The Value of Real Journalism
Editor’s Note: Across the American political spectrum, there has grown a deep disdain for journalism, the serious business of digging out facts and presenting the information in an honest context. Too often, partisans of all persuasions simply want their own agit-prop.
Obviously, what has passed for U.S. journalism in recent decades deserves a share of the blame, but those failures don’t mean that the hard work of making sense of the real world is any less crucial now than it’s ever been, as veteran journalist Mort Rosenblum notes in this guest essay:
The University of Colorado is scrapping journalism for communications. At least, I think they are.
Academic poobahs in Boulder call it "program discontinuance" and then say that really means something else. Such multisyllabic doubletalk makes clear why shifting focus from the basics is a very bad idea.
Some excellent schools have "Communications" in their names. But what students need most - always have, always will - is the ability to assess reality and reflect it back clearly to people whose lives depend on it.
Journalism is a specific discipline, as vital as medicine. Communications is theory. It is fascinating to study how porcupines hook up uninjured, or how humans sell ideas to the masses. But we need hard facts and history-based analyses that require a skilled reporter's presence.
"Learning on the job" usually is wishful thinking. Without a solid grounding, reporters end up copying someone else's bad habits. Much of communications is about winning people over to a message. Journalism is about equipping them to decide for themselves.
Today, countless "communicators" sit at their desks sucking their thumbs to determine whether U.S. power "won" in an Iraq few have actually seen.
But ask a real reporter, such as Anthony Shadid, who earned two Pulitzers for the Washington Post in Iraq before moving to The New York Times. He sits with Iraqis until he wins trust and then talks with them in their own tongue.
"Nothing's changed, nothing!" Yusuf Sabah told him in a gas line snaking past barbed wire, shattered concrete and dust-cloaked trash. "From the fall of Saddam until now, nothing's changed. The opposite. We keep going backward."
Haitham Ahmed described his mood: "Frustrated, sick, worn out, pessimistic and angry. What else should I add?"
Americans gauge progress against the worst days of 2006, but Iraqis - like the real world - go back to 2003 before the invasion. Anyone in Baghdad notices that despite weekly infusions of $2.5 billion, the lights are out as often as they are on.
Shahla Atraqji, a 38-year-old doctor, told Shadid, "The best thing is that I have no children . . . I cannot get married and have a family because I may lose them any minute, by a bomb or bullet."
That is reporting. For analysis, consider John Pilger, a veteran British correspondent. Writing for Truthout.org, he recalls Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's American nephew, a master of "communications" who perfected modern propaganda.
From his up-close perspective, Pilger wrote:
"There is no victory of any sort. There is a catastrophic disaster, and attempts to present it otherwise are a model of Bernays' campaign to 'rebrand' the slaughter of the First World War as 'necessary' and 'noble.'"
Pilger evokes the ugly detail most Americans overlook. A Johns Hopkins University survey, secretly affirmed by the Blair government as the most thorough of any, estimated that a million Iraqis died as a result of the war and its consequences. Another 4 million were displaced.
In Afghanistan, communicators weigh skewed empirical evidence to advise on what America should do. But real reporters know that it is impossible to remake Afghan society. Any sensible course is far more nuanced than staying or going.
Want to argue? I'm listening. But first: What's your source? Guesswork and opinion count in communications. In journalism, they do not. Its challenge is to explain how others perceive their own reality.
We have to train young reporters and support them out where news happens. Smart students are up to it, eager to earn their chops. But university administrators muddy up curricula. Legislators, state and federal, slash budgets. And the rest of us hardly notice.
Had we done this a decade ago, we would have recognized Osama bin Laden as an isolated terrorist, no more representative of Islam than a crazed Bible-thumper speaks for Christianity. All that has happened since is a consequence of our ignoring this simple fact.
It comes down to "Groundtruth," a chapter in Little Bunch of Madmen: Elements of Global Reporting. I borrowed the phrase from Charles Sennott, whose on-line GlobalPost combines new-media fancywork with bedrock reporting. It's a NASA term: observers are sent to double check satellite coordinates. You've got to be there.
Being there is only a first step. Reporters must learn to add essential human context to any story that matters. Those who studied Vietnam understood how fiercely old societies resist saviors with shopping lists. In Iraq, we see again that "decent interval," a two-year period before we leave the Humpty Dumpty we toppled in a messy puddle.
Yet universities can pay a softball coach a quarter million a year while journalism programs wither for lack of funds. After all, don't we now have “citizen journalists” who supply the news we need? No, in fact, we don't.
Ignorance is so much easier. Someone's camera shows a deluded grunt in Iraq shouting, "We won," and we dig in deeper for the next blast of hubris elsewhere.
Electronic Arts' new game, “Medal of Honor,” allows those of us too busy for reality to fight Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan on our own bloodless term. Then we can turn it off for dinner.
Meantime, more die pointlessly, hatred seethes ever deeper, and wasted trillions drain our ability to teach new generations how to get it right.
Surface "reporting" that gets things wrong can do far more damage than none of all. Doctors know that normally harmless medicine can kill in the wrong circumstances. After all, they went to school to learn their trade.
Mort Rosenblum is a reporter and author who has covered stories on seven continents since the 1960s, including the war in Biafra. He was editor of the International Herald Tribune; special correspondent for The Associated Press; AP bureau chief in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina, and France. His new book is entitled Little Bunch of Madmen.
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