A Conversation Between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen
Pages: 1, 2
Rosen: Poof, there goes that business.
Gillmor: Well, you know, I don't feel virtuous about that on some level because I know the implicit bargain that had been established at one point was that you'd put up with a certain amount of commercials in order to watch the program. But I'm willing to pay a la carte for the things I actually want to watch. And I should recognize that so-called "free" television has had some benefits for our society as well as the rank commercialism that I don't think so highly of.
Rosen: Let me summarize your answer so far. You are concerned about the future of your profession, A) because of Wall Street pressures and B) because advertising revenue — the bedrock of the journalism business — is under assault from all directions. Are there any other reasons why you're concerned about the future of the profession?
Gillmor: Yes, it was the one we started with, the nature of journalism that's getting done by the big media. There is a problem here. We have to recognize it. I don't like journalism as stenography. I don't think it serves much purpose except to fill space. I don't like the journalism of spin, of the clustering around the spin doctors at the debates to get that quote. I've done it myself. Of course, once in a while you get a quote that's so perfect, that sums up what happened, that you feel good about the spin doctor being there. But these are very serious times we live in, and we need more serious journalism than we're getting. What serious work we are getting is drowned out by the less serious stuff.
Rosen: Well, this is even a bigger challenge that you suggest, in my experience, Dan. If journalists have to recognize that there is something wrong with their work, you're stuck right off the bat. Because from what I've seen, there is great resistance in mainstream journalism to anyone — colleague or outsider — who comes in and says, "You're not doing a very good job. Or, there's something wrong with the way you're doing journalism. Or, you have to go back and relearn this or that." In fact, I'd go further and say that the way that mainstream journalism has developed, it incorporates now certain learning deficiencies as well as a professional culture closed to ideas and insights from the outside. And this itself is part of the problem along with the changing circumstances in the world and in technology and the marketplace that you've described.
So, that's my perception. I think more than many other professions that have to deal with change and new markets, or new competitors more directly, there is something about mainstream American journalism that is uniquely closed. And this worries me as a journalism professor and critic of the press. I'd love to hear whether it concerns you.
Gillmor: It concerns me, but I don't feel as strongly that the conditions are the way you put them there.
Rosen: OK, so argue with me. Go ahead.
Gillmor: All right. I know from my daily contacts with people inside newsrooms that there is a very wide recognition of the problems, but also there is an awful lot of good journalism going on.
Rosen: That's definitely true.
Gillmor: And I am proud of the good journalism that goes on. I think that at some levels it's never been better. And certainly the level of training, of education, of talent in a raw sense probably has never been higher.
Rosen: I would agree with that. Today's journalists are more educated. More ethical. More serious people who are more dedicated to public service than ever before, as a percentage of the profession.
Gillmor: And I really don't want to lose the good part as we try to change the not-so-good part. In a general sense I have enormous respect for the people I work with, and I know how hard they work. I know that this is not a business people go into if making a big financial score is part of the game. I admire that.
And I don't have magic answers to the problems, but I'm fairly sure that one of the ways we improve is to spend more time listening to people outside, especially our readers and viewers and listeners. And if they tell us things in a kinder way than beating us over the head, we tend to listen better. I mean, none of us likes being told, "You're an idiot." That's not generally a good way to begin a conversation. But when people beat me up and say, "You've got to do better than this, and here's why," after I recover my balance from feeling hurt — which is typical and human — if I listen to what they've said and I find myself agreeing with it well, nothing is lost and much is gained. And in fact, I had that experience with the book, where the publisher of a small newspaper in upstate New York …
Rosen: Stephen Waters …
Gillmor: Yes, Stephen Waters. After we posted HTML drafts of some early chapters, he poured one of them into a Word file and proceeded to line-edit the thing and sent it to me. He said, "This is the right time for this book, but it needs to be a better book." And as I related in the epilogue of the book, I had to retrieve my ego off the floor and say to myself, "Well, gosh, he has a point." And my editor said, "He has a point." So, this is part of why I get so interested in the future here, because I think journalists are starting to listen. I think there is now a widespread understanding in the business that something is broken. The solution may not be the ones you've proposed or that I've proposed, but no one who is in a profession for reasons that are not entirely financial will live long with the situation in which they know it's broken. Otherwise they'll go into some field that's more lucrative.
Rosen: OK, let's follow-up a little bit on that. When you say that most of the thoughtful people in the profession realize that something is broken, what is it that they think is broken? Where does this perception come from? How did it accumulate? What's the evidence of it? Where do you see it showing up? If journalists think something is broken, what is it they find in disrepair?
Gillmor: Well, our image is one place to start. We have a dreadful public image. And whenever someone has a dreadful public image it's usually advisable to ask why. Journalism is a business — a trade — that relies in the end on being credible.
Rosen: OK. What else?
Gillmor: I think people are well aware now that as media fragments, and as people have more choices, they're going elsewhere. It is a terrifying thing to me that people under the age of 30 by and large don't read newspapers.
Rosen: OK, so people are going elsewhere, especially the young. That contributes to the sense of something off. What else?
