The Common Good
November 2004

The Rest Of The Story

by Deryl Davis | November 2004

Whatever happened to the 'public good'?

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We’ve all seen the annual surveys of public trust in the professions. Every year, journalists, like politicians, slide a little closer to the bottom of the heap. There’s no mystery about journalism. Consider the recent story-fabrication scandals of Jayson Blair, Jim Kelly, and Stephen Glass. Think of Rick Bragg admitting he didn’t go where he said he did. Remember CBS’ venerable Dan Rather apologizing because he and his crew didn’t check out their sources. Few will doubt that journalism, like politics, is in crisis. But why?

A century ago, Joseph Pulitzer spoke eloquently of journalism’s bottom line as the public good. Today, we might well ask how many journalists think of public good as the end purpose of their reporting. Certainly Blair, Kelly, and Glass weren’t thinking that way when they made up their stories. Perhaps Bragg wasn’t either when he juggled being in two places at one time. Was Rather thinking of the public good when he rushed to air his story on questions about President Bush’s National Guard service? The bottom line in each of these cases wasn’t the public good, it was a calculated effect—to get the story first, to make it colorful, to grab an audience.

PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY and accountability are sorely missing in much of our journalism and politics today. Partisanship and an endless appetite for news have driven us to glib sound-bites and the manipulation of both people and facts. Stories—whether Rather on Bush’s avoidance of Guard service or The New York Times on Iraq and aluminum tubes - are rushed to print and air before the facts are clear. When that happens, all of us are victims of a news cycle spinning out of control. In other cases, journalists simply haven’t reported all the facts, choosing to rely on undocumented information. Much has been made of the media’s failure to fully report what the Bush administration did or did not know about Iraq’s weapons capabilities before the war. Some of that was lazy journalism; some of it was simply partisanship, and it cuts both ways.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the cable TV phenomenon and the 24/7 news cycle in all of this. At the very least, they have created a constant news hole that must be filled and an insatiable appetite for information among viewers with inadequate means of discerning what is important from what is simply distracting. That filtering process should be part of a journalist’s work, too. Equally problematic are the numbers of pundits these channels have unleashed on our airwaves, spouting opinions of all kinds, sometimes without regard to facts or fact-checking. How do we know who to trust or who is serving the public good? Our polarized political climate makes this question particularly important.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if fewer journalists consider the public good these days; after all, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, is happy to leave it to the whims of the marketplace. While the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act opened the floodgates for unprecedented media consolidation, Powell has pushed to further relax restrictions that prevent outright monopolies of media ownership around the country. As Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen recently noted, such moves have led to diminished news quality, less local and investigative journalism, and much less media involvement with local communities. What’s missing is what Paul Harvey always promised to supply: the rest of the story.

Of course, there is no dearth of voices, many of them outside the profession, calling for media accountability, a renewed emphasis on journalistic ethics, and revision of current FCC rules. No less a person than Sen. John McCain called public reaction to Powell’s deregulatory ambitions unprecedented. But more will be required to bring lasting change to the Fourth Estate. Perhaps the elections can encourage that. Perhaps Christians can, too. Who knows better than us that the truth can set you free?

Deryl Davis is director of communications at Sojourners.

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