Is American Journalism Dead, or in a Coma?

We are hearing a lot today about the deplorable state of American journalism. Some, including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Fox pundit Sean Hannity, have even declared journalism “dead” in America.

“Journalism that I grew up with that was focused on facts, has given way to advocacy today,” Huckabee said during a recent interview.

Sadly, I think he is correct. The journalism that I grew up with and that I practiced at the Chicago Tribune from 1969 to the mid-1990s is definitely not the same journalism I see today.

Look at these recent “stories” that made headlines worldwide:

President Trump gives Chief of Staff Reince Priebus “until July 4th to clean up White House.” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway “is caught mocking Trump staffers.” Trump tells U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May he won’t go to Britain “until the British public supports him coming.”

What do all of these stories have in common? They’re completely unsourced. No names. No real people. Just claims that come from, in order, “two administration officials and three outside advisers familiar with the matter,” an anonymous tweeter who set up a dummy Twitter account, and “a Downing Street adviser.”

None of the stories has anyone on the record making the accusations. Instead, the “news” sites that posted the stories — Politico, the Daily Mail and the Guardian — simply make the claims and cite anonymous sources. The subjects of the anonymous slurs have no recourse whatsoever, no right to face their accusers, no way to fight back. The accusation streams out onto the internet, where it lives forever — whether it’s true or not.

Google “White House shake up, ” and you get more than forty thousand stories — every one of them false. Has there been a shake-up? No.

This is NOT journalism. This is rumor and blather posing as journalism. The “journalists” who wrote and posted those stories should be horsewhipped and fired.

So, is journalism dead in America? Or is it simply in a coma? I hope for all our sakes that the latter is true. Because if journalism is comatose there is always the possibility it might wake up and begin behaving the way it is supposed to. Covering news honestly and fairly without fear or favor.

Alas, that is not the way the media are behaving today. Beyond the fact that a majority of news organizations are liberal and left-leaning, they clearly have an agenda to subvert and destroy the Trump presidency at any cost. Then, there is the reality that a vast number of young journalists today are increasingly ill-equipped to do good journalism. This may be a failure of journalism schools to adequately prepare them for the rigors of superior journalistic practice. Or it may be a lack of leadership in professional newsrooms.

As someone who has toiled in both worlds (27 years with the Chicago Tribune and 13 years at the University of Illinois–7 of those as Dean of the College of Media, which includes the Departments of Journalism, Advertising, Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research) I can tell you that this is a pretty accurate appraisal of some of the inmates of the academy who are teaching the next generation of journalists–if indeed there will ever be a “next” generation.

A few years ago some members of the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications), which is the umbrella organization for all accredited journalism programs in the country (about 110 at last count) squabbled for weeks about dropping the word “newspaper” from the organization’s “Newspaper Division” because many academics believe newspapers are already dead.

Never mind that many newspapers are reinventing themselves and using new technologies and delivery platforms to reach readers and advertisers. Of course, there is the fact that too many of the young minds sitting in journalism classes are being indoctrinated with the idea that technology is the driver and accurate and compelling content is some journalistic afterthought.

Regretably, I fear young journalists are being taught to be advocates for what they believe in rather than purveyors of unbiased and fair journalism.

In my classes too many students had the idea that all they had to do was sit at a computer, conduct Google searches and cull the Internet for information and then rewrite it with their individual twist of style, opinion, etc.

The idea of actually going out and talking to people–sometimes in faraway and dangerous places–was anathema to some students. Thankfully, after telling them enough of my own war stories as a foreign correspondent, those students moved on to English Literature or Film Studies.

Of the handful that remained some have gone on to be correspondents. I hear from them on occasion and what I hear is that editors and producers are under increasing pressure to cut costs.

When I was sent abroad for my first posting in Japan back in 1974, I was told quite clearly: “Never let money stand between you and a good story. Do what you have to do to get to where the story is.” That’s how I operated for most of my career until the mid-1990s when the bean counters finally gained control of the Tribune and news gathering became much less important than keeping the bottom line fat for the stockholders.

Needless to say, those are NOT the kind of marching orders reporters receive today. I fear that the combination of money woes, lack of good old-fashioned newsroom mentoring and the infatuation with new technologies are conspiring to reduce reporting to armies of “communicators” who do no first-hand reporting.

Today, almost anybody with a computer or I-Phone can “commit journalism.” Unfortunately, that’s a lot like committing a crime–and the public is the victim.

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