By Melissa Hale-Spencer
RENSSELAERVILLE — Three gray-haired men — lions of their craft — discussed this question before a packed house Sunday night at the Carey Center for Global Good: “Is Journalism Dead?”
No post mortem on journalism, the autopsy was more on the body politic, which the panel found is at best “factionalized” or at worst “tribalized,” unable to suspend judgment in the pursuit of truth.
The program started with a clip from The Daily Show about CNN eliminating its investigative news department.
“It’s usually the first to go because it’s not a profit center,” said Brad Adgate, a CNN official, in the clip.
“What you just saw is a parable for what we’re discussing,” said Josh Friedman, one of the three panelists, who has two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit.
The other panelists were Lance Morrow, long-time writer for Time magazine and author of eight books, and Carl Bernstein who, with Bob Woodward, won a Pulitzer for covering the Watergate scandal, leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“Carl and Lance met as teenagers on the copydesk of the Washington Star,” said Friedman.
“I went to work there at 16,” said Bernstein
Reminiscing over the old days of journalism, Friedman said, “The newsroom was filled with smoke and profanity…The technological changes have been enormous and that exciting world has slipped into uniformity.”
For those under 30, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are regarded as journalistic truth tellers, said Morrow.
“Do we need journalism?” he asked.
“We need great reporting more than ever,” said Bernstein. “The Internet is a fabulous platform for reporting,” he said, noting, for example, documents can be run alongside stories.
But he went on to say that, 50 years ago, “We learned real reporting is the best obtainable version of the truth…We had great institutions to help deliver that reporting.”
He named the editors and publisher at The Washington Post that, in the 1970s, supported Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate. “We could not have done it without that institution.”
Good papers, he said “serve the public good” and are not concerned just with profit. Today, gossip and sensationalism has become more valuable, he said.
Chains, he said, have devalued real reporting. Stewart and those like him have credibility, he said, because they come closer to the truth than real reporting.
“I believe strongly, in the United States, we live in a culture not receptive to real reporting,” said Bernstein. Citizens search online for information that enforces their prejudices, he said, rather than finding the real truth.
“The real thing we’re experiencing in our country is a disinterest in hard, contextual truth,” said Bernstein.
This was the first of the Carey Dialogues for Global Good. Others, in coming months, will focus on Planned Parenthood, the FBI and CIA, the effects of climate change on the natural world, and music.
After listening to an hour of wit and wisdom from the panelists, members of the audience were given a chance to ask questions.
“The most important thing a reporter and a news organization does is decide what is news,” Bernstein said in answer to one query.
Morrow garnered warm applause when he answered another question by saying what has changed in the psychology of the country is there is now far less willingness to suspend judgment and consider both sides. “You are in the Sunni-Shiite world,” he said, concluding, “Intelligent consumption of news is essential for democracy.”
In answer to concerns raised about “new journalism,” Bernstein said that Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night was “the greatest piece of reporting in book form in my time.” He called Mailer’s description of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, in protest against the Vietnam War, which he had covered himself, “pitch perfect.”
Bernstein said in answer to a questioner from Brooklyn and Rensselaerville, “We in the press did a horrible job in the run-up to the war in Iraq…We needed to be much more skeptical….”
“How could journalists have done a better job than, say, Colin Powell did?” asked Morrow.
Freidman maintained that a trove of documents at the United Nations could have elucidated the claims about weapons of mass destruction.
“Where we failed horribly wasn’t just weapons of mass destruction…but what Cheney and others were saying about 9/11; a big part of this emotional build-up was bullshit.”
“Lost in the noise”
The back-and-forth among the three journalists during the first hour was cordial even as they disagreed, often circling back to the same place to investigate further.
Morrow noted the enormous number of newspapers that have folded and the number of reporters who have been fired. “Overworked journalists are not able to get out of the office,” he said. “They are doing what everyone abhorred in our day, writing from press releases and websites.”
“Truth has been devalued in our culture,” said Bernstein.
Morrow noted it has been called a “post-truth culture.” He said that presidential election ads, on both sides, were fraught with errors.
“We live in a narrative-line culture,” said Morrow. “The temptation arises in the conflict between good story telling and finding out the facts.”
He likened it to a Sunni-Shiite conflict, where there is no longer the appetite to suspend judgment.
“Our cultural and political divisions are starting to define us,” said Bernstein. “We can’t agree on a set of facts to begin debate.”
He also said there is now “less ability to handle complexity and nuance” and that too much of the current great reporting “is getting lost in the noise.”
“We don’t have a central source of news,” said Friedman. “The younger kids don’t watch TV at all.” They use Facebook, he said, and send each other links. Media is factionalized, he said.
“There is a cacophony out there; there is all this noise,” said Bernstein. He contrasted this with the former sources of news that were generally recognized to be fair and judicious.
“Who’s the best now?” asked Morrow.
All lack credibility because they’re perceived by a bifurcated culture, Bernstein replied.
He said that, in 1998, he became editor of voter.com, which later went “belly up.” But, Bernstein said, “We learned how to aggregate.”
Bernstein asked how many now are reading legitimate news sources on, for example, the subject of gun control rather than going either to an NRA site or a pro-control site. Gun stories, he said, “don’t lend themselves to over-simplicity.”
Noting the current state of “tremendous transition,” Morrow asked where the future of journalism lies and if it is necessary or if its definition has changed.
Bernstein responded that an institution to bring citizens the best obtainable version of the truth is essential, and that it needs to be recognized for its independence, context, and accuracy.
“People consume news in a recreational way, as entertainment,” said Morrow. “You have to know if something will kill you…We live in a tribalized society.”
“Some of that has always been thus,” said Bernstein, noting that the beginning of the modern Washington Post was its many comic pages.
Bernstein asserted that Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul, is the most important figure in American journalism in the past 50 years. His New York Post, Bernstein said, “changed the nature of news in America,” appealing to the ever-descending lowest common denominator. Then came Murdoch’s “faux news” on Fox News, promoted as being fair and balanced.
“You are going Sunni on the Shiites,” interjected Morrow.
“I was at the New York Post when Murdoch bought it,” said Friedman. “It was as if you were on a ship captured by pirates…The difference in ethics was striking.” Murdoch used the paper to elect candidates and at the bottom were commercial needs, said Friedman.
“Murdoch has been able to corrupt not just journalism but the political system,” said Bernstein.
He went on, addressing Morrow on his Sunni-Shiite comment, “No. I accept what Fox News is…Let them have at it. What I mind is when the larger culture becomes inured to truth.”
Morrow spoke of the great ratings that cheap cable news stations got covering stories like those about O.J. Simpson or Monica Lewinsky. “There’s an addiction to that kind of stuff that goes beyond Murdoch,” he said.
“It’s a two-way street,” said Bernstein, noting the need to focus “on the folks who are gobbling up the crap.”
“You get the media you deserve — is that it?” asked Morrow.
“I’ve never done a story, not a single story, where my pre-conceived notion turned out to be” the truth, said Bernstein. His advice to a young reporter would be to be a good listener and to be thorough and patient. “Let people explain themselves,” he said.
“Maybe generalization in our culture is part of the problem,” said Bernstein, noting he had just hatched that idea as he was speaking.
“It costs a lot of money to pay a reporter to be patient,” countered Morrow, citing recent newsroom cutbacks.
Bernstein then recalled that Woodward once said, “All great reporting is done in defiance of management.”