The End of Journalism?

 

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

There was a funeral today, June 18, for Tim Russert, long-time host of Meet the Press and frequent commentator on the political scene. You may have seen him at some of the primary debates, putting real questions to the candidates and insisting on real answers instead of canned sound bites.

I wish I’d watched him more, but I usually have other things to do Sunday mornings and, anyway, I thought I’d have plenty of chances – the guy was only 58, after all. But I was driving home from work Friday the 13th, and there was the news; he’d just dropped dead of a heart attack.

There have been all sorts of eulogies, some perhaps hypocritical, given that he had raked certain of the eulogists over the coals in his interviews. But any number of politicians considered it a baptism of fire to survive a session with him. “It’s the most fun I’ve had since my last interrogation,” John McCain quipped at the end of his.

I happen to be a journalist myself, although only for trade magazines since 1980. By coincidence, I started putting out little handwritten “newspapers” in school on June 18, 1953. At the time, I thought I’d be going into some sort of scientific profession, but it turned out that I was too fickle to settle down into any particular science, so I ended up working on newspapers in college and then weekly and daily papers in New Jersey.

I could never have been a journalist of the stature of Woodward and Bernstein. But I have always believed in journalism, which can’t be said of all of those who work in the profession, and I admired Russert because he believed in it. Here he is on the relation of journalists to the government:

 

The primary responsibility of the media is accountability of government, whether it's about lying under oath, which upset Democrats, or the mismanagement of responding to a hurricane, which happens to upset Republicans.

 

And here he is holding the Republicans’ feet to the fire over Katrina:

 

There are a lot of issues in politics you can spin on. You can spin on tax cuts; and spin on Social Security; and he said-she said; this view, that view; right-left-center. You can't spin on this. People see it. They feel it. They smell it. And you can't say something that conflicts with the harsh reality of what happened there.

 

But he was just as tough on the Democrats; indeed, they got on his case this year for being too tough on Hillary Clinton – notably about her patent falsehoods of having come under fire in Bosnia. His eulogists suggest that he has raised the standards of journalism, even raised the standards of political discourse in this country. I wish that were true, but it isn’t.

As for political discourse, a Republican activist at the party’s state convention in Texas thought it was funny to sell pins reading: “If Obama is president… Will we still call it the White House?” The party squelched that only after the Dallas Morning News complained, but no doubt we’ll see more of the same – and not just from the GOP. Back in 2000, remember, Democrats circulated stories that the Bush campaign was behind the burning of black churches. As for journalistic discourse…

Remember Dan Rather and his pseudo-exposé of George Bush’s National Guard service? Or, before that, his infamous “What’s the frequency?” story? As it happens, I used to hear his afternoon radio editorials on CBS when I was driving home from work. They were the most inane editorials I’d ever heard, full of sound without any fury but still signifying nothing. I’ve heard a few editorials by Rather’s successor Katie Couric. They’re just as inane.

Then there’s the Gray Lady of newspapers, The New York Times. I’ve read it since childhood, and I still read it because – well, there’s more news about more things there than in just about any other newspaper (But to find out what’s going on in other countries besides Iraq, Iran and China, you’re better off with the BBC, if you can find that on cable.). The Times suffered a huge black eye five years ago when Jayson Blair was caught plagiarizing and even fabricating stories, and the paper now has a Public Editor to look into other complaints of biased or just plain sloppy reporting.

Daniel Okrent, who was public editor in 2004, reported on March 14 of that year about the complaint of an American serviceman in Iraq who was pissed off about a Times story that other soldiers had shot up a car, killing two members of a family. It turned out that the deaths were actually caused by shrapnel from a terrorist bomb, the soldier said, but the Times had never run a correction. Oh, but it had, Okrent discovered – only buried 17 paragraphs down in another war story:

 

The editors who decided to handle the clarification this way may not know the term, but this was a classic example of the rowback. The one definition I could find for this ancient technique, from journalism educator Melvin Mencher, describes a rowback as ''a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error.'' A less charitable definition might read, ''a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed.''

 

There are common complaints of left wing and right-wing bias in the media, with the Times typically on one side and Fox News on the other. Could be true, but nothing new. What’s new this year are common complaints that both Barack Obama and John McCain have been getting a free ride. Is this political bias, or is it just that the media are now using the same “journalistic” standards for political coverage that we used to expect only of the Styles and Real Estate sections with their puff jobs for advertisers?

They won’t admit it, but a lot of politicians – and a lot of pseudo-journalists – may be glad Tim Russert is gone.