It’s not often I feel uneasy about a book by just seeing it. With this book that sinking feeling began before I opened it. It wasn’t the cover design—though from sad experience I know the futility of getting publishers to produce journalism books with anything other than close-ups of newsprint or keyboards on the front. It was its titles. “What Good Is Journalism?” has problems, but the subtitle is so off-putting it seemed like a stuntman from a rival publisher inserted it. “How Reporters and Editors Are Saving America’s Way of Life” looks like a corporate mission statement: “Saving America 24/7.” It reads like one: “Journalism—Protecting U.S. Way of Life Since 1744.” It is a bloody corporate mission statement.
In this case, the corporation is journalism and the 12-strong team who assumed the task of being its public relations department is mostly senior members of the Missouri School of Journalism. Bothered by what they see as the unhealthy quantities of criticism being heaped onto journalism, they decided to produce an antidote—a book to show not only the contribution reporters and editors make to their country’s health, but how these unsung and unappreciated men and women are apparently rescuing its very way of life.
They explore this heroic salvage work in all its contemporary forms: one member of the team headed to National Public Radio; another to The Anniston Star in Alabama; a third to Washington, D.C.; others to speak with investigative reporters and news councils throughout the nation, and one to talk with journalists working in Kosovo, Palestine, South Africa, and Albania. Each chapter is well enough written and informs us how select journalists and news organizations function. But their headings read like they, too, caught the mission statement virus: “NPR offers News and Companionship,” “The Hometown Newspaper Builds Community,” “Watchdogs of Government Serve Citizens,” “Journalism Builds New Democracies,” “Investigative Reporting Saves Lives,” and “Computer-Assisted Journalism Creates New Knowledge.” The overall effect is so relentlessly well meaning that it’s like being trapped in an elevator with delegates from a Sunday school teachers’ convention.
The book’s basic problem is not in its execution; it is in its concept. What this Missouri team discovers is that some (in fact, quite a few) journalists do their job well, and a good number do it considerably above and beyond the call of any duty. Not all that surprising. The same, I suspect, is true of real estate brokers or brothel keepers. What else did they expect to learn? Nothing, it would seem, since this book’s intent shines through only as public relations, not academic or journalistic inquiry. The result is that it has all the intellectual depth of a press release.
Let’s return to the subtitle for a moment to ask, what way of life are journalists saving? Whose life, more precisely, are they saving from what? And how are they doing this—deliberately or as a byproduct of some other, less elevating, activity? Then there’s the book’s title—“What Good Is Journalism?”—and the lack of an adequate response on its pages, all of which prompts a question of my own: If a university press provided 171 empty pages for a defense of journalism’s raison d’etre, how might those pages best be used?
Perhaps a good place to start would be in systematically searching the history of journalism for excellence and achievement. This book has some history in it, but where is Martha Gellhorn and David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Roland Thomas, Evelyn Shuler, and Herbert Bayard Swope? Editors like Ben Bradlee? Crusaders like Nellie Bly, I.F. Stone, George Seldes, Randy Shilts, and Winifred Bonfils? Great city reporters like Mike Berger of The New York Times? Beat reporters like Edna Buchanan, who was a crime correspondent for The Miami Herald? Poets like Richard Harding Davis? Critics like A.J. Liebling, Gay Talese, H.L. Mencken, and P.J. O’Rourke? History makers like J.A. MacGahan, whose revelations about the Bulgarian Atrocities led, in time, to the redrawing of Central Europe’s map; Floyd Gibbons, whose account of the sinking of the Laconia for the Chicago Tribune helped propel America to war in 1917; Wilfred Burchett’s reporting that revealed the lies about the effects of radiation on Hiroshima’s population, and Ernie Pyle, whose war reporting reflected a nation’s will as perhaps no other reporter has done before or since? (The authors might respond that they were concerned only with contemporary journalism; but, if so, where are the honorable exceptions to the U.S. news media’s uncritical approach to the Iraq War in 2002-2004? Such an approach, however, might call into question the project’s upbeat mission statement.)
Yet to contemplate fully what good journalism does, examining its peaks of achievement is not enough. That exercise would merely prove, perhaps in some greater depth, the point this book superficially did, thus leaving us back where we began and aware of little we did not already suspect about journalists. More challenging and useful would be the construction of a new framework to consider journalism’s benefits and the forces that help or hinder them. This means creating a far wider vantage point than the process of journalism.
The Past Informs the Present
As a starting point, I’d suggest taking a look at a book that is not about the press at all. It’s a study of everyday life in preindustrial societies, written by the late Cambridge University historian, Peter Laslett. “The World We Have Lost” shows us what life was like before journalism, when people relied on friends, family, the local priest, and the gossip of the marketplace for information. Then, people usually traveled no more than five miles from their homes during their whole lives; what happened three valleys away often remained an uncorroborated rumor. Subsistence and family matters consumed nearly all their energies; these people weren’t property owners, nor did they expect to live very long. They had, therefore, little investment in wider society and consequently very little interest in it. Their discourse was what passed by word of mouth in the highly limited circles they inhabited.
Knowing what this world was like makes tracing journalism’s impact possible. What journalism has done for many years is to facilitate society’s discourse, which today is personal, local, regional, national and global and sectional. Each of these spheres has aspects in which citizens have an interest, or in which they are interested in gaining more information. Though journalists might, at times, suffer from a lack of information, shortage of time, conflicts of interest and, sometimes, just plain boneheadedness, what they do—imperfectly, at times—facilitates the discourse.
Among their tasks are these: keeping people informed of elected and appointed officials’ activities; investigating what the powerful usually prefer kept out of public view; giving voice to those who lack an effective one; providing an arena for debate, communicating back to officials how citizens feel; finding information about extraordinary occurrences; holding a mirror up to society, correcting misconceptions, showing people how others lead their lives; giving information to help readers live, travel, consume and engage with what is of interest to them; providing entertainment and, most crucially of all, supplanting rumor.
Combine this exploration with a tour of journalism’s historic high spots and far more important questions emerge. What enables a journalist to do these tasks well? Does doing well depend on the conditions in which a journalist works—a sympathetic legal framework or the lack of official interference in editorial freedom, for example? (Maybe America’s way of life is responsible for saving journalism rather than the other way around.) An even more fundamental question to ask might be whether journalism, as an occupation, should set out to do good. Or should it be—is it actually—an honest attempt to find out and publish no matter what the consequences?
What limitations are there on the roles that journalism performs? Does the way journalism is performed impose its own limitations? And what best promotes good journalism? A benevolent proprietor? A management that doesn’t demand a 30 percent minimum return on turnover? A news organization with a monopoly grip on its own area? An editor with a mission in mind? Rugged individuality? Good training at j-school?
Or is it, as I learned after studying the best of reporting history for my book, “The Great Reporters,” being well read, applying intelligence to the subject being reported, and having a positively dysfunctional (by any normal human standards) determination to find out? Finally, most important of all, we might ask: Why does some journalism fail to carry out its functions? It’s a question that the Missouri writers, having confined themselves to the sunny side of the street, ruled themselves out of investigating. They’ve presented us with some role models, but they haven’t really answered their title’s question, let alone justified the mission statement that is their subtitle.
David Randall is assistant editor and columnist at The Independent on Sunday of London, columnist for Italy’s Internazionale, and author of “The Universal Journalist” and “The Great Reporters.”