With the exception of ourselves — who are a cheerful lot, unfailingly kind to small children and dogs and always ready to lend a helping hand — media critics are a famously surly bunch.
Sure, we get paid to point out the flaws and foibles of daily journalism, and, truth to tell, there’s never a lack of examples to choose from. But we’re also sympathetic to mutterings from weary reporters that it’s all too easy for onlookers, unsullied by the muck of misleading sources, deadlines, and conflicting eyewitness accounts, to comment on their performance from on high. And now that the new year is descending upon us, those critics are busily unpacking their harshest assessments of What Went Wrong for Journalism in 2005.
And — surprise — many of these professional fault-finders seem to think this was The Year When Journalism and Journalists Went Down on One Knee. Surveying their final thoughts on 2005, we found ourselves more than a little dismayed that so little of the good work done by journalists came through.
So as we go through the lists (what is it with critics and year-end lists?) we’ll try to correct that omission.
Jon Friedman of Marketwatch kicked it off on December 16, writing that 2005 “wasn’t ALL bad, of course — just mostly.” He then goes on to recount some of the big stories of the year in journalism — and some not so big ones. (Was John Seigenthaler Sr.’s dismay with Wikipedia really a signal moment of our time? Or Bill O’Reilly’s dislike of San Francisco? Get a grip, Jon.)
The Los Angeles Times took an equally gloomy, bottom-line view of the year that was. The paper noted that during the year, “weekday [newspaper] circulation dropped 2.6 percent in the six-month period ending in September” and that “young people” would rather read news published on the Internet than printed on dead trees. What the Times and most other observers forget is that “young people” still seem to be reading the news — just in another format. (Confession: It’s a little hard for us here at CJR Daily World Headquarters to get too upset about, umm, readers flocking to the Internet.)
For our part, we tend to agree with press critic and NYU prof Jay Rosen, who is quoted in the Times piece: “Professional news-gathering organizations will survive and prosper in the future … [b]ut not without changing a lot — more than many of them are prepared for.”
Moving from business to something more fun — content and scandal — Alternet divides the year in media into two categories: The most “overhyped” stories, and the most “underreported” stories. “Overhyped” is easy pickings, of course —“Terri Schiavo,” and the “War on Christmas” lead the pack. But Alternet’s complaint that two stories, “Iraq is spinning out of control” and “Republican corruption scandals,” weren’t covered enough ignores some great reporting — and as with any breaking story, it’s hard to criticize the reporting when that very reporting is still unfolding. (Plus, are we so sure Iraq is spinning out of control? Maybe, but maybe not. Plenty of Iraqis — and reporters — think otherwise, and it seems to us the jury is still out.)
As far as the corruption scandal, Alternet seems to have missed Elizabeth Drew’s great piece, “Selling Washington,” in the New York Review of Books in June, and the Washington Post’s treatment of the topic that same month. Both pieces shed quite a bit of light on the subject, and that’s all we can ask of any journalist.
Alternet is right about the underreporting of the “Failures of Homeland Security” (though the Washington Post, again, recently ran an excellent two-part series on this topic, with another one this morning.)