Gillmor: I'll give an example of something that clearly went wrong, with some honorable exceptions. The run-up to the war in Iraq. The United States population was roughly divided on this. There were very passionate people for it and people very passionate against it. But there was some serious division. That was not reflected in the mainstream media to the extent that it needed to be.
Moreover, it wasn't just the division that needed to be reflected, it was the reasons for the division. It was the hunger among the public for answers. People wanted to know things before they were going to rush into support of this war. And there was precious little — some, but precious little — journalism being done by U.S. journalists asking the really hard questions. I want to tip my hat in a big way to the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, which almost alone was asking the hard questions before and after the war. The bureau was getting not nearly the recognition it deserved then, but is only starting to get now. They did our company proud.
But during that time — actually, right after the initial hostilities were over — I was in London at The Guardian, and visited with their online people. And they showed me their traffic numbers, which had had this enormous surge in the run-up to the war. And it was easily attributable — because a lot of it was coming from the U.S. — to people looking for English-language information that they weren't getting from the American press. I had my issues with some of what The Guardian wrote. I don't think they were dead-on with their coverage. Then again, nobody is. But we need diversity, and we didn't get enough of it.
Rosen: So, we have the extraordinary spectacle of the American public looking to British journalists for some of the basic questions and information that they wanted at the time when it could have made a difference.
Gillmor: Exactly. And if that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what is. You can actually extrapolate that to all kinds of areas of journalism. One reason weblogs are so popular is that people are going to them for some diversity of perspective. At least if they're smart they're going for diversity instead of echo chamber. And the niche weblogs are utterly destroying the potential for new print publications to start. They're just preempting some print that might have otherwise occurred. That's an interesting phenomenon.
Rosen: Very interesting indeed.
Gillmor: And I'm all for it.
Rosen: This will be my last question. But it requires a bit of a preamble, and it arises out of what you said about reporting and the run-up to the war. I think if you go back further, there's a kind of slow, deeply set problem& mdash; maybe even a crisis — that arose out of September 11th. The immediate reporting around September 11th was actually a case of American journalism's strengths. The performance of the press in the hours and the days after the event was really extraordinary, and I think a lot of people in the profession realize that this was their moment that they had been preparing their entire lives for. Which is what [Howell Raines] actually said on the Lehrer News Hour after the event. And I think it's true.
But after that, another kind of problem set in. And in my mind it has to do with the question of, are American journalists American, and what is their connection to the political community? What makes them citizens of the United States as well as journalists in the United States? And particularly in an age when we're in a permanent war against terror. Terrorism is not only a big issue to cover for the mass media, terrorism incorporates the news media. The bomb doesn't terrorize until news of it is reported. And the fear and panic and reactions spread in the United States after September 11th were a reaction to the news, to what we saw on the news.
My own sense is that deep within their professional conscience and personal awareness, journalists understand that they are actually part of the regime of terror — just by doing their jobs. And perhaps have to be part of the fight against it as well. But this doesn't conform to existing wisdom in the press about detachment, and being the watchdog, separate from the society we report on. I don't think the American press has really worked out or worked through its relationship to the country and how that might be different after 9/11. And that seems to me to be a critical question for journalists to examine. But I don't know if they have necessarily the resources to do that. That's my observation. How would yours compare?
Gillmor: I don't know what to add, because I have not put my mind hard to that grindstone yet. Because it may be one of the most central questions that we have to ask ourselves going forward. I'm an American. I am proud of being an American. This is my country, and I don't know who said it first, but I picked it up. "It's my country, right and wrong."
The journalist's role is evolving in ways that I think we're going to have to confront sooner than later. We have a role that goes beyond just telling the world what's going on. To the extent that we are part of what the bad guys want to have happen, the best thing we can do about that fact is to confront it and talk about it. Report about it. Do more journalism about that subject. If we can't unravel ourselves, the next best thing is to say, "We recognize this. Let's put it on the table as one of the big things we talk about, even to the point where it may annoy some of our readers. But we have to do this." And journalists need to cover journalists better than they do. This has always been true.
I would expand your observation to take in the larger subject of risk. We live in a risky world. We always have, though we've just never had quite such concentrated risk, such disproportionate, asymmetrical risk as exists today. And that's going to get more so, not less. But we've lived through our lifetimes with the daily risk of dying in our automobiles, which we seem to be perfectly able to handle as a society even though the carnage is terrible. When crime grew at a fairly enormous rate, we adjusted, and journalists reported on it. What we didn't do when crime shrank at an enormous rate was to adjust our coverage. In fact, I think the press is grossly negligent to the point of malfeasance in the coverage of crime in the 1990s, which left people with the impression that it had never been worse when in fact it had almost never been better. And it is this climate of fear that leads to curbs on civil liberties that were absolutely not necessary. We don't really judge risk properly in our society. And journalists need to actually confront that in a big way. Terrorism is the most visible risk, and it's certainly the most awful one in many respects. You're right, we're part of the process of it being visible. But I wish we'd actually talk in-depth about the question of risk in an open society. You cannot have one without the other.
Jay Rosen is an associate professor of journalism at New York University, where he has taught since 1986, and also a critic and writer concentrating on democracy and the press.
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