Published in the January 2005 issue of Nieman Reports Magazine.

Journalism will survive, but it might appear in the form of Web sites designed for people who want to check in on the real news when they don’t get the jokes on the Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”

It is tragic that we’ve come to this. For years we’ve been warned that great journalism is being tainted by all this ersatz stuff. Too many reporters are chasing too few stories and conveying them with more hype than meaning. People are suffering from news fatigue, along with compassion and political fatigue.

Audiences flee to the blogosphere and talk shows, where the chatterati seem more candid and therefore, honest, seducing audiences by confirming their prejudices. The passion for “attitude” plays well in our attention economy, but it’s bad for news. Journalists become no different than salesmen and jesters, except they’re usually less amusing.

Real journalism will recover, but only if its supporters take action. First, they should get out the plastic sheeting and duct tape and wall off everything about celebrities, movies, Laci Peterson, rumor, prediction, and a lot of other popular stuff. Take a page out of factcheck.org – the most admired Web site of this campaign year. Stay with the basics. Don’t just repeat someone else’s story. Do original reporting. Help us understand what’s a lie and what’s the truth, and why this matters.

Journalism that still tries to do this is better now than ever. It is found in the detailed take-outs in The New York Times and other newspapers which separate myths from realities, about aluminum tubes in Iraq, John Kerry and George Bush during the Vietnam era, and other hotly debated issues. But these days this kind of careful, researched journalism has more enemies than friends. “You’re either for us or against us,” President Bush declared after 9/11, in message that was absorbed too well by the U.S. media.

To win back people who want to know what’s really going on, journalists need to return to what they do best: providing verified information that is, in Bill Kovach’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s phrase, “comprehensive and proportionate.” News outlets also need to get more credit when they do this; even their best work is often taken for granted by those who pay close attention or dismissed by those who do not.

It’s time to launch a public education campaign and take back the phrases “fair and balanced, and “no spin” from those who claim them, but do just the opposite. Journalism doesn’t need to give up and join the overtly biased. Instead, it needs:

  • A effective consumer movement
  • An educational effort
  • New business models
  • A lot more lawyers

It’s way overdue to use these tools to reverse the 35-year cultural war against the mainstream media, led by folks like Roger Ailes on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left. These critics, who never appreciated the honest efforts of good journalists, exaggerate and exploit high-profile mistakes by major news organizations. When the federal government, which rarely finds scrutiny convenient, subpoenas reporters to hand over telephone records that go far beyond the scope of the Valerie Plame inquiry, a lot more lawyers are needed. When reporters can’t protect sources, they can’t hold the powerful accountable.

Fortunately, a long-needed media consumer movement is gaining momentum. Organized through the Internet, people successfully challenged Sinclair Broadcast Group’s decision to provide blatantly erroneous, partisan content during the president election. Before that they forced the Federal Communications Commission to rollback its loosening of cross-ownership rules. Journalism companies should get on the right side of this issue, even though the business model for independent journalism is under severe stress.

The rise of factcheck.org is evidence that journalism can morph into new formats and succeed at its core task of holding the powerful accountable and providing access for citizens to information they need. But it’s a nonprofit operation. Most journalism cannot enjoy that protection. Mainstream journalists often confront market-driven executives who demand cross-promotion of entertainment products by their news divisions. Niche markets might be journalism’s best hope, as National Public Radio illustrates, even if news balkanization is not good for democracy. Better business models must be found, fast.

Finally, a return to a civic education curriculum would help. Those who teach media literacy should move beyond deconstructing messages to helping students find reliable information. They need to show how to value real journalism – by looking for transparency, verification, independence, context and proportionality. Let’s be sure that when the audience comes back to look for this, they’ll be able to find it.

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