May 22, 2003

Snob Journalism

Thank you. It is an honor, and pleasure, to be here for the Ruhl Symposium. It was also, I have to add, moving to be here for the Payne Awards. Hearing the stories of the winners, of the hardships these journalists had to overcome, including death threats, legal pressure and government coercion, to follow the facts and do public good, it renews your faith in the craft we all care about. It is stirring. And we are not loved for this work.

That said, I am not sure whether to be pleased or worried by the crowd. Apparently you’ve heard out here about all the talk lately involving the professionalism of a paper out East, near New Jersey. When you planned this event who knew that ethics in journalism would be so topical.

That’s one of the problems with being someone who comments on press ethics. When business is good, something is wrong.

The subject of professionalism and ethics is timely for other reasons as well, however, beyond the NYT.

A year ago, the new President of Columbia University made headlines by declaring that journalists in America should be better educated.

Actually not just headlines. The reaction, as the New York Times reported in May 2003, was “a firestorm.”

And when Columbia President Lee Bollinger finally issued his fairly innocuous statement of his educational goals for journalists, the most noted public response was even more brutal.

It didn’t come from a populist talk show maven like Bill O’Reilly. It came instead from Robert Samuelson, the thoughtful, award winning columnist from the Washington Post and Newsweek. Journalism has a “new nuisance,” he wrote, and his name is Lee Bollinger.

“Bollinger’s vision” is “journalism by an elite for an elite,” Samuelson seethed. It is “snob journalism.”

“He believes,” Samuelson continued, that “most journalists should be credentialed by universities….” (That means they should have college degrees.) And “Journalism should be seen (and should see itself as a profession)….”

“These are bad ideas,” Samuelson went on, “that, if adopted, would reduce journalism’s relevance and raise public mistrust. They might also worsen journalism’s central problem: loss of audience.”

I am not here today to endorse anyone’s plans for Columbia, or what the new Dean there, Nick Lemann, has in mind. Samuelson, frankly, doesn’t know.

I am here to talk about something bigger than that. Samuelson is making an argument against professionalism and ethical standards in journalism. It is an argument we have heard before. And that is what makes it worth examining.

Why do professionalism and a thorough discussion of ethics and high standards in journalism scare people? What about that is frightening?

This anti-professional attitude in journalism is nothing new, but it is, I believe, stronger today than it has been in generations. The subject also intersects, of course, with the Jason Blair New York Times scandal. But I will get to that later.

At its essence, the argument against professionalism and more rigorous discussion of standards and ethics in journalism is this:

Professionalism would give a few institutions the power to limit and standardize journalism. This inevitably would make journalism elitist, which in turn would put it out of reach of the common citizen.

Journalism must remain a craft, something marinated in the street and forged by doing it rather than thinking about it. Only this will make it responsive to the public, and ensure its economic vitality.

It’s an interesting argument and certainly an enduring one.

But Samuelson’s case and the anti-professional argument generally are grounded on two fundamentally flawed ideas. And these faulty ideas are undermining journalism today.

The first of these ideas is that professionalism in journalism equals elitism.

“Journalism is a job, a craft,” Samuelson writes, “best learned by doing it.” It is no profession. And since working practitioners, not people sequestered in intellectual universities, are best suited to teach craft, “At best, journalism schools are a necessary evil.”

We have certainly heard this before. When Robert E. Lee as president of Washington College in Virginia proposed 50 scholarships for young men interested in journalism, Frederick Hudson, the managing editor of the New York Herald answered by saying, “The only place where one can learn to be a journalism is in a great newspaper office.”

Among others on record denouncing journalism education are such thoughtful journalists as H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, Robert Benchley, Walter Lippman and Ted Koppel, who in the late 1980s said “Journalism schools are an absolute and total waste of time.”

I am not advocating that one needs a journalism degree to practice journalism. I don’t agree with that. But the bias against journalism degrees is part of something bigger that I do take issue with.

There is a long vein of thinking of journalism as something instinctual, some kind of mystical art, a kind of news voodoo-and voodoo and instinct cannot be explained or theorized about. News is something you smell, or taste, or sense. “He has a nose for news,” people say. No one says he has a mind for news.

I even once had an editor tell me he liked me because I walked like a journalist.

Tom Goldstein, the former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has described this as a deep strain of “anti-intellectualism.”

