January 07, 2024

Journalism: What good old days?

From our overstocked archives 

Sam Smith, 1998 - Some journalists would have us believe that there was a time -- before Drudge and the Internet -- when journalism was a honorable activity in which no one went looking for a restroom without first asking directions from at least two sources (unless, of course, one of the sources was a government official), in which every word was checked for fairness, and in which nothing made the print without being thoroughly verified. There may have been such a time but it wasn't, for example, on January 20, 1925, when the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial declaring that:

A newspaper is a private enterprise, owing nothing whatever to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.

Nor was it a decade or so later when a Washington correspondent admitted:

Policy orders? I never get them; but I don't need them. The make-up of the paper is a policy order. . I can tell what they want by watching the play they give to my stories.

Nor when George Seldes testified before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the Newspaper Guild which was then trying to organize the New York Times. The managing editor of the Times came up to Seldes afterwards and said, "Well, George, I guess your name will never again be mentioned in the Times."

Nor when William Randolph Hearst, according to his biographer David Nasaw, "sent undercover reporters onto the nation's campuses to identify the 'pinko academics' who were aiding and abetting the 'communistic' New Deal. During the election campaign of 1936, he accused Roosevelt of being Stalin's chosen candidate."

There was, too be sure, a better side, including those who hewed to the standard described recently by William Safire in a talk at Harvard:

I hold that what used to be the crime of sedition -- the deliberate bringing of the government into disrepute, the divisive undermining of public confidence in our leaders, the outrageous assaulting of our most revered institutions -- is a glorious part of the American democratic heritage.

In either case, though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine, wrote recently:

Journalism didn't truly become a respectable profession until after World War II, when political journalism came to be dominated by a few big newspapers, networks and news services. These outlets cultivated an impartiality that, in a market with few rivals, makes sense. They also cultivated the myth that the American press had always (with a few deplorable exceptions, of course) been a model of decorum. But it wasn't this sort of press that the framers of the Bill of Rights set out to protect. It was, rather, a press that called Washington an incompetent, Adams a tyrant and Jefferson a fornicator. And it was that rambunctious sort of press that, in contrast to the more genteel European periodicals of the day, came to be seen as proof of America's republican vitality.

In the late 1930s a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the following statement:

It is almost impossible to be objective. You read your paper, notice its editorials, get praised for some stories and criticized for others. You 'sense policy' and are psychologically driven to slant the stories accordingly.

Sixty percent of the respondents agreed. Today's journalists are taught instead to perpetuate a lie: that through alleged professional mysteries you can achieve an objectivity that not even a Graham, Murdoch, or Turner can sway. Well, most of the time it doesn't work, if for no other reason than in the end someone else picks what gets covered and how the paper is laid out.

There were other differences 60 years ago. Nearly 40% of the Washington correspondents surveyed were born in towns of less than 2500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade, lacked a college degree in 1937. Even when I entered journalism in the 1950s, over half of all reporters in the country still had less than a college degree.

In truth the days for which some yearn never existed. What did exist was much more competition in the news industry. If you didn't like the Washington Post, for example, you could read the Times Herald, the Daily News or the Star.

By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers.

Today's diuretic discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted "market place of ideas.".

The basic rules of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, "if you can't be funny, be interesting."

The idea that the journalist is engaged in a professional procedure like surgery or a lawsuit leads to little but tedium, distortion, and delusion. Far better to risk imperfection than to have quality so carefully controlled that only banality and official truths are permitted.

In the end journalism tends to be either an art or just one more technocratic mechanism for restraining, ritualizing, and ultimately destroying thought and reality.

If it is the latter, the media will take its polls and all it will hear is its own echo. If it is the former, the journalist listens for truth rather than to rules -- and reality, democracy, and decency are all better for it.

Eternal fundamentals of leadership

Sam Smith, 2011 - I have been trying to understand the eternal fundamentals of leadership according those who see government and non-profits as badly in need of corporate principles. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Fire, don’t inspire

Test, don’t teach

Statistics are just another form of adjective. Use them at will

Treat everyone – including citizens, patients, students, teachers, and volunteers – as corporate employees.

With enough public relations, personal relations aren’t necessary.

Internal organization is far more important than external programs

Statistical margins of error don’t apply when numbers improve. Acceptable progress need only be a decimal point away.

Dismantle, don’t build

Civility reflects inability

Reserve all creativity for budgets and annual reports.

The liberal virtue standard: words rather than action

 Sam Smith – Although your editor graduated from Harvard magna cum probation, I do feel compelled to say a word on behalf of that college’s president who is currently under attack for committing the current greatest liberal sin: saying something the wrong way. As the son of a man who worked for the Roosevelt administration and helped to end 69 years of GOP rule in Philadelphia back in the 1940s, I have a sense of how liberalism has changed as its forces have become better educated. Central to this change has been a decline in effective politics and a rising emphasis on the proper verbal perspective.

