January 3, 2008

When the Press Fails, part 3

Continuing my as-I-read-it review of Lance Bennett’s new book

At the top of page 14 Bennett writes: “…the absence of much agreement on what the press should be doing makes it all the more difficult for news organizations to navigate an independent course through pressurized political situations.”

I was struck by this assertion because, on one level, I thought what the press should be doing has been clear since at least the end of World War II as cogently expressed by Kovach and Rosenstiel: The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. But this is an ethical stance not a description of journalistic procedures. Further, Bennett envisions a different ethic: the press should hold government accountable.

It is clear from chapter 1 that Bennett is uncomfortable, as I am, with the kind of journalism that follows from stenography rather than reporting. Stenography is unlikely to produce the kind of information people need to be self-governing. And, further, it is also clear to me that Bennett’s theory of the role of power in the journalistic narrative could be mitigated by my assertion (of procedure) that journalists should tell a different story.

I think journalists should be custodians of fact operating with a discipline of verification. I believe it’s possible that politically useful information may be gleaned from procedures identified with these stances. And I’m quite well aware that I’m now skirting dangerously close to the mythological understanding of press-politics as described by Herbert Gans in Democracy and the News, i.e. journalism makes democracy work.

Journalism often fails its primary purpose because journalists believe the myth. The reasons for this could fill a book. So I’ll merely attempt one broad example here. The myth helps fuel journalistic arrogance by encouraging journalists to think of themselves and their profession as important in a way they may not be (perhaps, for example, it may be democracy that makes journalism possible). It encourages them to act as players in politics while denying being players at all. It encourages them to think that the First Amendment was written to protect them and their profession for the purpose of holding government “accountable.”

Journalism has had many purposes since the Revolutionary period. It has had many business models. It has had many masters. The citizens and journalists (and citizen journalists) of each era must decide what it is for their moment. But it seems to me that operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for the purpose of giving people the information they need to be self-governing is close to a universal understanding of journalism.

That self-governing thing means that journalism is supposed to help citizens do the job of holding government accountable.


Part 1
Part 2

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