Where did this anti-intellectualism and anti-professionalism come from? There are many causes. These ideas are rooted in journalism’s blue-collar traditions. They are rooted in the now largely dismantled apprenticeship system. They are rooted in the needs of the market. They are rooted in the romantic ideal of the streetwise reporter not fooled by the high and mighty.

But most important probably, this anti-professionalism and anti-intellectualism is rooted in the crucial idea of journalistic independence. To protect this independence, journalists have wisely avoided one of the steps taken by other professions, licensing.

The problem is Samuelson and others mistakenly think that licensing is the distinguishing factor of professionalism.

That is why Samuelson denounces journalism education as “credentialism.”

This is wrong. What links professions like law, medicine, civil engineering, and-once-accounting is that they involve public interest obligations that rise above commerce.

Licensing is merely a means to ensuring that end-a way but not the only one of establishing professional standards and aspirations. But it is this public responsibility these aspirations are designed to serve, not licensing, that makes these careers into professions.

Journalism cannot escape professional responsibility. By failing to recognize itself as a profession, journalism hasn’t avoided developing norms and standards. It has merely failed to think them through thoroughly.

The result is that journalism has operated as something of a tautology: journalism was whatever journalists did.

If CBS outlawed checkbook journalism, others followed suit. The reasons for or against the rule were less clear. You didn’t do it simply because it wasn’t done. This kind of unthinking approach didn’t make journalism more flexible, it made it more dictatorial.

This craft orientation, this anti-professional attitude, has had profound consequences on the way journalism has developed and is practiced.

One consequence is that a more developed theory and set of understandings about journalism, as exists for other professions, never fully developed.

This has restrained the growth of a deeper, more thoughtful and contextual literature about the press from within the profession. It has helped blur the idea of journalism in the public mind. And it has stunted its place in the university.

The theory of journalism remains latent and unarticulated in most people’s minds, even journalists. Journalism is a “mindset” or an attitude. It is hardly a philosophy or theory, words that might make journalists uncomfortable.

Most journalists are vague about basic concepts like objectivity. Having only half-formed ideas about it-most of them murky–they substitute it with words like balance, but know that has problems, too. We confuse neutrality (a technique employed by some journalists but not others) with independence (the real principle underlying journalism).

Larger questions, like the responsibility of the journalist in a national crisis, the social value of the press, the journalist’s connection or lack of connection to community, are de-emphasized. Many journalists arrive at their notions of these things on their own, privately. Though they are not entirely absent from journalists thinking, they are inexplicit, indistinct, usually private and, sometimes unconsidered altogether.

A second consequence of this is that many journalists think of journalism as fundamentally a series of techniques.

If journalists could not agree on what journalism was-indeed really didn’t want to engage in the discussion-they could agree on what journalists did. Thus journalism is the inverted pyramid. Journalism is the neutral voice. Journalism is going on TV. Journalism is satellite uplinks, cutaways, live shots, learning to type. This is a mistake. These are tools of journalism, but not its core principles.

This tendency to define journalism as a series of techniques rather than responsibilities and principles has added to many of journalism’s contemporary problems.

It has encouraged the balkanization of the news media by medium, (Print guys think TV isn’t real journalism, since real journalism is writing. TV guys think print guys can’t tell stories. And both look down on online).

Confusing technique with principle tends to make the profession more static, less able to grow and develop, not freer in the way that Samuelson and the other “craft” advocates imagine.

Confusing the principles of journalism with the technique also makes us vulnerable to imitators who want to hitchhike on the credibility of journalism by looking like it but who are fundamentally engaged in different work, such as commercial propaganda or infomercialism.

This confusion of technique with principle has also contributed to what New Yorker media Ken Auletta has called “The Bimbo Factor.” By Bimbo Factor, Ken does not mean putting good-looking women with empty heads on TV. He means producing stories that look good but are empty of meaning. The Bimbo Factor is why we see so much technically slick and skillfully put-together journalism that is empty, unthinking, and unimportant.

It’s exposes into stinky hotel sheets, killer bras and “will your ice tea kill you?” It’s the tendency to reduce our understanding of the war in Iraq to tear-jerker interviews about joy and relief with family members of returning soldiers; its merchandising stories like Lacey Peterson’s murder into non-fiction soap operatic drama on morning and prime time TV news magazines. These are slick stories that tell us too little about our lives and our society.

Most journalists don’t know the history of their profession, have not read great works of their predecessors and have not read even the small number of major philosophical works produced by journalists.

When psychologist Bill Damon and his colleagues were researching their book “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet,” they found they had never studied a profession that did as poor a job as journalism of handing down the collected wisdom of one generation to another.

