Slow the Presses

My copy of Neil Henry’s American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media is filled with sticky notes marking passages I want to share with my journalism students. But that’s not to say that Henry’s book is merely a textbook. It pulls together scads of lively historical and contemporary anecdotes about American journalism, offering fresh perspectives on its current state. For that reason alone it deserves a wide readership.

A former Washington Post reporter, author of Pearl’s Story, and now a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Henry contends that hard-won journalistic ethics—which ironically made their appearance in the early twentieth century when much of the press was mired in sensationalism—are threatened by enemies new and old.

The old enemy is the advertiser/publicist, who pushes opinion in directions dictated by money and power. The new enemy is the “citizen journalist,” anybody with Internet access and an ax to grind who uses the blogosphere to get everybody all excited (to steal a favorite phrase from the granddaddy of citizen journalists, William Randolph Hearst). Aiding and abetting these enemies is technology, which has made it all too easy to produce a steady flow of information that competes with legitimate journalism. Writes Henry:

The calliope music is played in a realm that frequently represents itself as trustworthy and fair to the best interests of both citizen and society—indeed, professionally dedicated to the truth. But this realm is also characterized by acts of deceit and dishonesty, with the result that what is presented as professional journalism is in fact often not journalism at all.... It’s an amazing show...but once inside, we may discover the actual amount of original, professional, and independently gathered journalism shrinking before our very eyes.

Henry’s points aren’t new, of course. Dystopian literature, itself a kind of propaganda, has long warned about lies in the guise of news. What is new is the rate and degree to which technology is helping to erode journalistic values.

Among other things, Henry chronicles the sheer volume of information that technology can crank out and how this volume shrinks the attention span of news consumers. More information and less time to analyze it diminish the public’s ability to distinguish responsible reporting from “advertorials.” The demand to be entertained has further blurred the lines between fact and fabrication. Growing legions of publicists block access to newsmakers and script them so closely that getting at what the latter really stand for is nearly impossible. The public’s demand to see-it-now on the Internet pressures editors and reporters to get stories into print ASAP at the risk of introducing errors. And the willingness of news organizations to cut news coverage to turn a higher profit means there are fewer trained reporters on the job. You get the idea. We’ve got trouble, and that starts with “T” and that rhymes with “P,” and that stands for “press”!

If there are weaknesses in American Carnival, they stem from Henry’s idealism. This sometimes leads him to conflate journalistic truth—that which is observable, provable, and presented in a balanced and fair manner—with The Truth, with its implied transcendence. Henry would, I think, concede that even something as straightforward as arranging factual information can be an awfully subjective business. I recall a network newscast years ago about then–Vice President Dan Quayle’s trip to Latin America. The anchor reported that Quayle visited with city officials, toured a new mass-transit bus, and grinned and “honked the horn.” Factual and observable, yes. But my dislike for Quayle didn’t prevent me from wondering whether grinning and honking were the most important and substantive events of Quayle’s day—or his vice presidency. Or whether those little facts were a carefully arranged zinger to make Quayle look like a hyper toddler excited about playing bus driver.

Henry is hard on journalists who have run off to join the carnival of self-promotion, but not uniformly so. He treats a former student, “forced” to do a story on the sexual peccadilloes of local pols to capitalize on the interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, as a victim. But he portrays Mike Barnicle, who lost his job at the Boston Globe after charges of plagiarism and fabrication only to resurface at the New York Daily News and as a raconteur for a Boston radio talk show, as a villain. Henry also uses the word “shill” too much. But these are minor flaws.

As a teacher of journalistic skills to future advertising and public-relations professionals (read “shill”), I read American Carnival with an appreciation of the irony that put this book in my path—and with a fair amount of soul-searching. Never mind that both advertising and public-relations professions have codes of ethics similar to the one promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists. Or that advertising and PR practitioners have the same freedoms and responsibilities of expression that journalists have. Or that many of my students fall in love with nonprofit work as interns and stay in that realm, helping journalists understand the needs of dying children, the plight of battered women, or how public libraries contribute to the fiscal and intellectual health of a community.

As both a citizen and a former reporter, I have heard the calliope that future journalists will have to overcome. I laud Henry’s effort to give journalism students a more realistic notion of the state of the press today and his plea to force journalism education to face the pressures that besiege the profession. His book is also an implied caution to advertisers and press agents to remember their own code of ethics.

Finally, Henry challenges all of us to question the news we hear, see, and read. If we were to do our homework, starting with American Carnival, perhaps the ongoing debate over the state of the U.S. press would be better informed and more enlightened.

Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: 
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Jean Hughes Raber teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

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