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Remarks From Edwin DiamondBy Edwin Diamond
April 29, 1997
Yes, but...I find myself in an unusual position for a critic who belongs to a party of one: I agree with much said by McClendon and Starobin.
Paul is right to remind us that political journalism has a robust, raucous, irreverent--and, to my mind, glorious--tradition. We admire undercover reporters like Nellie Bly (who was a whole-body "hidden camera" 100 years before ABC's Prime Time Live). In our classes we assign the writings of muckrakers Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell; we show Jacob Reis' photos and Thomas Nast's cartoons; we cite Ida Wells Barnett's chilling accounts of lynchings in 19th Century America. We assign Woodward and Bernstein, though for 20somethings Watergate is ancient history, as remote to them as Barnett's post-Civil War America.
That was then, now is now. Sarah is on target when she describes today's Washington reporters as timid, scared of their bosses and--the real cruncher--intimidated by the judgments of their peers. She's also on to something with her suggestion that the current Beat The Press mania has distinct ideological roots in the politics of the last two decades. (Note to myself: story idea--follow the foundation money behind this campaign to discredit reporting and reporters).
Paul and Sarah help move the discussion away from whether or not we're liked, to how good a job do we do, and why we do what we do. I don't think they go far enough.
The First Amendment, and our own newsroom values, say only that we should be free, that we should follow facts and hunches wherever they lead us. These core values don't require us to be liked, help little old ladies cross the street, be snappy dressers or good dinner table partners. It's the song, not the singer, that counts.
So if we're going to engage in that chin tugger, what's wrong with political journalism, let's shift away from what polls say the public thinks to how we're doing now and--crucially-- what forces are working against good journalism.
On the way we do our job, I give us a B-plus. In my first post, I contrasted the all-male, all-white newsroom of the 1950s to its modern counterpart, a place that "looks more like America today." Also, we're better trained and educated (my father, a Chicago sportswriter in the 1930s, went to work as a copy boy after the eighth grade), better paid and, on the whole, less corrupt than we were when I started. Our college degrees may mean only that we can't be snowed with statistics and officialese. Computer -literate, we crunch our own numbers, we access data bases: these are not a small things.
The real obstacles to continued good work come from, among other factors: