Journalistic humility?

Posted: Jan 06, 2005 12:00 AM

Put the two words "journalistic humility" into the Lexis-Nexis electronic retrieval system. Ask for all articles over the past year that include the term. Here's the reply message: "No documents were found for your search. You should edit your search and try again."
Many year-end analyses of elite journalism's defeats last year -- most notably Dan Rather's debacle -- dealt with the role of technology: blogs threatening bigwigs. But, as they say in high school driver's ed classes, the leading cause of accidents is the nut behind the wheel.

 Pride is going before the fall of networks and leading newspapers. A generation or two ago, a typical reporter at least in theory aspired to be "a fly on the wall," presenting a variety of views rather than imposing or even insinuating his own. Columnists (like liberal Supreme Court justices) could flaunt their opinions, but reporters were to be strict constructors of stories and avoid legislating from their notepads.

 This was journalism still based on statements of faith such as "The Journalist's Creed," written by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri's Journalism School from 1908 to 1935. The creed states that "the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public." Williams called for reporting that "fears God and honors man ... self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers."

 How many reporters followed that creed is hard to tell -- movies throughout the 20th century tended to emphasize journalistic cynicism and rudeness -- but what humility was present has now vanished. A "fly on the wall" perspective is now secondary to nailing to the wall the hides of those considered reactionary. In that sense, American journalism is slowly becoming European, with newspapers revealing a clear ideological base.

 I saw the beginnings of this firsthand while serving my journalistic apprenticeship at the Boston Globe in 1970-1971 and in 1973, at a time when the Globe was transitioning from a reporting staff of sometimes cynical but often humble old-timers to a brigade of liberal or radical Ivy Leaguers.

 By 1973, I was a hardcore Marxist full of myself and had no trouble getting into the Globe stories that insinuated my views of class warfare and capitalistic corruption. News and feature editors encouraged me, as long as my doctrines were not so explicit as to scare typical subscribers.

 "Humility" would not have described me or my fellow new Globe reporters. They and I still insisted publicly that we were "objective," but privately we agreed that we would give all sides what we felt they deserved, with reporters serving as judges and sometimes executioners. Journalists became the Inquisition.

 New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen last year published an aptly titled article, "Journalism is itself a religion." He described "the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington." He noted the religion's rituals, such as the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes.

 His exhibit A was Bill Moyers' praise of the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Columbia Journalism Review: "I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the 'high church' of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling."

 Demons? Former New York journalist William Proctor points out that New York Times editors condemn "the sin of religious certainty," yet have their own "set of absolute truths. (Editors are) absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

 I saw the beginnings of the dramatic journalistic surge to the left; Rosen and Proctor are seeing the culmination.

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