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The Mediacracy: How Journalism Went Bad

The Mediacracy - How Journalism Went Bad

By Editor Sam Smith

YOUR EDITOR has occasionally noted that when he started out in what was then the trade of journalism, over half the reporters in this country only had a high school education. Ben Bagdikian, a bit older, describes in his memoir, Double Vision, an even less pretentious craft:

"Before the war a common source of the reporter was an energetic kid who ran newsroom errands for a few years before he was permitted to accompany the most glamorous character on the staff, the rough-tough, seen-it-all, blood-and-guts police reporter. Or else, as in my case, on a paper with low standards, reporters started off as merely warm bodies that could type and would accept $18 a week with no benefits.

"Prewar journalists had their talents and occasional brilliances, but the initial demand on me and my peers was the ability to walk fast, talk fast, type fast, and never break a deadline. And to be a male of the species. Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department's annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is 'sometimes preferred.'"

Even in sophisticated Washington ten years later, I kept quiet about my Harvard degree as I learned the trade. Then the trade stopped being a trade as not only a college degree but a masters in journalism became increasingly desired. Further, journalists - with the help of things like the Washington Post's new Style section - began joining the power structure by increasingly writing themselves into it.

Then came yet another transition: the journalist as professional was replaced by the journalist as corporate employee, just another bureaucratic pawn in organizations that increasingly had less to do with journalism.

By standard interpretations the trend - at least from uneducated tradesman to skilled professional - was a step forward. But there is a problem with this interpretation. First, with each step the journalist moved further socially and psychologically from the reader or viewer. Reporters increasingly viewed their stories from a class perspective alien to many of those they were writing for, a factor that would prove far more important than the ideological biases about which one hears so many complaints.

This doesn't mean that because of education, these reporters needed to lose the reader's perspective and the best ones certainly didn't. But it meant that they had to be aware of the problem and learn how to compensate for it. Too few were or did.

One reason was the second problem: as journalism was increasingly learned academically instead of vocationally, the great curse of the campus descended, namely the abstraction of the real. Reporters, regardless of their perspective or biases, became removed from their stories. Instead, they were merely 'educated' about them. And the news stopped being as real.

Finally, the corporatization of news meant that everyone in the system from reporter to CEO reacted to things with the caution of an institutionalized employee. Thus, the decline of investigative journalism as it was too much of risk for all involved.

In short, journalism has become more scholarly, more snobbish, and more scared and, in the process increasingly has separated itself from the lives of its readers.



DARRYL FEARS, WASHINGTON POST - Only 8 percent of the guests on the major Sunday morning talk shows over the past 18 months were African Americans, with three people accounting for the majority of those appearances, according to a new study by the National Urban League.

Black guests -- newsmakers, the journalists who questioned them and experts who offered commentary -- appeared 176 times out of more than 2,100 opportunities, according to the study, which is scheduled for release today. But 122 of those appearances were made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, and Juan Williams, a journalist and regular panel member on "Fox News Sunday.". . .

Barbara Levin, senior communications director for NBC News, said that "Meet the Press" interviews "the same newsmakers who dominate the front pages and op-ed pages of every newspaper in America, including The Washington Post." Studies have shown poor minority representation in newspapers. A 2002 study by the Poynter Institute, "News and Race: Models of Excellence," cited research that news about minorities accounts for 5 to 7 percent of all content, even though African Americans and Latinos represent more than 30 percent of the U.S. population.



BACK WHEN Marion Barry was still a subject of national interest, Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly asked me to do a piece on him. I told him that I would be glad to but that I wasn't going to trash Barry. And I suggested a headline, "Failing the Faith." A few days later, Peters cancelled the lunch at which we were to discuss the article and never got back to me. The next thing I knew, the Washington Monthly ran an article by Juan Williams trashing Marion Barry and using a variety of the headline I had suggested. Williams was on his way.

