What Are Journalists For?

It's the Economy, Stupid
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 3 2000 3:19 PM

What Are Journalists For?

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I'm not as thoroughly dismissive of public journalism as you are, but I think we end up in the same place. To give this dialogue the semblance of a fair fight, allow me to delineate at least some things that I think Rosen and his allies get right.

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  1. American journalism, especially print journalism, is in crisis. For most of the mainstream press audiences have been shrinking for some time. Serious journalism has become difficult to do in many places, and some wonder whether it's worth doing.
  2. Coverage of most political campaigns is poor and tends to focus on trivial matters. Every year, there are probably dozens of exceptions to this rule, but it seems fundamentally right to me.
  3. Journalists, as a class, seem removed from the communities they cover. Again, there are exceptions, especially in small towns, but I think it's pretty rare to see community board meetings overflowing with local journalists out to better their neighborhoods.
  4. Coverage of political issues too often gels around easy, conflict-based poles, to the detriment of anyone's understanding. I see this especially on television.

It's hard to tell from reading Rosen, but one can believe all these things and still not subscribe to the philosophy of public journalism. (Indeed, Rosen often writes as if there were no significant criticism of American journalism until about 1989.)

Where I think Rosen and company begin to fall down is with the assumptions that 1) these problems are the result of current journalistic theory and practice, and 2) it is the urgent responsibility of journalists to change the nature of what they do.

There are many, many darts to be thrown at these assumptions, but I'll start with one of the sharpest: The crisis of American journalism to which public journalism responded was largely an economic crisis. Rosen's school flourished in the early-'90s recession, when newspapers were folding, budgets were being slashed, and the Net was a place for wizards to swap software wands. Change those economic facts, and the need for public journalism recedes remarkably.

Until tomorrow,
Jim

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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.