We remain stuck, as we were more than 50 years ago, when Time Magazine founder Henry Luce passed a note to University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins asking him at an Encyclopedia Britannica Board meeting: “I know what my freedoms are under the First Amendment, but what are my responsibilities?” Hutchins scrawled back this answer: “I dunno.”

As a result, journalists fail to articulate to the public even basic concepts of professional responsibility that other professions make easily clear.

We understand, for instance, that lawyers have a professional duty to offer even the worst man in society a strong defense-and can be sanctioned for failing to do so.

Yet when it comes to journalism, even those who practice it are repeatedly confused about even the most basic professional concepts. Are you an American first or a journalist? What is the meaning of journalistic independence? With each crisis-the war, the sniper, the missing child craze-professionals face the same questions anew, as if they have never thought about them, or as if such questions are so abstract and theoretical that they could not possibly be resolved.

No wonder the public has trouble distinguishing between good journalism or bad, or whether there is any ethical difference between The O’Reilly Factor and Meet the Press, or Wild On E-Entertainment and 60 Minutes.

We need to connect the craft to a larger purpose, a social theory, a history, an epistemology, a discipline of inquiry, a definition of integrity and of intelligence.

Every journalist, and every journalism school graduate, should be able to answer–or be on his or her way to forming an answer–the question the public increasingly asks: why do you do it this way?

We need to make the reasons behind the craft more explicit. We need to make the journalism more conscious.

Melvin Mencher recently quoted a colleague in journalism education as putting the challenge of the future of the profession this way: “The major emphasis should not be…on how to write but on what to write, lest the prospective reporter become an empty flask, all form and no content.”

This brings me to the second big idea in the argument against ethics, professionalism and education. It’s that elitism in the press is the cause of the loss of audience for news.

“Journalists’ self-importance stirs public resentment,” Samuelson writes. “Insisting we’re a profession…would make it worse.”

Is this true?

Here, we do not have to guess. The decline in public trust, and audience for news and trust in journalists goes back roughly about 20 years, and has grown in a consistent way.

Nineteen years ago, Times Mirror first commissioned Andrew Kohut to get to the bottom of the emerging “credibility crisis” in the press.

Through a series of in-depth interviews he found the public at bottom thought the press was, and I quote, “too sensational, too pushy, to rude, too uncaring about people and the public.”

But, “major news organizations were still believable to the overwhelming majority of Americans, and most people saw journalists as moral, professional and caring about the interests of the country.”

By 1999, 15 years later, people were even more disturbed by the sensationalism and behavior of the press. But now, they also distrusted journalists as well. The number of people who thought journalists cared about people had dropped from 41% to 21%. The percentage that thought the press got the facts right had dropped from 55% to 37%.

Only 24% thought the press when covering political scandals was just reporting the facts. A shocking 72% thought they were driving the scandals.

As Kohut puts it, “the public views the merchandising of scandal as pandering rather than attempts to protect the public interest.”

What had shifted most was the respect for media values. In 1985, 54% of Americans saw the press as moral, and only 13% saw the press as immoral. By 1999, the public was evenly split 40% to 38%.

The percentage that thought the press lacked professionalism has jumped three fold, from 11% to 32%.

In 1985, the public saw the press as a caretaker of democracy by a two-to-one margin, 54%-to-23%. Today, Americans are divided, 45%-to-38% on this basic question.

The major credibility studies by the Urban Institute for the American Society of Newspaper Editors found the same answers. The public is angry with the press for sensationalizing stories to sell newspapers and build ratings and doing it either for money or to enhance their personal careers.

Samuelson is simply wrong in his facts. Rather than self-importance, survey after survey and focus group after focus group shows that it is a perceived lack of professionalism that stirs public resentment.

The credibility crisis in the press at root is a question of motive. Journalists like to think they are serving the public interest. The public looks at the media’s recent performance and thinks journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. They increasingly think journalism is about money or personal ambition.

The answer to the crisis is in the very thing Samuelson fears most-ethics and professionalism.

Some time ago, the University of Missouri journalism school asked former Missouri Congressman James Symington to deliver a lecture on journalism to its students. He prepared by attending a panel discussion by prominent Washington journalists. Sitting there, he was surprised by the vehemence of the panel against the idea of articulating professional aspirations in some kind of canon or oath. Such oaths, they argued, were often observed only the in breach.

