If one were to commission a book about the state of news reporting in the United States at the beginning of the twenty- first century, among the natural choices to author such a study would be Leonard Downie, Jr., and Robert Kaiser. Both are experienced veterans who spent their professional careers at one of America’s leading newspapers, The Washington Post. Both have reported the news and both have been on the Post’s editorial staff. Their position in the nation’s capitol has allowed them access to powerful figures in national government and national media outlets. Both have extensive personal contacts with journalists, editors, publishers, and producers across the nation. Relying on their background and contacts, Downie and Kaiser have collaborated to produce The News About the News, a thoughtful, somewhat pessimistic, but convincing analysis of the state of American journalism.
Central to their analysis is the belief that the commonly accepted standard for evaluating news reporting has been misunderstood. Downie and Kaiser dispel the myth that good journalism is always “objective.” “The way a good newspaper actually gets produced,” they argue, “is important evidence in the old argument about the desirability, or even the plausibility, of ‘objective’ journalism. In fact, no human enterprise based on choices and decisions about what is important . . . can ever be literally objective.” In reality, “a newspaper is the product of thousands of subjective decisions”; rather than ask if journalists are objective, readers should demand that they be “fair”: “Are all sides represented? Would the advocates or disputants recognize the paper’s version of their arguments? Has the paper explained the context?” To achieve fairness, reporters must dig deeply into issues, ferreting out the truth and delivering their material in such a way that readers will understand the significance of the story. Editors must work with reporters to help shape their writing and give them the resources to do first-rate work.
Unfortunately, the authors say, many contemporary newspapers do not receive high marks for achieving this standard. While not necessarily biased, too much reporting is simply shoddy and stories fail to represent important issues fairly. The situation is even worse when stories are reported on the air: Radio and, especially, television are more headline services than sources of news. Stories are truncated to fit ever-diminishing segments on news shows that have become as much entertainment as they are sources for learning about community or national events that will have significant impact on the lives of viewers.
Downie and Kaiser believe that the principal cause for the decline in print news coverage has been the takeover of newspapers by major corporations who demand ever-increasing profit margins from their editors. Print news simply is not profitable; hence, the space allocated for it has diminished steadily during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Staffs have been cut as well, leaving fewer reporters to cover beats that had traditionally been important for gathering information about government and civic life.
Until the 1980’s, most newspapers were owned by individuals, families, or small groups who tried to balance the need to be profitable with the responsibility for keeping citizens informed about their community and country. Some papers, such as the Louisville Courier-Journal, teetered on the brink of solvency for years. Others, like their own Washington Post, had benefited from the farsighted management of owner Eugene Meyer and his daughter Katherine Graham. Meyer, a successful investor in other enterprises who had served as “a dollar-a-year public servant” in successive Democratic administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman, said when he bought The Washington Post in 1933 that his “only interest” was “to make a contribution to better knowledge and better thinking.” In their view—perhaps biased by their association with the newspaper—The Washington Post has managed to make a profit without sacrificing the principles of good journalism.
The entry of media giants such as Knight-Ridder, Gannett, and others into the news business changed the landscape for print journalism markedly. These conglomerates bought...
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