BY MARLENE LANG


I recently revisited that time a college journalism student asked me why I became a journalist.

 

I hesitate to broach the subject of journalism, and what it means, for fear of receiving response mail from: journalists. Even when my fellows agree with me, it can be unpleasant listening to them listen to themselves. On our best days, we can be eloquent and brave. At our worst, we are windbags. But journalists are important.

Over two decades, the Internet transformed logophiles into Web masters at threat of layoff, yet there are remain young people out there aspiring to this noble profession. It’s a profession I’ve always believed defended freedom by keeping citizens informed and providing a venue for the exchange of ideas. It is grand stuff to be the eyes and ears of the voting public, who are generally too busy to attend municipal meetings and find out firsthand who is voting, and how, on the fate of their tax dollars. It is a sweet thing to watch elected officials behave a little differently because they know “the Press” is at the meeting. It is a fine feeling to hope that, come re-election time, news readers may recall the voting record of whomever they entrusted to represent them. I like to think that they vote more wisely because a low-paid reporter was there when it happened and wrote about it.
Some young people get it.
Ryan Keating may be one such young one. The University of Illinois journalism student e-mailed me recently, gathering input for a project and asking unanswerable questions, like, “Why did you decide to become a journalist?”
This is akin to your 4-year-old asking you where babies come from. Ryan may have been too young and tender to hear the strange truth. Why, indeed, does anyone become a journalist? There is the above-stated sense of helping save democracy by contributing to an informed citizenship. And there is the windbag syndrome, of course. But as newspapers disappear and online reporting waxes scant with actual information, many of us in the field have begun to wonder, ourselves, why we do this. Angry journalist-bloggers complain of feeling like bits of the Borg. We’re asked to “generate content,” when we set out to report facts and tell true stories.
Investigative journalism – that old-fashioned muckraking – is expensive. The bigger the news outlet, the more spent on serious investigation, but let’s face it; the muck is deep, the rakers few. It’s a bottomless sewer, beckoning those of us born with the handicap of smelling a rat when one is in the room.

 

Old-fashioned muckraking is expensive; the muck is deep, the rakers few.

 

Wherever Americans happen to live, chances are their trusted local newspaper has gone away; if it remains, it has its trimmed staff, not filling spots that are vacated, consolidating holdings and making do with less. It is now a digital publication with a smaller staff.
Is that a bad thing? No. There is so much more information out there, more easily available than ever. It is phenomenal, in the true sense of the word. We are all in one room together, listening to each other, looking at each other. It’s the Wild West with virtual horses. OMG!
Still, Internet or inky paper, it seems the shenanigans of those in power forever outpace  attempts to expose them. Why is this?

 

The more important question is whether the news industry can be turned around to remain watchdogs of democracy.

 

I’ll tell you why: because journalism long ago transformed from a public trust into a business, and readers – the customers served – get what they want. It’s a danger, because journalists can’t be so beholden to advertisers that we become entertainers, sycophantic flaks masquerading as deliverers of news. Or can we?
Ryan asked me if I thought “the (news) industry can be turned around?” If he means, will readers give up Internet video news clips and go back to buying a printed paper every day, I’ll have to say: No. This is not going to happen.
The more important question is whether the news industry can be turned around to remain watchdogs of democracy. One of my journalist heroes, Bill Moyers, had stated that the hope for such a turnaround lies with independent and alternative publications, those rough-and-tumble rags raised up by young idealists, questioning authority, inspired by old rebels and sages. I don’t disagree with Mr. Moyers, but I think any established news organization, any Web site or any independent “rag” can do the job. The SouthtownStar, I told Ryan, never in five years limited what I could say in my column. Its reporters are free to report what they find while out on assignment. Thank goodness.

The final responsibility for a free press and an informed public lies with that same public. Newspapers continue to shrink while Facebook and other social media flourish. Increasingly, public outcry points to “social media” as explanations are sought for flourishing racism, hate crimes, and violence. Gatekeeping is an afterthought in social media. What Facebook won’t allow finds a dirty back channel where hate and violence foment freely and anonymously. And gatekeepers like Mark Zuckerberg are making a lot of money.

 

Journalism was considered so vital to American freedom that it had its own Constitutional protection.

 

We are only beginning to realize what we have lost by diminishing the gatekeeping role of journalists, particularly that of editors. My first Letter to the Editor in the 1990s required my name and address with submission, and a staffer at the newspaper called me — on a telephone — to verify that I was who I said I was. I had to take responsibility for the opinion I was about to have published. This kind of accountability for our opinions is unthinkable for Ryan Keating’s generation; we post and blog and tweet away, uncensured and happy to be so free and connected, free to ignore the trolls. We create anonymous accounts, we opine at a distance. Our snark is safe.

Social media has never possessed the concern for the public good that once placed a newspaper editor on a par of respect with attorneys, doctors, and ministers in the community. Social media was never meant to be the Press. Journalism has been a highly respected profession that protected the common good, that was accountable to that very standard, considered so vital to American freedom that it had its own Constitutional protection.

Can that news industry be turned around? This may be one of the most important questions of our times.

Today’s news media too often fudges the lines between information, entertainment, and opinion. The free-for-all we call social media is an experiment that may not end well. Readers get the news they deserve; those who want truth and facts will be served by the few who are willing to dig it up, for whatever pay they get. And at best, we will share TRUE NEWS on social media.
Go, Ryan Keating.

 

A version of this article was published in 2008 by Sun-Times Media in the Daily Southtown. It is republished here with permission and minor timely updates.

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