Alex S. Jones writes about why many people hate the press again after the popularity enjoyed in the weeks following 9/11. This article offers an interesting look into the collective mind of journalism. There I find several encouraging signs and a few disturbing ones, too. For example, I’m encouraged to see these critical questions being asked:
“Is wanting public approval pandering or is public approval something worth trying to win? What did the public see in us after 9/11 that is worth struggling to preserve? Were we simply more human and accessible, less confrontational and negative? Can we do our job well and still be human and accessible — and not so confrontational and negative? Is being overtly American in our reporting wrong? What does it mean to be an American journalist, as opposed to being a journalist without a national perspective, such as at the BBC? Where is the line between flag waving and simply reacting as an American?”
On the other hand:
“The public loved us most in November, when flags rippled on the corners of TV screens and from on-camera lapels. Journalists were asking few tough questions regarding civilian bombing casualties and civil liberties, and the American military was rolling to a stunning victory in Afghanistan. Despite the tragedy of Sept. 11, we had a lot of good news to cover, and even pieces on the tragic aspects of the story seemed to forge a common sense of outrage and purpose. The more thorny elements tended to be put aside until a later day.”
In those days following 9/11, the press was willing to play a cheerleader’s role and the people were willing to let it do so. The knee-jerk reaction among journalists is to blame the people for their lack of discernment (something Jones avoids and criticizes). But the press covered 9/11 as it did in the days following that catastrophe by a combination conscious choice and emotional reaction. Many acted like American journalists rather than journalists who happen to be Americans. They reacted in a very human and understandable way. But the people should not confuse that patriotic coverage with the kind of scrutiny necessary to deliver politically useful information.
“The point is that we need the public’s support, now more than ever. We need for the public to understand that it is not unpatriotic to want government officials to leak information. That’s how we — and our readers — find out about what Washington is really up to. We need the public to care about access to documents. We need them to believe we are acting on their behalf when we fight for such things. And we need the public to understand that while journalism is not often perfect, that doesn’t mean that it’s calculatedly slanted and biased. With the problems that we face, we dare not simply shrug and say, “The public’s attitude be damned.” We need, instead, to spend some time figuring out what we can honorably do to nudge those polling results back up. The stakes for us, and for the public, have never been higher.”
There is no perfect journalism. There is no way to do it “right” in the sense of pleasing most of the people most of the time. It was better said before me that we the people may ask too much of journalism. We often ask it, and the mostly honorable men and women who practice it, to do the impossible.