What Journalism Was

I just finished Tim Wu’s incredible new book “The Master Switch,” go read it if you care about media at all – this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year. When you see the structural reality of media through his eyes you will reach media enlightenment.

Which brings me to my idea today about “What Journalism Was”

Is anyone else out there wondering why news sucks and people are getting dumber and dumber about the social and political world going on around them?

Are you toying with the idea that the reporting now seems suspiciously bad and wondering “Hey is it only me that notices this, what the hell is going on? Well nobody seems to be complaining or fighting to stop it… am I just that cranky old guy who complains about the news now?”

Well… yes, but you’ve also got a point.

The reason for this phenomenon is a lack of quality in journalism, which begets a lack of public informedness, which begets more lazy journalism, which in turn lowers the public intellect devoted to the sort of thing like wondering about the quality of our journalism (the first thing to go, actually because it doesn’t appear in the eyes of management-thinkers to add anything to the product)

Quality? So what exactly does that mean?

Quality journalists are part presenter, part poet. Quality journalists are leaders of thought. They attempt to advance broader understanding of complex social issues to the educated populace by translating comprehensive understanding into lucid readable prose.

Quality journalism goes beyond mere statement of fact within the context of popular opinion, it goes to the heart of the journalist’s point of view. An original interpretation of reality is proffered, and readers are invited to take it or leave it.

OK so that last paragraph reads like a Plato’s Cave description of the Form of a Journalist but that’s exactly my point. The Platonic ideal is being forgotten. Sure we’ll fall short, but guys have you turned on TV news lately? No one is even trying. In print you do a little better with The New York Times and a few others carrying on the grand tradition, but the striving for that ideal of what journalism could be is sadly endangered. I blame Television (though credit is due to Jon Stewart for doing the absolute most with the medium).

Speaking of Plato’s Cave, in the allegory the chained man is dragged out of the cave into the sunlight to see things as they really are instead of the shadows he had previously thought them to be. The guy doing the dragging? That’s part of the missing job description for the modern journalist. Real journalists seek to enlighten a broader audience for the betterment of the populace. Lofty, I know, but worthwhile. How much of that do you see on any given night on Fox News? Did I mention I blame Television?

We need to face the facts that our journalism has become inept, not for any fault of the journalists themselves, but because of a structural flaw in our government-media relations.

The title of this article is “What Journalism Lost”

And who knows how broad an author can go with that topic. But in this case I’m going to nail it down to one very specific now-little-known position at every news organization: The Ombudsman.

I’m not all that up on ombudsman law, and I’m not the structural genius Tim Wu is at figuring out how the ombudsman was marginalized in modern news industry (Tim, if you’re out there man maybe that could be your next book, hit me up at CultureWharf@gmail.com we’ll cowrite) but every news outlet is supposed to have one and they’re supposed to be an independent citizen agent for news quality control. Unlike today they are supposed to actually do stuff and matter.

Old newspapers used to subscribe much more to the aforementioned Platonic ideals of public interest, but as news became more corporate and more televised and more about the business of delivering juicy audiences to advertisers those ideals got left behind.

How could the lone ombudsman compete with that?

News, with all its potential conflicts and power to influence, is like its own branch of government. It was once proudly called “The Fourth Estate.”

News without an ombudsman is like a legislative branch without an executive and judicial. A police force without internal affairs. Unchecked powers.

What would happen if we radically empowered the ombudsman?

Only for the web-savvy idealists in the group:

I’ve done a lot of searching on this topic and can find very little information about the role of ombudsman or much related to the marginalization of ombudsmen. I figure that means I can crack into the search results in this area with a few good links, below is a little of what I’ve found but if anyone has any ideas on how to make this article a higher match for searching any combination of the terms Newspaper Ombudsman Marginalized I could really use the tech help. Thanks.

http://www.editorsweblog.org/newsrooms_and_journalism/2008/09/us_newspapers_dropping_ombudsmen_left_an.php
http://thephoenix.com/BLOGS/medialog/archive/2005/07/21/The-Globe-s-New-Ombuddy.aspx
http://scrippsiij.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-is-newspaper-ombudsman.html
http://www.newsombudsmen.org/jacoby.html

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