Friday, June 19, 2009

The Missionary's Dilemma

An increasingly professionalized, educated, socially aware group of journalists began to change the traditions of America's newsrooms in the 1960s, and generally triumphed in the 1970s. They didn't want newspapers to just report what happened; they wanted to seek out what wasn't being announced. Like journalists always, they were drawn to the new, the different, the interesting, the sometimes bizarre. But they had lived through the era of the civil-rights movement and Vietnam. They had realized that if you just quoted Martin Luther King and "Bull" Conner, you weren't getting the real story.

They saw important work for newspapers to do in making the country confront its own shortcomings, little white lies, institutional prejudices. They saw voices asking "Why not?" and that those voices could be ignored or suppressed -- and saw what happened when they were. They had a heroic vision of journalism, particularly of newspapers and their role -- not just as the tribune of the people, but as helping guide people, and the nation, to a better place. The truth shall set us all free, and we are trained to see the truth.

But there was a problem. Newspapermen were still seen in the popular mind as layabouts, oddballs, idlers, drunks, malcontents who couldn't quite fit into society. Sure, they performed a service, but you wouldn't want your daughter to get near one. They were ink-stained wretches, hacks who worked odd hours and got bottles of Scotch from the mayor at Christmas in return for stories not covered. They worked, as they knew, for commercial businesses that ran puff pieces for major advertisers, kept politicians' DUIs out of the paper, and could be owned by saints like the Binghams or by schemers like William Loeb or bombasts like Gene Pulliam. Exactly how were they to stand as Caesar's wife?

The professionalization of journalism -- and of newspapers -- offered the way. Through ethics codes, training, awards, journalism would make clearer than ever before what it stood for. Newspapers would undergo some structural changes as well. No longer would it be acceptable for a major daily to run liquor ads on the front page, as the Evening Edition of the Boston Globe still did in the mid-1960s. In fact, no longer would ads on the front page or even most section fronts be acceptable -- and increasingly, the newsroom would work to control where ads could appear, though success ebbed and flowed. At many papers, headlines crept down in size, so as not to indicate that we were trying to use the news to sell newspapers. The point was to say: We are not the slaves of commercial interests. The news is more important than an ad for D.H. Holmes Co. Ltd. Thus, when we say, "This is wrong," or, "You must pay attention to this," you will pay attention. We are not laboring in our own self-interest; we are acting from noble motives.

In addition, newspapers would no longer be identified by party. Look at an Ayer's Directory of newspapers from the 1960s and a large number of papers still identified themselves as Republican or Democratic, or at least "Independent-Democratic" or the like. As most towns were reduced to one newspaper, part of this was just good business. But editorial pages and publishers no longer wanted to be seen as carrying water for one party. A professional news-gathering operation would present all views, but make its own judgments. The days of the Los Angeles Times being part of the California Republican Party were done.

From this, American newspapers approached a level of professionalism, of excellence in writing, editing and photography, they had never before seen. Compared to the backbiting British dailies, the opaque ideology of the French and Italian, the uniformity of the Japanese, and the professional but stolid journalism of the German and Swiss -- let alone the party-controlled organs of the communist nations and the often amateurish, though well meant, efforts in the Third World -- America's newspapers stood for what journalism could be.

Newspapers would shine their light, as always, on political corruption. But they now would stand for a renewed sense of social justice. They would show the problems of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. They would make America confront its glass ceilings, its fear of minorities, its social conformity. These were not Republican or Democratic issues as journalists saw them. They were issues of human rights, and both parties should come together on the right side and argue about means but not ends. Newspapers also would write about sports, and advances in health care, and the orchestra, as they always had. But they would no longer concern themselves with the leadership of the garden club, or whether a street was going to be repaved, or whether it sure seemed like a long hot spell.

Those things did not make the country better. They were ephemeral and parochial. Journalists would take the long view, because, how could one not be on the side of social progress? And newspapers would become their testaments, their reports to society on its own health, increasingly less bound to commercial considerations, and more guided by a sense that journalists knew what they were about and the people who employed them did not. And thus, journalism would be something that a college-educated intellectual could devote one's life to, instead of going into social service or law or religion, and know that one was doing one's part to make life better instead of merely chasing ambulances and hanging out with the boys down at the press club.

Which totally makes sense as a position to argue, as long as you accept it as a prism and a position to argue, and not as a reality to which everyone will eventually subscribe when their eyes have been opened.

More to come.

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