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Remarks From Edwin DiamondBy Edwin Diamond
April 30, 1997
A quick response to my two fellow ponderers. 1. On enjoying the media-- Paul, look at all the time Americans spend consuming news; look at those campaign 1996 polls that ranked Tom, Peter and Dan ahead of Bill, Bob and Ross. 2. On doing more explanatory journalism--Sarah, you're right on again! Too many of us are too lazy and/or too ill-informed ourselves.
An example: A friend of mine who handles press inquiries at a Top Place (I won't give the name, to protect him) tells of the typical phone call he gets. Reporter to flack: "Hello, Bob. I'm on deadline. Gimme a fill. Don't make it too hard..." Translation: the reporter spent too much time watching TV or shooting the breeze; he's got Bob's news release and the supporting background materials but hasn't the time, or the inclination, to plow through the stuff and make a few calls. So he wants a summary of the summary for his further summary.
But enough carping about what most of you already know. Let's ask: What is to be done about political journalism in America?
First, let's dismiss the phony, politically-manufactured "crisis" about whether or not we're liked. To use a term from my Army days, "the situation is hopeless but not serious." Second, let's just give up on the present generation of journalists and concentrate on the next class of Washington reporters. Let me explain.
Sarah and Paul's posts make me aware that there are really three general models of reporting. The first model dates from an earlier era, before the "press" became the "media." Through the 19th century and well into the 20th century, most journalists were like coal miners: low paid, grimy, poorly educated, hired hands grinding out piece work for the company. The noble exceptions only served to prove the rule. No one wants to go back to that model.
The second model co-existed with the first model. While most journalists were hacks, the exceptional few were heroes and heroines, investigative reporters, diligent observers, muckrakers. Most people recognize names like Nellie Bly and H.L. Mencken, but few recall the civil rights reporting of shoe-leather correspondents like Claude Sitton; in my otherwise critical--but temperate-- book on the New York Times, "Behind the Times" (paperback edition, University of Chicago Press, 1995), I attempted to honor the traditions of the Sittons of the 1950s and 1960s.
There were others: hard working, courageous, serious, and, again, not well known. In the current issue of Neiman Reports, the magazine of the Neiman mid-career program for journalists at Harvard University, curator Bill Kovach tells a wonderful story about former Washington Post reporter Murray Marder. Not many people outside Washington would recognize the name, of course; but importantly for this discussion, reporter Marder was one of those classic newsroom types who, each morning, "woke up angry"--in effect, asking himself, what malefactor can I nail today?
As Sarah suggests, very few reporters "wake up angry" anymore. Instead, we've become what we behold--the third contemporary model of reporter. Washington journalists dress like the people they cover, talk like them, may have gone to school with them, probably live in the same neighborhoods as they do. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome has taken over: captives and captors now "understand" each other--"feel their pain." Journalists have learned to empathize--ok, let's say it--suck up. (I won't say who's really the captor and who's the captive.)
So my Rx for the health of political journalism: let's just forget about the current generation and concentrate on the next. In our classrooms, let's teach the journalistic tradition of the outsider and the muckraker; let's show them models of Marderism, let's screen Murrow-Friendly's "Harvest of Shame," let's assign Dickens, Wells-Barnett, Hemingway, A.J. Leibling, James Agee and Walker Evans, Jimmy Breslin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Margaret Bourke-White, Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Lippmann. Let's show why we praise the good and why we should loathe the shoddy, the expedient, the safe.
At NYU we, in fact, require all journalism graduate students to take a course called "The Journalistic Tradition." The students start with Areopagitica (1645) and end with "60 Minutes" (1997). In between John Milton and Mike Wallace, all the reporters, writers, photographers and producers mentioned above are included. This fall, I'm introducing a new TJT course in the undergraduate liberal arts college. And tomorrow? The world... or at least the Internet.