Feature Beat the press

If journalists want to save journalism, they'll have to get better at their old game and master the Internet, too

Heroes of a golden age: The Woodward-Bernstein Watergate Archive now resides at UT-Austin's Harry Ransom Center. The reporters worked at the family-owned Washington Post when, in 1972, they broke the story that ultimately forced Richard Nixon's resignation. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men, the film that helped to glamorize a grubby, underpaid profession.

The towering white concave walls of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on the University of Texas at Austin campus dwarf the shallow reflecting pools that shimmer in the noonday sun on the adjacent mall. But then, LBJ was not known as an introspective man. As Susan Sarandon's character Annie in Bull Durham observes, the world belongs to those who are not cursed with self-awareness. Johnson's one-time special assistant, on the other hand, has always seemed to possess a surfeit of self-reflection. We've come to know Bill Moyers as America's Boy Scout of journalism, the man who thoughtfully offered us his arm, politely whispering advice in our ear as we navigated our way through medical issues and cultural movements. More recently, before his retirement in December of last year, he started a hard-hitting, politically oriented show that might have made his old boss proud. NOW, an hour-long, PBS-sponsored news magazine, was one of the most informative venues for speakers and coverage that were critical of the Bush administration and policies leading up to the 2004 election. Unfortunately its viewership numbers are nowhere near that of FOX News.

Across campus from the flat sea of limestone in which the LBJ library floats imperiously stands the comparatively modest building that houses the Harry J. Ransom Center. Its extensive archives collection recently acquired a set of materials that tells another tale of presidential power: 75 boxes of notebooks, clippings, and files now officially known as the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate Archive. Johnson never felt the sting of the Washington Post duo's copy, but he might have made a craftier adversary than Tricky Dick. The architecture reads like an American allegory. Through the power of the press, the pen really can be mightier than the sword.

Or so it once seemed. In the past few years, a pair of Texans, George W. Bush and Karl Rove, has been doing its best to help a press that seems more adept at turning the pen on itself in humiliating and humiliation-driven acts of hara-kari. In the article "Tearing Down the Press," Eric Boehlert, a senior political writer at Salon.com, quotes a number of professional observers who believe that the administration's antagonistic relationship with the press is a plan, not just an attitude. "Weakening the press weakens an institution that's structurally an adversary of the White House," writes Boehlert. "And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts - the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate." But as Boehlert notes in his story, the press has seemed an almost willing victim. In the wake of New York Times reporter-turned-fiction-writer Jayson Blair, and Dan Rather's still-mysterious blunder with a forged memo, the exposure of Jeff Gannon/James Guckert - the male escort writing for a conservative propaganda website who was given a press pass for White House briefings - seemed to leave more egg on the face of mainstream journalism than it did on the administration. Moreover, major news outlets have turned a cool shoulder to the Internet blogs and cable shows that have been crying for heads to roll (or at least a televised Senate inquiry, for Pete's sake).

"A lot of what's called indie media is not journalism. Journalism is an attempt by people who are independent of other institutions to understand and explain the world to people."

— Robert Jensen

Yet, all of this bad news about the news doesn't seem to be dissuading prospective journalists from pursuing a career. In 2003, the number of students enrolled in journalism and communications programs around the country reached an all-time high, even though, for the same year - and three years prior - the median entry-level pay remained an uninspiring $26,000, and only half of all graduates with a bachelor's degree found employment in the field. The University of Texas at Austin enrolled more than 750 students in its undergraduate and graduate journalism courses in 2004. With an endowed Knight Chair in Journalism, and a renowned Radio, Television, and Film department, as well, it seems like a good place to look for the answer to the question, Can this profession be saved?

There have been a number of articles in the past few months seeking to analyze what ails journalism. The answers are, not surprisingly, typical of the writers' ideologies. Conservatives have said, Liberal rot, and pointed to evidence that Jayson Blair was treated with kid gloves because he was black. Members of the liberal Media Reform movement have placed the blame on the increasing consolidation of ownership by large conglomerates such as Gannett, FOX, and Clear Channel. Representatives of the major news outlets have pointed the finger at the Internet, saying that the glut of a priori information and ideological rants undermine research-based reporting and analysis.

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at UT-Austin and an outspoken progressive activist on war and pornography among other issues, believes that ethical breaches such as Blair's, corporate consolidation and the pressure it brings to put the bottom line first, and the increasingly blurred line between entertainment and news, are critical issues that need to be addressed. But "the more fundamental crisis is in a sense an ideological crisis," he argues. "Especially in times of war, the corporate media essentially becomes a propaganda arm of the government." The New York Times, for instance, last year ran a front-page story admitting that it had been catastrophically uncritical of the administration's pre-war claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But the damage was already done.

Salon's Boehlert notes, "There's sort of these ground rules that the press sets for themselves, and I think there is a price to pay if you wander outside that." Salon, for instance, has more paid subscribers than the Weekly Standard, he says, but you won't see founder David Talbot or Boehlert on Meet the Press "because we're not nice."

Journalism departments are closely connected to the mainstream press, adds Jensen. "They tend to teach the current professional practices fairly uncritically." For many idealistic students who enter the profession, Woodward (the young Woodward, anyway) and Bernstein are still the role models, hard-nosed investigative reporters who weren't afraid to follow the evidence all the way to the top. Yet Jensen observes that they, and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, were operating in the wake of the social upheaval of the '60s in which it was not only acceptable, but admirable, to question authority. "What we tend to see historically is that journalism is very much a reflection of the dominant culture." It's a trend toward timidity, exacerbated by 9/11, that can't be solved by journalism alone.

