What Are Journalists For?

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

What Are Journalists For?

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Dear Jim,

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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.

Regards,
Jack

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This week, a discussion of Jay Rosen's
What Are Journalists For? (click here to buy it). James Ledbetter is the New York bureau chief of theIndustry Standard. Jack Shafer is the deputy editor of Slate.

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