- Sam Smith



EDITOR AND PUBLISHER - Is "poo" a less offensive term than "turd"? Is tweaking a liberal Democrat like Howard Dean more acceptable to some newspaper editors than tweaking conservative Republicans like George W. Bush and Karl Rove? Whatever the reason, no newspapers -- to Universal Press Syndicate's knowledge -- pulled or edited Wednesday's "Prickly City" strip that used the word "poo." Ten to 12 papers pulled or edited Tuesday and Wednesday's "Doonesbury" comic mentioning "Turd Blossom" -- Bush's nickname for Rove. . .

Scott Stantis, whose 2004-launched "Prickly City" comic runs in 75-plus papers, had his Winslow animal character say in Wednesday's strip: "Why do you dislike Howard Dean so much, Carmen?" She replies: "Believe it or not, Winslow, I want a two-sided debate of ideas. An adult voice to thoughtfully and vigorously challenge the majority party. Not some freak-show monkey boy who throws his own poo." To which Winslow says: "You don't watch a lot of cable news, do you?"



ELANA BERKOWITZ AND AMY SCHILLER, CAMPUS PROGRESS - When you were developing your super straight guy look and sound, which actual media personalities did you model yourself after?

SC: First of all, I am a super straight guy. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I am perfectly comfortable in blue blazers, khaki pants, Brooks Brothers suits and regimental striped ties. It's just genetic. I love a cocktail party with completely vacuous conversation, because I grew up in it.

But in terms of who I channel, my natural inclination was Stone Phillips, who has the greatest neck in journalism. And he's got the most amazingly severe head tilt at the end of tragic statements, like 'there were no…survivors.' He just tilts his head a bit on that 'survivors' as if to say 'It's true. It's sad. There were none.'

CP: Plus, his name has that sort of Republican porn star vibe to it.

SC: Exactly, if it were Stone Fill-Up then it would really be a porn star name.

And then I also used Geraldo Rivera, because he's got this great sense of mission. He just thinks he's gonna change the world with this report. He's got that early seventies hip trench coat 'busting this thing wide open' look going on. So those two guys. And Peter Mansbridge obviously. . .

CP: You do 'This Week in God.' Which is one of our favorite segments. You're from a South Carolinian religious family and you are a church-goer yourself. Why did you choose to focus so heavily on religion right now?

SC: We used to do This Week in God only once a month, but if there was room on the show we could do it every week. There is so much religion in public life. It has become acceptable for court decisions to be based on the Gospel. There's so much religion in public life. It's a religious pandemic. It's everywhere. It's not a needle in a haystack. We throw away stories every week. I know we're not a secular state like France which has it in their constitution, but boy I wish our founding fathers had been at little clearer in that First Amendment.

CP: We are living in a pretty absurd time. Are there ever any news incidents that were so absurd you can't make them funny?

SC: Well, obviously real tragedy, like the London bombing, is off limits. No one wants to do comedy about that. But I would say there's almost nothing that can't be mocked on a certain level as long as it doesn't involve loss of life or deep human tragedy. I don't think we ever looked at something and said that's too ridiculous to make more ridiculous. Contrary to what people may say, there's no upper limit to stupidity. We can make everything stupider.

CP: Speaking of stupid, who are some the most unintentionally funny figures in American politics?

SC: You know Rick Santorum? The one who compared being gay to fucking a dog? That's a good one. Who else is good? The entire Supreme Court is pretty funny when they denied medical marijuana when there's a man named William Rehnquist who wrote a dissenting opinion, who's the Chief Justice who happens to be dying of cancer. That must have been a pretty hilarious conversation back in the chambers: 'Listen Bill, we know you're dying of cancer but we just can't have you rolling a joint!' That must have been a great conversation. . .

CP: How do you keep finding people to interview on 'The Daily Show' who either don't know the interview is satirical or are willing to play along?

SC: Everyone knows what the show is at this point, but they don't understand where we're going with the conversation. I talk to them for hours and you're seeing the 3-4 questions that are important to my segment. They don't necessarily perceive a 3 minute edit out of a 3 hour conversation. I don't make a big deal out of being funny, and then we do our best to bring 'em back alive in editing.

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