“Equally true, it could be said, of such other fragile attempts to influence conduct, as the Constitution, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon the Mount,” Symington said. Yet “each is a tether to higher purpose.” If such goals are as unreachable as the stars, so be it, Symington countered. “The stars are what we must sail by. If the print and electronic media have suffered any dimunition of public respect, it may be in part because the crowd senses the absence of a governing principle, any set of granite guidelines to chart the course of newsgathering, dissemination and commentary other than the bottom line demands of the what it properly perceives as a business.”

Here is where the anti-intellectualism strain founders.

Professionalism does not equal elitism.

The yearning for professionalism is finds it start, rather, in a desire to ground journalism in the public interest, above the interests of business. It is based on the idea that if you bind the press to the interests of citizens-and by citizens I mean members of the society rather than in the legal sense-people will better recognize why journalism matters to them.

In that sense, far from elitism, professionalism in journalism is closer to a kind of populism.

Professionalism defines the relevance of the press in the public interest.

Ethics and professionalism provides the journalist with a brand, and something to sell to the public.

Professionalism offers journalists the tools, and the map, to avoid succumbing to cheap gimmicks, to jingoism and pandering and quick commercial tricks like sensationalism and infotainment.

Here, too, is where the New York Times scandal becomes relevant. Whether you believe journalism is a profession or just a craft, no one thinks fabrication and plagiarism that Jayson Blair perpetrated at The Times are acceptable.

But the paper has so far failed in its public response to the scandal. It has suggested that the problem was Blair alone, and that management of the paper should not be considered to blame. Yet the paper’s own reporting has shown that judgment to be inadequate. Blair’s supervisors were waving red flags. Top management not only ignored them, they rewarded this young man because he was providing what the new leaders of the paper wanted, provocative copy that created buzz and broke news, and high production of it. Because standards are murky and unarticulated, the leadership at the Times is trying to gut it out, let it blow over.

The reason the scandal has not blown over–indeed it has intensified–is because readers, and journalists and even more so people inside the Times itself expect more of the New York Times. They consider the paper’s response insufficiently professional and lacking candor. They are saying that journalism is more than craft. Like any profession, it must be guided by higher ethical principles.

The father of modern journalism ethics was a man many of you may never have heard of. His named was Norman E. Isaacs.

Norman was the furthest thing from an elitist Bob Samuelson worries about. Like many great journalists, he was an immigrant and working class. Unlike Bob Samuelson, Harvard class of ’67, Norman never graduated from high school.

He left to become a sports writer, was a managing editor at 27, editor of four papers, publisher of one, eventually a professor. Profane, crude, and intimidating, Isaacs once said, “I am paid to be an SOB, and I do a good job of it.” And he had that quality most important in a journalist, and most frightening in a teacher: an incredible instinct and zero tolerance for bull shit. High standards yes. Elitist no.

Oh, and here are some of the things he introduced to American journalism. Ombudsmen. Bans on press junkets, freebies, gifts and other payola. Serious corrections boxes, daily book reviews, ethics policies and more.

In 1986, Isaacs wrote a book ahead of its time, called “Untended Gates, the Mismanaged Press.” In a chapter called “The Gathering Storm,” he wrote of a great crisis he saw coming for the press, a crisis now here. He begins the chapter by saying “arrogance, hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism,” in the press “have tarnished the great dream of Jefferson and Madison.” The answer is to make sure “an ethical conscience” governs journalism.

“What it all boils down to is values….” Isaacs wrote. “The only way democracy can work successfully is through a value system that puts honorable public service in the reporting of events as accurately as possible, interpreting them honestly, and analyzing them fairly. That kind of journalism can win back the confidence of the citizenry.”

That, in a nutshell, is professionalism. Why does it scare people? Because it limits the freedom of journalists to do whatever they want by allowing the public to have a basis for judging us.

That, accountability to the public, is what makes ethics and professionalism intimidating. It is also our best hope.

My colleague Bill Kovach was originally asked to deliver this lecture today. I want to close with something I suspect he would have said. I call it his benediction. It is simply this: Western Civilization has offered among all its ideas to the world one idea more powerful than any other. It is the idea that people can govern themselves.

As that idea was forming, something evolved naturally, unplanned, to make that possible. It was called journalism. And it has a single purpose: to put information that was once held by the few into the hands of many so they could be sovereign. Without journalism democracy is not possible. Without democracy, journalism has no purpose other than profit. Journalism and democracy will rise and fall together.

So it is important what you do here. And we honor you, particularly the young, for your belief in and pursuit of it.

Thank you.