What Are Journalists For?

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Jan. 5 2000 11:54 AM

What Are Journalists For?

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Dear Jim,

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It's Day 3 of our Book Clubbing, which means it's time for us to crawl back out of the little tunnel we've excavated and return to our day jobs. But before I surrender this space, let me hit a couple of points.

Rosen wants journalists, who he mistakenly thinks have "lost touch," to drop what they're doing and create a debate society for citizens, who he thinks are "alienated," in hopes that the Big Palaver will convince them to join together and take a crack at solving society's problems. Body check me if I'm being unfair--but actually solving problems takes a backseat to process in the Rosen universe. To invoke a computer-industry cliché, process is a strange metric to judge the success of a piece of journalism. If an article doesn't encourage the masses to meet and cogitate, it's a failure? As I finished his book, I couldn't help but think, Wouldn't Rosen be a lot happier working as a union organizer or ward heeler than as a press critic?

Like the '80s activists who used the phrase "economic democracy" as their euphemism for socialism, Rosen cribs the word "democracy" to serve as a vague stand-in for the Deweyan utopia he wants us to build. Please, include me out! Or give me a better idea of what this Deweyan democracy will look like.

Rereading my previous entries, I blushed at my Panglossian take on American journalism ... but when my blood pressure stablized, I felt vindicated. Whereas 95 percent of American journalism used to be crap (Sturgeon's Law), I personally reckon that only 85 percent of it is now. What strides we've made! So if Rosen really wants to frame his debate--and his call to arms--around some imagined "crisis" in American journalism, let him make a better case about how awful things are. (Parenthetically, I agree with your Monday correlation of the late-'80s recession and the cuts in newsroom budgets with public journalism's boom. Those were dark times for journalists, and I fear that some of them went grasping at straws.)

Journalism ain't broke, and Rosen isn't the man to fix it even if it is. For the time being, I'll put my trust in that the rollicking goulash of advocacy journalism, public-interest lobbying, scientific inquiry, straight-up news reporting, first-person confessional, government documents, academic findings, rumors, and innuendo that finds its way into print and into the wires.

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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