What Are Journalists For?

New books dissected over email.
Jan. 3 2000 11:24 AM

What Are Journalists For?


Dear Jim,


Idealism sweet as ether boils off the pages of the book that we've been assigned to read and discuss this week, Jay Rosen's history of and argument for "public journalism," What Are Journalists For? I've survived its narcotizing effect and hope that you're more enthusiastic about Rosen's ideas than I am so we can enjoy a two-fisted exchange.

For readers arriving late to the debate over public journalism, we should define it and sketch its 10-year history--not that that will be easy. Public journalism as propounded by Rosen is so broad and vague, so infused with good intentions and cracked premises, that it melts at first touch.

Something horrible has happened to public life, Rosen believes. He doesn't blame politicians for the disaster. Or corporations. Or Hollywood. Or even our campaign-finance system or handguns. Rosen finds journalists culpable for the nation's cynical politics, our public alienation, our adversarial culture, as well as the violence perpetrated by terrorist bombers like Timothy McVeigh. Our crime? We reporters and editors have failed to promote and enhance "democracy" as imaged by philosopher John Dewey in the 1920s.

I'm not kidding. What Are Journalists For? is a Deweyan call to arms to rebuild democracy! Never mind the old clichés about telling truth to power or writing the first draft of history. Instead of hiding behind objective reporting, journalists should foster "conversation" and "dialogue" in the community to empower citizens in the democratic process. In the past decade, Rosen has been much pilloried by journalists for his diagnosis and prescription, most notably by editorial-page editor Howell Raines of the New York Times and Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post. But daily newspapers in Wichita, Detroit, San Jose, Columbus, Norfolk, Charlotte, and elsewhere have lit their candles from Rosen's flame and subscribed to his four-step cure, which holds that journalists should:

  1. "Approach citizens as potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators. ..."
  2. "Help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems. ..."
  3. "Improve the climate of public discussion. ..."
  4. "Help make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention. ..."

Wicked mush, don't you think? For one thing, a story wouldn't necessarily be bad journalism if it hit on all four of Rosen's cylinders. But it wouldn't necessarily be good if it did, would it?

In the coming days I want to examine some of Rosen's premises, such as his idea that a declining interest in the news can be linked to journalism as currently practiced. But I'm running out of space and smelling salts and must turn this enterprise over to you.




Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.