What are Journalists For?
By Jay Rosen
Yale University Press. 352 Pages. $29.95.
To take a fresh look at Jay Rosen’s provocative question “What Are Journalists For?” as well as the decade-long debate he helped to inspire within American journalism, it is instructive to spend time here in post-Communist Europe. Czech journalists have not gained the kind of agenda-setting influence that preoccupies Rosen and other American press reformers. Ten years after the Velvet Revolution, they are divided and depressed, operating in the sort of “fear or favor” political culture that The New York Times’s motto disclaims. Getting journalists to ask the pertinent questions, to find out what the government actually is doing, and to publish or broadcast the answers, is surprisingly difficult here.

Czech reporters feel that when they do report on corruption, no one listens. “What do you do when the first privatizations—and tunneling [of assets to improper people]—are the newspapers themselves?” one newspaperman despaired as he explained why his investigative zeal had collapsed. And when the press disclosed illegalities, the courts did not seem to follow up and political leaders circled the wagons instead of throwing out the bad guys. In this environment, why should newspaper companies, now owned by media corporations from Germany and Switzerland, take on the Czech political power structure?

Without much credibility or other source of influence, Czech journalists increasingly are vulnerable to political intervention. Late last year, the Czech Parliament prepared to pass a disastrous press law featuring a news subject’s “right of reply” regardless of the truth of the original article. In a moment of rare chutzpah, Czech newspapers published hypothetical pages scarred with blank spaces, indicating what would happen to their reporting if this law was passed. But instead of hammering away on this issue of basic survival, the newspapers then dropped the issue and the pressure was off. Only when international free press groups picked up the fight, and the European Union issued a scathing report on the proposed law, did the bill evolve into a more reasonable measure.

Now the two ruling parties appear poised to take joint control of the two Czech public television stations in time for the next legislative elections. Public television represents half of the nation’s four broadcast stations, while satellite and cable are still foreign-content luxuries. One has only to look next door to Hungary to see what the political lynching of national television would look like. There, the government’s decision to appoint only government party members to the boards overseeing state television and radio has stifled opposition news, according to the International Press Institute. Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky, in an opposition party, found that for the first time in nine years his Hungarian national day speech would not be broadcast. “Freedom of the press is endangered,” he told The Washington Post’s Peter Finn.

To be sure, some courageous Czech reporters haven’t given up, and a new freedom of information act became law January 1. But Czech journalists still have not created any leverage for themselves. They are not waiting in a pack outside the politicians’ closed doors; they don’t even pick up threads of each other’s investigative stories. Lacking the critical mass or legal protections of America’s press corps, Czech journalists need something else—something like objectivity or public journalism—to legitimize their work.

Jay Rosen’s call for American journalists to make democracy their responsibility is especially poignant in this post-Communist setting, where neither journalists nor citizens are accustomed to having access to government information or influence over their nation’s fate. People here are weary of hearing bad news, suspicious of both the politicians and the press, and unaware of their own potential role in shaping a better future. Sound familiar? These were the kinds of complaints about American democracy that inspired Rosen’s public journalism and similar civic journalism efforts by the Pew Charitable Trusts and others 10 years ago.

“Are we telling the story of our public life in a way that invites people in, gives them a task?” Rosen asked American journalists in 1995, encouraging them to join the public/civic journalism movement. Public journalists like Buzz Merritt at The Wichita Eagle engaged citizen attention to community issues by organizing town hall meetings and creating temporary media alliances to blitz the region with special reports on such important civic topics as crime, racism and education. At more than 200 news organizations during the past decade, civic journalists rethought their approach to news, transforming the usual voyeur stories about crime, scandals and elections by asking in what ways citizens might contribute and then making that information available.

Ironically, just when new democracies need them the most, civic journalism and objectivity both seem passé in America. Young journalists feel that it’s more rewarding to offer news with “attitude,” popularized by the Internet gadflies, sassy columnists, and talk show pundits. Such reporting may seem fresh and entertaining. But it’s not much real use for citizens in a democracy, particularly here in post-Communist Central Europe, where basic information is still difficult to find.

Rosen’s proposals for an engaged press and the subsequent experiments at newspapers like The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald touched off a nuclear war with the Old Guard at The New York Times and other newspapers. As Rosen recounted in “What are Journalists For?,” the fervent opposition came from American journalism’s most influential leaders, including Max Frankel of The New York Times, Max King of The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Remnick of The Washington Post (now Editor of The New Yorker) and Michael Kelly, of the National Journal and now of The Atlantic Monthly.

Both Rosen and his critics overreacted to each other, missing the opportunity for broader reforms. Rosen sabotaged the acceptance of public journalism among the very people who should have appreciated it most, by saying that journalists should abandon their detachment and take responsibility for the civic impact of their stories. There need be “no sharp boundary” between journalism “and other varieties of civic work,” he said. But objectivity, for all its bad reputation among scholars and pundits, still means something to America’s best journalists, who discipline themselves to limit the influence of their own or their advertisers’ views in the stories they write. The journalism establishment saw Rosen as a meddling academic whose unnecessary reforms would undermine both their integrity and their power.

