The New New Journalism

By David T.Z. Mindich
 
07/15/1999
The Wall Street Journal
Page A18
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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"Are you a reporter?"

The question, put last year by a news reporter to self-styled Internet journalist Matt Drudge , elicited an indignant response. And no wonder: Mr. Drudge was just then emerging from a courthouse in Washington, D.C., where he was the defendant in a $30 million defamation suit brought by another kind of journalist, former New Yorker magazine writer and current White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

Since then, the subject of Mr. Drudge 's job description has returned with greater force. A week ago, he signed a deal with the ABC Radio Networks to host a nationally syndicated talk show, provoking the vehement objections of ABC News president David Westin. Mr. Westin reportedly fears the show's presence on ABC will further erode the boundaries between "objective" journalism and whatever brand of reportage Mr. Drudge represents.

Mr. Westin may indeed have reason to fear. Journalism is changing, and in ways that are not always encouraging. In the past year or so, a staff writer for The New Republic and two for the Boston Globe resigned over charges of plagiarism or falsifying stories. CNN ran a story about Vietnam that later proved totally inaccurate. Meanwhile, newspaper sales are down, network news divisions are shrinking, and more people are getting their news from alternative sources that are often inaccurate; Mr. Drudge , for instance, claims an accuracy rate of merely 80%.

But are we witnessing the collapse of journalistic standards and the ascendancy of rumor-mongering? On this score, there is room for doubt. Those frightened by the "new journalism" of the Internet and other sources would do well to remember that the term is very old. It was used to describe the flavored reportage of the 1960s, the sensationalism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the 1890s, and even the first commercial journalism of the 1830s. In each era, the "new journalism" reflected a threat to the established order. And those threats led to a re-evaluation of the nature of news. Through these debates the central ethic of journalism -- objectivity -- began to emerge.

In the early 1830s, staid newspapers that sold for six cents a copy were the only source of printed news in New York City. Attached to political parties and beholden to their partisan agenda, the six-cent papers reported on news that their party wanted them to print. These papers even staged demonstrations and mob violence against their political opponents, planned right in their editorial offices.

Enter the upstart penny newspapers, so named because they undersold their rivals by a nickel. The pennies relied not on party patronage but on sales and advertising for their revenue. They employed a lively style, reporting on police stories and other apolitical topics. The leading penny editor of the day was a colorful and bombastic Scotsman named James Gordon Bennett, who called the Pope an "Italian blockhead" and likened himself to Moses and Socrates. He also poked fun at an overweight six-cent editor, James Watson Webb, who in turn attacked Bennett three times on the streets of the city: once with a horse whip, once with a cane and once by shoving him down a flight of stairs.

As the penny papers thrived, they incurred the resentment of older journalists, who in turn undertook a "moral war" against Bennett and his "vile sheet." Once the dust had settled, the penny editors had become a lot less sensational, but they maintained their independence from the parties. One of the hallmarks of objectivity, nonpartisanship, was born.

By the 1890s, however, it was the former pennies that found themselves playing the part of the indignant elite. Stodgy and complacent, the New York Times, Herald, Tribune and Sun were startled by the entry, and amazing success, of Joseph Pulitzer and later William Randolph Hearst. The elite papers reacted to the upstarts with condescension. When Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal were publicly arguing over the veracity of a Journal illustration depicting a fair Cuban woman being strip-searched by sinister-looking Spanish soldiers, the Times took notice of the "rivalry of our esteemed freak contemporaries."

Calling rivals "freaks" in the 1890s was a way to distinguish different levels of professionalism, just as the partisan editors did in the 1830s and media critics do today. But such criticisms often ring hollow, not least because those who are so adept at pointing to bias in others are often incapable of detecting biases of their own. Consider a 1993 ad for Time magazine: "We don't choose the Man of the Year. History does." The ad seems to be making a claim for Time's objectivity, but the unwitting subtext makes it clear how far it is from its aim. Indeed, defining "objectivity" is something few journalists ever bother to do.

Just as the battles in the 1830s gave rise to the ethic of nonpartisanship, the 1890s strengthened notions of accuracy and restraint. But even this is often not enough. By the 1890s most newspapers had begun to balance their stories between two opposing viewpoints. But balance does not always guarantee accuracy. In fact, there is such a thing as the bias of balance. In 1894 the New York Times attempted to "balance" its coverage of lynching by acknowledging the evil of the practice while also allowing that some blacks deserved to be lynched. The Times' solution? That the U.S. legally "lynch" -- that is, convict and execute -- blacks with a swiftness rivaling any mob. By contrast, the African-American journalist Ida B. Wells brought little balance to her stories about lynching, but a great deal more truth.

Perhaps the Internet is a corrective to our worries about too-balanced stories today. The Internet itself is one big stewpot of perspectives, unbalanced yet all-inclusive. Mr. Drudge himself articulated this position well: "We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. I envision a future where there'll be 300 million reporters, where anyone from anywhere can report for any reason."

But while Mr. Drudge and company might offer additional perspectives, they certainly do not obviate the need for good journalism. Quite the contrary. The ease with which inaccurate information can now be disseminated means that we need good journalism now more than ever. But how is "good journalism" to be defined?

Perhaps one approach would be to ask: How are responsible journalists not like Matt Drudge ? The answer is that they are less partisan, more detached, more accurate. They understand the uses and misuses of balance. They appreciate the difference between opinion -- their own in particular -- and truth. Unlike self-styled Web journalists, with no distance between their thumb and the "enter" key, responsible journalists have publishers, editors, ethics and professional reputations built over time. In short, responsible journalists have better filters.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms. Perhaps the same can be said about objective journalism. It will never be a perfect mirror of reality. But as long as its practitioners are willing to do the hard work of being honest about its inherent limitations, it will remain our least bad source of information.

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Mr. Mindich , a professor of journalism at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., is author of "Just the Facts: How `Objectivity' Came to Define American Journalism" (New York University Press, 1998).

(See related letters: "Letters to the Editor: The Subjective Media" -- WSJ July 26, 1999)

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