"Most of the news companies that would be interested in creating viable journalism on the web have been very timid. They seem to be placeholding. They are just recycling news."

— Rosental Alves

When the most flamboyant of the government's '70s-era journalistic gadflys, Hunter S. Thompson, committed suicide during the gray days of February, it was hard not to share a moment of suicidal empathy over today's tame press - or to note that Thompson was a major actor in journalism's recasting as a stage for personalitites, and even a stardom of sorts. When NPR's Cokie Roberts became the cooing insider of the Clinton White House, she was in a sense trading on Gonzo's long coattails for a new style of personality-driven, cocktail-invitation coverage. It wasn't just the press corps that was becoming comfortable with handouts during the roaring '90s; the majority of the public was happy, too, as long as the good times rolled. When the Karl Rove-Ari Fleischer juggernaut rolled into town, our claws were dull and our muscles slack.

"I do think this administration has done a pretty good job of beating the White House press corps into submission," says Lorraine Branham, a former newspaper editor and director of the department of journalism at UT-Austin, but she disagrees that the general culture has become more passive. Like Boehlert, she is troubled by what she sees as a trend toward public questioning of the press' credibility. She says a necessary remedy is to reeducate the public about the role of the press. "People think anybody in the media is a journalist. They think anybody with an opinion is a journalist." Branham points to Rush Limbaugh as one example of a media personality who is accorded the status of news reporter. "I think the battle for the next 10 years is to continue to define what we do to the public."

Jensen, who is careful to distinguish between the opinion pieces he publishes in various outlets and news reporting, says that the Internet has magnified this problem. "A lot of what's called indie media is not journalism. Journalism is an attempt by people who are independent of other institutions to understand and explain the world to people." Like plumbing or carpentry, he says, it's a craft. "To be a journalist isn't simply to pick up a pen." Or a keyboard. The right-wing Talon News website (funded by Texan Robert Eberle), for which Gannon/Guckert was shilling when he was ushered into the White House, alternated between regurgitating government press releases and making polemical arguments in favor of conservative policy initiatives. On the other side of the spectrum, Truthout.org provides a daily diet of articles criticizing the Bush administration, but undecided readers might be forgiven for beginning to think of these sources as not unlike politicians seeking their vote.

Gossipmonger: The infamous Drudge Report website in 1997 accused reporter Sidney Blumenthal of being a wife beater the week he joined the Clinton White House. During John Kerry's presidential campaign, the website accused the candidate of having an affair with freelance reporter Alex Polier, which she denied. "People think anyone in the media is a journalist," says UT School of Journalism Director Lorraine Branham. "I think the battle for the next 10 years is to continue to define what `journalists` do to the public."

Professor Rosental Alves, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at UT-Austin and teaches courses in Internet journalism, says that the medium itself is not the problem. "`The Internet` may have some negative uses, but it's positive overall," he argues. "When the presses started in Europe people would say the same thing about pamphlets." He says he is intrigued by developments such as the "watchdog" phenomenon among bloggers, who first caught the Guckert/Gannon fraud, and so-called "participatory" news initiatives such as Wikinews, based on the thousand-points-of-light online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that break down the traditional "invisibility" of the reporter and personalize the news. The main challenge, says Alves, is to bring "the same old basic values of journalism, like ethics and the role of journalism in a democratic society," into the new formats.

Perhaps surprisingly to advocates of media reform on the left, Alves says the biggest barrier to that goal is money. "The main danger to me is that it is the end of the revenue model that has made possible quality journalism." Alves says that advertising dollars are disappearing from online news media and going to other places and, as a result, major print media players, the traditional home of investigative reporting, are not really investing in the Internet. Two-thirds of the way through a multi-year study tracking 30 newspapers' home pages, Alves says, "Most of the news companies that would be interested in creating viable journalism on the web have been very timid. They seem to be placeholding. They are just recycling news."

Jensen, who is enthusiastic about the Media Reform movement spearheaded by critic Robert McChesney, would also cure many of journalism's ills with money - public money, raised in part by taxing the sale of television sets and related equipment. Ideally, he says, we would fund a public broadcasting system that was better insulated against political interference, and - one of the tenets of the Media Reform movement - reinstate programming requirements of the broadcasters who use the publicly owned airwaves. But Jensen would also put public funds into grassroots media efforts that don't fit the traditional journalism model. "The key to me is diversity. If you have a truly diversified system, you can bring these different perspectives together."

Many of these issues will be raised at the upcoming International Symposium of Online Journalism, which will be held at UT-Austin April 8 and 9. The many panels break down into two broad topic areas: how technological developments are affecting news quality and how to create a workable business model for traditional journalism on the web. "What is painful for me now is to go abroad," says Alves, who organized the conference. "It's very sad to see everyone looking at U.S. journalism as bad journalism." A native of Brazil who looked up to the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal, he is quick to remind critics that American journalism has endured many crises and reform movements. "This is a pretty serious moment because we are under a very serious threat, much more so than television or radio `presented` ... But I'm optimistic. I think we will find a way."

By Elaine Wolff

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