Friday, October 28, 2005

Powers: Journalists under public's thumb

And that, the National Journal's William Powers says, can't be all bad.

Powers has nailed it in many ways.

While we seem to be going through a skein of plagiarism, conflict of interest, made-up sources and general scuzziness in too many of our newsrooms, culminating -- for now until the next one -- in the L'Affaire Miller, the truth I think is simply that the curtain has been pulled back, revealing a business that exists too often on short cuts, easy answers and preconceived notions (I've been there, done that and, unfortunately, have the T-shirt).

It's a disconnect between what I think the public perceives its news media to be and the news media themselves. As Powers puts it:
The news business once operated as a kind of private club. Now it behaves more like a public utility in which every news consumer is a stockholder.
The disconnect: I think people always perceived journalism as a sort of public utility -- looking out for the greater good (though anyone who has covered the utility busisiness in depth, as I have, knows that to be naive at best.). The public was willing to grant the news media an increasing monooply status as long as there was an implicit promise to "look out for me."

Now let's not get all misty-eyed here. There are legion of tyrannical newsroom managers who were in it for themselves but somehow managed to keep this legend of the public good alive. World events (world war, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate) and the fascination with the rise of radio and TV (remember when TV and radio "remotes" were news events of their own?) allowed them to play the "we're here for you" card.

But the fascination ran out about the mid-1980s. And that legendary, if not ideal, owner became rarer.

Now, with instant availability of gigabytes of information from around the globe and with bloggers ready to pounce on actual or perceived transgressions, the curtain has been pulled back and people can fashion their own "information utility."

If the stockholders (through their proxies, the media critics, bloggers, and other press-watchers) push for an investigation of a suspicious news story or journalist, they get it. The outlet under suspicion really has no choice but to obey, Powers writes.

The real lesson of the Times scandal is not that the media are evil. It's that the Age of Media Arrogance is over. The news culture is under the public's thumb. It is more transparent, more answerable for its mistakes, and more likely than ever to clean up its act. Can anyone seriously argue that this is bad news?

There will be some. They will come from that time when you no longer could call a newsroom and get anyone to pick up, instead finding yourself in a voice mail hell. And every day I become a little more convinced their time is short.


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