Can Journalism Be Saved?

Books discussed in this article

The question arises at this point, why are there so many black sheep in journalism? Why so many “fakes”? Why is the epidemic of “yellow journalism” so prevalent? This phrase is applied to newspapers which delight in sensations, crime, scandal, smut, funny pictures, caricatures and malicious or frivolous gossip about persons and things of no public concern.

This was Horace White, one of American journalism’s most esteemed elder statesmen, writing in 1904. He continued:

When I entered journalism, the press of the country, with only one exception that I can now recall, was clean, dignified and sober minded. It had various aims in life, aims political, literary, scientific, social, religious, reformatory and mixed, which were deemed by the conductors of the papers advantageous to the commonweal. To make money by pandering to the vices and follies of the community, and thus adding to the mass of vice and folly, was generally unthinkable.

Journalists are eternally nostalgic, and alarmed at how things are now. Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth, published last year, is modeled on David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, published in 1979. Abramson remembers Halberstam’s book as a description of a “golden age” in journalism—the 1960s and 1970s. That attitude is typical of members of the generation now past fifty (including me), who find ourselves longing for a period some decades back in the past. Three other books under review here—Dan Bernstein’s on The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California; Frederic Hill and Stephens Broening’s on The Baltimore Sun; and Dan Kennedy’s on (mostly) The Boston Globe—also use the term “golden age” to describe the newspaper business during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Drawing by Tom Bachtell

Halberstam himself, in a new introduction to The Powers That Be that he wrote for a second edition published in 2000, remembered that journalism in the early 1970s, when he was working on the book, “seemed at a high-water mark.” He was far less sanguine about the present, though what he was worried about seems almost comically innocent now. The owners of major news organizations, he thought, were too closely attuned to enhancing their already substantial profits and not enough to their public obligations. Cable television was purveying “sex, crime, and a kind of dimwitted celebrity-obsessed journalism.” This was eroding the sanctity of journalism so profoundly that, for example, Tom Brokaw was occasionally leaving his proper home on the main NBC network to appear on MSNBC and CNBC! In his litany of the threats facing journalism in 2000, Halberstam didn’t think to mention the Internet.

The years since then have seen the economic devastation of the profession, which has been about as dramatic as in any sector of the labor market. Employment in newspaper newsrooms decreased by 45 percent from 2008 to 2017—and by 60 percent from 1990 to 2016. (Even so, newspapers, because they are declining from a high…

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