One of the ways I became aware of this was living most of my life in DC, about four decades of which in a city that was majority black. It was here I I learned that if you wanted to bring cultures together you didn’t just say things, you found things to work together on in common. In the case of DC that included home rule, statehood, and the most successful anti-freeway fight anywhere. In the latter example, an early protest meeting I covered included two speakers: one from the overwhelmingly white Georgetown neighborhood and a black guy who headed something called Niggers Incorporated. I early sensed we were going to win.  And in my fifty year friendship with Marion Barry he called me everything from a “cynical cat” to a “son of a bitch” but we could still find common ground on which to act.

Now we find liberals arguing over whether four college presidents said the right things about Jews and Israel when testifying on Capitol Hill. One has already resigned.  Yet their topic wasn’t Zionism or anti-Semitism but the actual things that were happening in and around Gaza. If you want, for example, to see how complex the word Zionism is check Wikipedia for it and for “Anti-Zionism.” But if you want to to deal with the current crisis, you won’t find the answer in the right definition.

If you’re the president of a university you have to deal with a lot of language junkies but if you want to create change you have to come up with actual actions and projects that appeal even to those who don’t have the right words.  The current liberal crisis is due in no small part to being unable to speak to, and converse with, those  who don’t share elite language. As my high school math teacher used to say, “Speaka United States."


The hidden power of us

 Sam Smith – Last May I wrote about a discovery that deer in the field behind our house had made for me:

We live next to a Maine field that is periodically used by up to a dozen deer. Watching them and thinking about their lives has taught me something about my own: namely humans are the only animal species on earth that allows fellow creatures outside of their close environment to tell them what to do.  Name another species of over 300 million beings that permits a president and a congress to make major decisions for them. The absence of a good answer may help to explain why things aren’t working better these days.  Meanwhile, 30 million other deer in North America have no idea or authority about what the deer in our field are up to.

Of course, there are no deer that build houses, plant fields, provide schools, or deal with cancer. But at the same time there is no Fox News that lies to foxes. And as George Orwell noted, “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”

The problem is that we are taught, and come to accept and admire, the achievements of humans without adequate discussion and analysis of the price we pay for them. In other words, living into one’s 70s or 80s with cable TV is wonderful, but having Trump-like creatures abuse our time is far the other way.

There’s another price we pay for it, namely a decline in the very institutions that keep us human despite the failures of nations, corporations, media and artificial intelligence. These include families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, gatherings and communities. 

Thus, for example, in our discussions of how  to deal with Trump we rely in affecting the large institutions that largely control us as opposed to the less obvious powers we possess as humans living with other humans. If, however, you look at examples of positive change, they often come not from manipulating the huge but by alliances of the weak.  Consider the civil rights movement, women’s rights or ecological reform. In each case it was community action that got things going, not the reform of the grand.

Yet we increasingly rely on institutional America, despite the fact that these grand formations typically lack the values and standards that you find in these antiquated places called communities. Consider, for example, how we increasingly rely on legal institutions to establish our moral requirements, replacing churches, schools, families and neighborhoods.

There was once another important factor: community alliances built on goals, not ethnicity, religion or other things that still divide us. For example, in DC for over four decades there was a black majority in the city yet strong cross ethnic alliances were formed to take on  issues like freeways, urban planning, home rule and statehood.

But that was almost six decades ago and these days action is assumed to be grand – just like the government or corporations that fail us. We forget that a huge amount of change in the past has come from the bottom up.

When I moved to Maine full time fourteen years ago, I was interviewed by a local journalist, to whom I described a part of my motivation:

Since he’s been back, Smith said he’s seen things in Maine that have perhaps made him less cynical. A few years ago, when a Freeport lobsterman was injured in an accident, he said, “Within a few days, all the lobstermen had removed his traps. It was a combination of good for the lobsterman, good for the other lobstermen and good for the lobsters. A combination of competition and cooperation —it’s the way a good economy works.”  At another meeting about the restoration of a historic barn, Smith was heartened to hear a local contractor tell a Connecticut executive that, “When I build a house, I don’t just have to worry about whether the owner thinks I have done a good job. I have to worry about what people will say to my parents.”

Nothing since has changed my view. As I wrote a few months ago:

When I think about my own past, I can’t think of a single large corporation, institution or association that led me down the course I chose to follow. It was individuals, my Quaker high school, working on a farm, organizing in my ‘hood and my city, being friends with the wise and the kind, serving on a small Coast Guard cutter, joining local groups, playing in bands  and enjoying my family.

There is no haven for liars in my Maine town and about the only bullshit you’ll find is on farm fields and in barns. People are too close to reality and its effects to try to talk their way out of it. 

The institutional takeover of our society began in the 19th century and now, with artificial intelligence and modern media, it threatens the human in all of us. So as you puzzle what to do in this era of Trumpism and the lies, lousy logic and narcissism paraded as social change but threaten our country, bear in mind that an important part of the answer may lie in communities like yours. Don’t just complain; organize things that will make your community work better, especially ones that attract a cross-cultural alliance.  And find matters that challenge at a local level the lies that someone like Trump is stewing.

January 22, 2023


This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.