Friday, March 04, 2005

Oh dear, CJR wants to re-engage the public again!

The Columbia Journalism Review's latest editorial is yet another example of a worthy screed that still misses the bloomin' point entirely! The piece, "On Mission: It’s Time to Reconnect the Press and the Public," sound great. It correctly notes that the public is disconnecting from a corporate media industry that increasingly feels like, and acts like, a "behemoth." Caught by critics from the left and right, it opines, journalism is losing its hold over the American public. The atomization of media outlets and multiple news sources doesn't help. So far, so obvious - but what to do? Thinks CJR:
    All that individual journalists can do, as we all think through these challenges, is rededicate ourselves to journalism’s central mission and find ways of explaining that mission to the public. If we want people on our side, in other words, we have to do work that actually benefits them. And we have to explain ourselves. ... More to the point, we salute those journalists who are quietly fighting to stay on mission — the editor who talks his publisher into another education correspondent, the station manager who gives a reporter more time, the columnist who remains intellectually honest, the features editor who rolls the dice on something deep.

Yes that's all wonderful and worthy and everything (in a weekend retreat, let's-break-into-groups-and-discuss, pass-a-resolution-to-feel-useful sort of way), but back in the real world (sorry, but I'm building up to a rant now) it's not the journalists who need to "fix" themselves. The "problem" (and oh! my! god! doesn't everyone know this by now?) is that the bottom line - cash, dollars, filthy lucre, whatever - is king in the world of journalism. And by "king" I mean in an absolute monarch, divine right of kings kind of way. So where journalistic ethics and profits clash, 99 times out of 100 it's the ethics that go out of the window. And the public knows that and they don't see any sign of change. It's all very well for CJR to point to the one time in a hundred where individual ethics and journalistic courage win out, but it doesn't change the other 99 times when these values don't win out over the bean counters and good journalists just have to knuckle down to keep their jobs or get fired. I am tired of hearing one appeal after another to the poor bloody infantry - journalists and editors - being exhortated to "try harder," "rededicate themselves ...," "journalism's mission," blah blah blah, when the problem is obviously structural and systematic and has everything to do with the business side and profit maximization and stock market gains! I saw that in spades at the small-town daily I worked at as a reporter in the mid-90s, and things have only got worse since.

(I sense an Occam's razor moment here!) Until we can find some way to reduce media owners' incessant need to wring 20, 30, 40 percent profit margins out of their media outlets, nothing - nothing - is going to change! So here's a suggestion: institute much stricter ownership limits, both locally and nationally. Turn back the consolidation of media ownership and you turn way down the pressure for ever-larger profits. Simple! Suggest that, CJR, or just shut up!


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