Thursday, May 7, 2009

From Television Drama to Congressional Testimony

I am about to quote a piece of my own text that I had previously reproduced in another post. It is not that I have grown overly obsessed with this passage. Rather, the text recently came to light when the author I was citing provided a new context for it. This is the original passage that I wrote:

There was a telling episode in the first episode of the current season of The Wire. The scene is the conference room where the "budget meetings" are held, which determine which stories are going to appear in the following morning's paper. Several of the mid-level staff are staring out the window at a large plume of black smoke. Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) comes in to ask what's happening; and someone shows him the smoke and says that there is a fire across town. His immediate reaction is, "Who's covering it?," which is met with blank stares.

The author I was citing is, of course, David Simon; and the new context was set yesterday:

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation announces the following Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet hearing: The Future of Journalism.

Here is the list of the external witnesses that testified before this subcommittee:

Simon's testimony was refreshingly blunt, particularly when compared with the superficial Internet evangelism being pushed by Mayer and Huffington; but more importantly it allowed him reflect at greater length about Haynes' predicament in dealing with those blank stares that he encountered.

That reflection basically went through two phases. The first involved the underlying relationship between the Internet and what Simon called "high-end journalism." Here is the relevant passage from Simon's testimony:

High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin - namely the newspapers themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

Simon's second phase moved from question of content (which had been viewed through the other end of the telescope by Mayer) to that of professional practices:

Understand here that I am not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not - in my city -- run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism - that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place -- is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history - no more than the last fifty years or so - a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

The frustration that Haynes encountered in Simon's fictional setting was the erosion (if not gruesome death) of professionalism among the staff in that scene. It was thus amusing to read Huffington's testimony, in which she cited her "compatriot Heraclitus" but had absolutely nothing to say about any professional journalist from either the present or the past. (Her only other citation involved her comparing "too many journalists" to "Pontius Pilot," providing us with a humorous reminder that even compatriots of Heraclitus can do with the common sense of a good editor!)

Simon began with a call for a new economic model. What is important, however, is that he was less concerned with whether or not newspapers, as we currently know them, remain in business. The greater concern is with whether the profession of journalism itself will die along with those newspapers, and this is precisely the concern that Mayer managed to deftly ignore in her own testimony. For all that she tried to talk about opportunities for the future of journalism, she could not confront the challenge that Web search is so superficial that it can only undermine journalism as a professional practice. (That superficiality was a key factor in the argument that Nicholas Carr developed in his Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?")

What Simon may have overlooked, however, is the tight coupling between the responsibilities of professional journalism and what I have called "the old-fashioned idea of the newspaper as a public trust." I doubt that public trust can be restored by anything as simple as a new economic model. Put another way, the problem is not one of the economics of commerce but of the broader scope of the political economy of our country. If we are to restore the virtues of professionalism (whether in journalism or any other trade), then those virtues will have to be reinforced by a reformed sense of value. This remains the crux of the problem of economic recovery, and it may be too much to ask that an improvement of the quality of our economy be coupled with a corresponding improvement in the quality of our work practices (not to mention compensation for that latter quality).

1 comment:

Mimi said...

Haven't we all seen "journalists" on T.V. sucking up to politicians and haven't we all heard of the parties and junkets they enjoy? Do you think they're going to give up that palship with the powers-that-be in order to serve the public? We need much more of a separation, declared or otherwise, between our rulers and those who pretend they're watchers. Unfortunately, the suave, polished, hair-plugged manikins ain't goin' be "investigative reporters" anytime soon and the writing ones, as opposed to the talking ones, aspire to the same eminence. It's all show biz.