A Bad Year? Yeah, But, Oddly Enough, Good Work Kept Popping Up

Surveying the year-end lists by media critics, we found ourselves dismayed that so little of the good work done by journalists came through.

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.)

Simon Dumenco of AdAge takes a jaundiced look at the “10 Most Pathetic Media Meltdowns” of the year. Judy Miller makes the cut, as does Tom Cruise’s manic, and continuing, televised seizure. Also making the list are the “The Slow, Painful Death of Network News,” continuing newspaper layoffs and the president’s “You’re doing a helluva job, Brownie,” moment. (How that mother of all whoppers qualifies as a “media meltdown,” we’re not sure — unless Dumenco considers President Bush and the hapless Michael Brown to be members of the media.)

But if you read one year-end round-up, make it Mark Jurkowitz’s piece in the Boston Phoenix. Jurkowitz is one of the few to string together job losses at major publishers (“more than 2000 jobs were lost at mid-size and major newspapers this past year”). He also touches on the Judy-Valerie-Scooter scandal; the deposing of Dan Rather and the departure of Ted Koppel; the untimely death of Peter Jennings; Hurricane Katrina, after which “journalists began to fulfill their traditional watchdog role with a little more zeal. Whether that lasts is probably the big question of 2006,” and touches on efforts by USA Today and the New York Times to consolidate their print and online newsrooms. (As to whether that’s such a good idea, we’re withholding judgment.)

And then we have Slate, which published its inexplicable list of “The 10 Most Popular Articles of the Year” on Wednesday. Of the 10, there are no stories about Iraq, none about Katrina — and none about anything, well, newsworthy. Instead, the list is populated by stories about beer … Prince Charles … dogs … and Kate Moss. Paging Jack Shafer… Mr. Shafer to the front desk, please.

Let’s face it, reading through all the lists is a tedious task — we do it so you won’t have to — and it leaves one wondering if the media has become so consumed by bad news about itself that some of the good has been lost.

Truth be told, the year wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Anyone remember a group of dedicated reporters — for a little paper called the New Orleans Times-Picayune — day after relentless day slogging through the stench of muck and death to file to a Web site that not only informed the world of the horrors they had seen, but also enabled thousands of survivors to find one another? Or the scores of brave journalists risking their lives in war zones across the world, not the least of which are those who survived some harrowing situations in Iraq to report the most important story of our time? Or Nick Kristoff of the New York Times, who has been reporting tirelessly from Darfur, refusing with admirable stubbornness to let an indifferent world forget about the massive human tragedy unfolding there?

But you don’t need to risk your life to do the right thing as a journalist. There is great journalism happening every day, from the recent New York Times scoop about your government monitoring your overseas phone calls and emails, to the Washington Post’s exclusive on secret CIA prisons overseas, to the Wall Street Journal’s series on poverty in America last May. All were superb pieces of investigative journalism — and all were left off the lists of the above-noted critics. There were many other individual examples of great journalism worthy of note: the reporting of Time magazine’s Michael Ware on the insurgency in Iraq, and the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid’s intimate portraits of the lives of average Iraqis caught in the maelstrom of war, to name just a few.

To us, the grimmest news of all — and we must note that it is missing from all those lists — was this: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 47 journalists worldwide were killed in the line of duty this year — nearly one a week.

Here’s hoping that 2006 will be better.

Correction: This post has been changed to exclude the number of journalists killed in 2004, which was originally reported incorrectly.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.