The Rest Of The Story

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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.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2004
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