Was Rosen’s approach the dangerous apostasy that these critics contended?

Judging from public response, civic journalism did far more good than harm, enhancing the journalists’ standing in the community and the citizens’ willingness to tackle common problems. In places like Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, citizens mobilized by a media blitz helped lower the crime rate with clean-ups, lawsuits and a new youth center. Civic journalism certainly seems to have been less damaging to the press’s credibility (or to the well- being of democratic institutions in that city) than the excessive voyeur violence, “strategy” frameworks, and cynical score-keeping most American journalists employ every day.

The Old Guard journalists also overestimated their own objectivity credentials, as Rosen pointed out. Max Frankel’s dictum that journalists should “leave reform to the reformers” was a less than accurate description of Frankel’s own New York Times, or for that matter Edward R. Murrow’s celebrated “Harvest of Shame” documentary, or the courageous Southern editors who helped legitimize the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. One doesn’t have to read the books by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, Thomas Patterson, Paul Taylor, Kathleen Hall Jamieson or David Halberstam to be reminded how often journalists influence the policymaking process, even if by accident, or by acts of omission. Even the most “objective” journalists still hope to exert some influence by inspiring a response to the events and issues they cover.

Thus it should not be a threat to a newspaper’s independence to host town hall meetings or backyard barbecues, to include citizens’ perspectives or to ask citizens what issues are most relevant to their communities. To be sure, it would be a confusion of roles if the journalists ended up promoting the success of their civic meetings rather than telling the truth as well as they could about the discussions’ actual success or failure. Rosen conceded that such lapses occurred at the Columbus, Georgia newspaper and at several other public journalism projects and that, in some instances, news organizations misused citizen initiatives to court subscribers. But many of civic journalism’s best practitioners and teachers, including Ed Fouhy and Jan Schaffer of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, carefully avoided these mistakes. Rosen’s critics seemed unwilling to differentiate between what worked well and what didn’t.

When the Public Broadcasting Service’s “Democracy Project” brought public journalism to national television, it was objective and civic at the same time. PBS’s experimental weekly series “Follow the Money” covered the 1997 political fundraising hearings in Congress by giving citizens a sense of their choices. It combined news of the scandals with reporting on various reform efforts, history, opinion pieces, and humor. A companion Web site offered direct links to more information, citizen comments, a game to test-drive the various reform proposals, and “hot buttons” to groups opposing or pushing various reforms. In contrast, the commercial networks and newspapers scanned the hearings for scandal headlines and political theater.

Like many civic journalism efforts, “Follow the Money” has come and gone. It is sad now, after 10 years of such efforts, to see how discredited Rosen’s ideas still remain with the journalism establishment. Public journalism should not have been such a stretch for them, and Rosen should not have depicted it as one. It was not necessary to abandon the attempt to be objective in one’s reporting, nor to give up the editor’s prerogative, nor to find foundation money for special projects, in order to offer more comprehensive and responsible news to America.

So what, then, are journalists for? This observer must offer a rather depressing reality check. Journalists, alas, are for making money. What is wrong with American journalism is not its overdose of civic engagement, as Rosen’s critics predicted, nor the Old Guard’s objectivity fetish, as Rosen proposed. Instead, the most serious problem is the increasing influence of corporate managers in defining the news. Whether it is at the Los Angeles Times, surreptitiously promoting their own business deal with a favorable supplement, or at the television networks and newsmagazines, hawking their corporation’s latest movie with tie-in news features, the result is damaging to press credibility.

The media’s emphasis on celebrity, entertainment, private lives rather than public policymaking; on punditry, gossip and opinion has proved deeply corrosive to the fading journalistic tradition that knew what it meant when it tried to be objective. As Matt Drudge on the Internet and virtually all the prominent national journalists on the television talk shows keep score for Washington’s insider political games, there is more entertainment and less information that citizens need to know.

In the Czech Republic, too, it is easier to draw an audience by mocking the antics of the politicians than by trying to cast a clarifying light. So why not follow the current trend of American journalism: gossip and entertainment? The nation of Dvorak, Kafka and Havel is glued to the worst of American television reruns on TV NOVA. This is a profitable television station that was established after the Velvet Revolution by two former U.S. ambassadors, Ronald Lauder and Mark Palmer, with a Czech partner whom Lauder is now suing over control of the business. NOVA’s news is so sensationalized that Czechs joke you need a towel to mop up all the blood. The naked weather lady is another trademark feature, prancing around in full view without anything at all on, until she dons a little scarf around her neck to show that tomorrow, the weather will be cold.

Perhaps some day the Czechs and the Americans will be prattle-fatigued and sell-shocked. But for now, it will be up to people like Jay Rosen—and his critics—to work at perfecting the journalism that democracy deserves. Such efforts are worthwhile because the stakes are high, not just in the United States but out here on the edge, where democracy is just beginning, and both the citizens and journalists need to see what they might be.

Ellen Hume, currently living in Prague, was Executive Director of PBS’s “Democracy Project” and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

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