National Commentary

The Death of Journalism? Part 1

nfbentonpicRemarkably, the past few weeks have seen an amazing sort of passing in the arena of journalism and news. This week came the death of a third legendary journalist (don’t they say these things always some in three’s?) Jack Germond, joining recently-passed giants Helen Thomas and Herb Kaplow in the Big Newsroom in the Sky.

All three shared similar traits and values as “old school” practitioners of the fine art of seeking out and passing on, intelligibly, truths about things that mattered to millions of citizens in our proud democracy. All enjoyed a love of their craft that always shone in their work, a special kind of joyful glow attending the iconoclastic roles that good journalists – properly ranked with poets and playwrights among the fine artists of truth-telling – play so importantly.

They had the special benefit of knowing that their work was making an important difference to the course of humankind’s affairs. They weren’t just earning a paycheck and they were valued for far more than a shallow celebrity’s sex appeal. They worked hard, they were persistent, they were willing to stand in the face of resistance and demand the truth from power.

Don Bachardy, a dear friend and surviving partner of one of the great authors and essayists of the English language, Christopher Isherwood, explained to me just last weekend that Isherwood considered his greatest challenge to be making his stories and arguments readily intelligible to his readers. His was not a calling to make his works difficult and aloof, but the contrary. The art of writing was to him the art of conveyance of meaningful content to the reader. How similar is that calling to what a good journalist is called to do every day!

We journalists cut our teeth on the notion of keeping the reader in the forefront of our minds, to employ the famous “five W’s” – who, what, where, when and why (in more recent times, “how” being added) – in the interest of clarity for the reader. Isherwood wrote than in keeping the reader in the forefront, that reader can’t be viewed just an amorphous mass, but must be as images of real people, people you know and can imagine what it would be like telling a story to them.

Such are important matters to consider in the face of the transfer of the tools of the profession into the hands of people who know nothing of this. The sale of so many major daily newspapers, the latest of the mighty Washington Post, to moguls who know how to, and intend to, make money off of them, stands in sharp contrast to the grizzled, life-loving yeomen who created and sustained the whole enterprise from the mean streets and sharp-penciled editors on up.

It used to be, at least since the early 20th century reformers who promoted somewhat objective standards for journalistic excellence, that journalism stood apart from the pursuit of either filthy lucre or crass partisanship in politics. In the early days of television, for example, it was a deliberate policy that the nightly news shows were devoid of advertising. It was important to make a public example of the separation of tough news reporting from the influence of the almighty dollar.

Truth, honesty and integrity in the service of democracy defined the work, and not a phony concept of “balance.” Hitler, Stalin and Roosevelt were not moral equivalents the way that the modern notion of “fair and balanced” might suggest.

Journalists are servants of the people, tasked with giving them the tools of knowledge and insight needed to preserve the viability of their democratic institutions.

The death knell for newspapers came not with radio and TV, or the Internet, but when they went to Wall Street to become publicly traded entities. Then a whole new, alien kind of value system began to infect the newsroom. Accountants, not editors, began making the big decisions, always mindful of pleasing profit-driven investors.

The expendable became hard news gathering, compared to revenue-generated advertising. God help us if the new wave of monied moguls take our newspapers further down that road to ruin.