Friday, June 02, 2006

What Is the Essence of Quality Journalism?

What is the essence of quality journalism? Can it be fulfilled by a press held captive by market imperatives? Do people even care about being challenged and confronting inconvenient truths, or are they just seeking to have their preexisting beliefs confirmed? Did they ever??

Bill Moyers attempted to answer all three questions in a recent address (link via Kevin Drum) to attendees of PBS’s annual meeting, and though he kept an optimistic tone throughout, his speech left me unconvinced that principled, nonpartisan journalism has much of a future. Moyers approvingly quotes Lyndon Johnson praise of the American public’s “appetite for excellence” and “enlightenment” at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, but that characterization was probably far too generous even at the time. He invokes Salman Rushdie’s assertion that “[s]kepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked, and it is the skepticism of journalists, their show-me, prove it unwillingness to be impressed … that is perhaps their most important contribution to the free world,” but it seems today that skepticism is only marshaled against the man on the opposite side of the debate, so that he is always wrong and we are always right. And when Moyers says he wants to “balance the spin with the evidence, the rhetoric with the record, and opinion with reporting,” he sounds like just another pitchman hawking a product no one wants to buy. And to put it bluntly, that’s precisely what he is.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Moyers—my personal opinion is that he’s a fine journalist—but his definition of what constitutes “good” reporting is hopelessly out of step with the times. Perhaps he might have had a sound argument back in the days of the almighty network triumvirate, long before the Internet allowed non-moguls to take some of the media power back. But people patronize the media sources they consider most worthy of their attention, by whatever criteria they choose to use, and none of the top political blogs offer anything close to PBS’s brand of “objectivity” (the one that comes closest is probably BoingBoing, but that’s written from a center-left nerd/free-culture/hacker perspective). The public loves to carp on and on about spin, but their behavior belies the undeniable fact that they crave it—as long as it's revolving their way.

Just as in other areas of in life, people tend to seek out and attend to those journalisms (and journalists) that pander to their biases, for better or worse. The observation that political information today functions more like entertainment than a critical ingredient for democracy is hardly original, but it's important to note that many other info-markets don't suffer from this problem. When was the last time you heard anyone hurl allegations of bias at Bloomberg, Forbes, or the Wall Street Journal's hard-news coverage? Because investors all share the same goal—increasing their returns—regardless of which side of the political divide they stand on, they can't afford to dismiss news they don't like. Any journalistic interpretation of how the day's business goings-on will affect stock prices would be oriented toward serving that goal. When a given constituency has many interests, some news sources (i.e., political blogs) will choose one subgroup to address, and some (i.e., the MSM besides Fox News) will choose none in particular—but none can choose to satisfy all.

And this is why modern journalism finds itself under such concerted attack these days. The business is facing the first real competition it has ever dealt with, and it is not reacting fast enough to stave off the criticisms advanced by the online upstarts. Bloggers get what the papers and newscasts (again, excluding Fox) don't—people simply aren't interested in engaging with a Habermasian public sphere, they just want their own views reinforced. I agree with Bill Moyers that non-ideological, anti-authoritarian journalism is a high-minded ideal to which reporters ought to aspire, but most of America disagrees with us. We cannot force them to adopt our conception of news quality, nor should we. If the antiquated notion of objectivity in reporting should slip away into the history books, there's not much we can do to stop it. If nothing else, we should find whatever consolation we can in the possibility that more people may be drawn out of political apathy by the new, proud opiners.