Maybe, if this whole presidency thing doesn’t work out, Barack Obama can land a Nieman fellowship. As you’ve probably heard, Obama, in the first of his two public speeches yesterday, addressed a crowd of thousands who had gathered at Lincoln Center for Walter Cronkite’s memorial service. The president used the occasion to engage in a little media criticism, in which he both expressed sympathy for the industry’s economic meltdown and chastised the press for its response to straitened circumstances:
We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line.
And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. “What happened today?” is replaced with “Who won today?” The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should—and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?
Obama is nothing if not eloquent, and there’s evident truth to much of his critique. To quarrel with his words seems a bit churlish, especially since much of what we do here at CJR consists of finding fault with journalism that substitutes “instant commentary and celebrity gossip” for “hard news and investigative journalism.” Still, something about his remarks grates. Though he said he believes “the golden days of journalism still lie ahead,” Obama overlooked the journalistic weaknesses of the era in which Cronkite worked—and the strengths of our own.
Because the media failures of the present day always loom largest to us, there’s a tendency to view them as newly and uniquely bad. But many modern sins are not so modern, after all. Horse-race political reporting—“Who won today?”—is a bad thing, respectable media observers can all agree. In fact, we’ve all been agreeing to it since at least 1861, when John Stuart Mill fretted that “every public question is discussed with less reference to its merits than to its expected bearing on the presidential election.”
Some things, of course, do change—as the model that supports the media world adjusts, so do the values the press manifests. And whether or not Cronkite’s reputation as “the most trusted man in America” was really warranted, he did embody a certain type of mid-20th century American journalism, one that was made possible by a historically unique economic moment. There were many virtues to this strain of reporting, including the “honesty and integrity and responsibility” that Obama mentioned yesterday. But it had its limitations, too. It was excessively establishment-oriented. It honed the ideal of objectivity until it became less a commitment than a straitjacket. And it was not always keenly attuned to what its audience wanted.
All those troubles are still with us today in some form or other. Some of the responses to them have brought their own problems: audience awareness is a good thing; helping your readers or viewers cocoon in a friendly-fact universe is not. But the current media landscape, for all its shaky financial footing, has many unique editorial virtues—more flexibility, opportunity, innovation, and diversity for readers and writers, viewers and videomakers alike.
None of that relieves journalists of old-fashioned responsibilities like fidelity to fact, and Obama’s not wrong to speak of a need to “rekindle” core values—those values are hard to live out, and there’s always a need to recommit to them. But the way forward for journalism lies less in recapturing the halcyon glory days than in figuring out how to make the most of the many real strengths of our current age.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.