business and government alike that silence is the best policy. If you don’t say anything, nobody can prove you’re lying, and the public will move on to something else—probably involving Michael Jackson’s doctor—within weeks.

And then there’s the conscious poisoning of the well by the right wing, which learned its lesson well when major newspapers, prodded into action by The Washington Post’s Katie Graham and her boys Woodward and Bernstein, those bastards, brought down Richard Nixon and most of his crew. Ironically, by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Nixon was a squishy liberal. (Gerald Ford’s administration, responsible for picking up the pieces, included a couple of young guys named Rumsfeld and Cheney. The new director of the CIA was George H.W. Bush.)  The lesson learned by the rich and powerful—sorry for the redundancy—was, “Tell everybody over and over and over that the establishment Press is a bunch of privileged, fancy-pants liars.”

Alas, there was something to that, after Watergate. Before that, journalism was a working-class profession indulged in by people who could read and write and who were pissed off, or at least amused, by the antics of their betters. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Finley Peter Dunne (“Trust everybody, but cut the cards.”) are exemplars. Those of you who spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area once upon a time might remember a bunch of guys named  Herb Caen, Stanton Delaplane, Charles McCabe and Art Hoppe. They all started by essentially following the fire trucks. (“The editor said, ‘Rewrite this. I want all those fleeing inhabitants to be scantily clad.'”— Stanton Delaplane)

But after All The President’s Men, The Lou Grants of the game gave way to the Harvard grads. I don’t want to indulge in casual character assassination, but—OK, I’m lying. The new boys, with glory in mind, big-name college degrees in hand and family connections to the publishers, didn’t have to sell out. It came with the territory. They didn’t even know they were doing it.

(Dunne, whose “Mr. Dooley” I quoted above, graduated last in his class from high school in Chicago, and that was the end of his education. He didn’t even settle on his legal name until he had tried out a couple of variations.)