The Complications of our Age

What we want is a journalism to match them

When the idea of a publication to be called the Columbia Journalism Review first came up, our founding editor tells us, some journalists and journalism professors were deeply opposed to the idea of turning the weapon of criticism on journalism itself. Doesn’t the craft require support rather than criticism? Doesn’t it have enemies enough?

Such questions still have life. Several months ago, at the peak of a brutal season of newsroom layoffs around the country, a New York Times reporter e-mailed us to compare CJR critiques to bullets aimed at the moaning wounded after a bloody battle. Shouldn’t CJR, he reasoned, be in the journalism-support business rather than in the journalism-bashing business, especially now?

The thought deserves unpacking. Our first reply is that journalism requires support and criticism, including—and this is key—support through criticism. And not from an “enemy.” Do you listen to an enemy? Not really. You listen to a friend, because you know a friend wants you at your best.

It is in that spirit—a friend and supporter of great journalism—that we approach our work, and hope to continue to approach it for another fifty years.

That is not to say that the nuances of the mission haven’t changed. A large part of the job is helping to advance a discussion about: What now? Which journalistic standards and practices and forms and traditions should be abandoned in a time of amazing change, and which ones should be held fast? Even beyond that, we are in a period when the very definition of journalism, who does it, and how it might pay for itself (or not), are questions on the table.

So we take a wide view of the word “criticism” as both the art of analyzing journalism to try to improve it, and also helping the community that cares about it think through its many challenges. Jim Boylan’s editorial from the fall of 1961, and republished here, poses a question, “Why a Review of Journalism?” We have published part of the answer he supplied in our pages for years: “To assess the performance . . . to help stimulate continuing improvement in the profession. . . . ”

But another reason is suggested two paragraphs later, where the editorial speaks of “the probability that journalism of all types is not yet a match for the complications of our age.”

The world was complicated in 1961. The Soviet Union built a wall dividing Berlin. President Eisenhower talked about a “military-industrial complex.” John Kennedy promised the moon. Freedom Riders traveled the South. Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs. “Moon River” was on the radio, and so were The Shirelles. Joseph Heller published Catch-22. Barbie got Ken.

But the world is more complicated now—no need for details to make the case; we all know it. What we want, and what we trust that our readers want, is journalism that is “a match for the complications of our age.” It’s a tall order, but that just heightens the verve and—why not?—the joy with which we intend to pursue it. That both the press and the democracy feel more fragile these days only points to the centrality of the mission. So does a sense of promise beneath the ferment. We are lucky to live in interesting times.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.