Finkelstein Inquiry: Someone to watch over me

It’s as inevitable as the excruciatingly slow Mitt Romney victory in the Republican presidential primaries in the US: A war in Australia between the teachers and the practitioners of journalism.

The Federal Government’s Finkelstein Media Inquiry started the war when it recommended greater regulation of the industry, including a government-funded body to watch over and judge the reporting of news.

And Cameron Stewart stoked the fire in The Weekend Australian with an excellent piece (and photo: see above http://bit.ly/zAB4Qe),  pointing out how the proposed new body divided the media between journalism schools (aka: j-schools) and newsrooms.  Associate editor Stewart did not hold back, calling it a rift “fuelled by politics, ideology and a growing disdain among some journalism academics for the mass media.”

How dare you, said 35 journalism lecturers in an open letter, accusing The Weekend Australian of “attack-style reporting” rather than “engaged conversation.” (link: http://bit.ly/wzGike )

The letter also said: “If you had contacted for comment all of those named in The Weekend Australian story, a richer, more complex and hence truer picture would have emerged.”

Among those named were Margaret Simons, of Melbourne University; Lee Duffield of the Queensland University of Technology; Anne Dunn, University of Sydney; Chris Nash, Monash University; Wendy Bacon, University of Technology, Sydney; and Matthew Ricketson of the University of Canberra.

Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age, a senior fellow at the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University and author of American Notebook, has described a friction endemic to journalism schools: “There is this tension between former journalists who are involved in teaching journalism and media academics who were never journalists and who have been critics of journalism.”

Gawenda also said in The Australian earlier this month (http://bit.ly/yorofY): “Journalists need to find a way of helping to set and enforce standards. They need to be more accountable to the community for how they report, what they report and indeed, their failings. They need to find a way of repudiating “bad” journalism. Journalists need an organisation, a professional body that they run that deals with standards, challenges and the interaction between journalists and the community they serve.”

Well, call me old-fashioned, but I’m with Jimmy Breslin, a legendary American columnist and most of his contemporary newspaper mates, including the retired and equally legendary Australian journalist, Steve Dunleavy. Their advice: Forget journalism school. Learn how to climb stairs and ask questions.

If you remember last week’s blog (http://wp.me/s1Ytmx-227 ), I quoted Breslin in the prologue to his recent biography of baseball magnate, Branch Rickey, about how he gathered information about a man who died in 1965: “Walk the streets, find old addresses, climb stairs, go to a nursing home or a saloon. Find somebody whose grandfather was there. Listen.”

I interviewed Breslin (and Dunleavy) for a Channel Nine Sunday Program feature six years ago, and the Pulitzer Prize winner said journalism was simple — a lesson he learned from his early days as a sportswriter — don’t “fall into the trap of just, say, writing three paragraphs and then reiterating, but to go and do some work. The most important thing you have is your two feet. Your column is your two feet first … because the story is never on the first floor of the building. It’s always six flights up, with no elevator, so walk.”

A VIRUS IN THE NEW YORK POST NEWSROOM

Steve Dunleavy, the ultimate tabloid journalist, a legend in his own lunchtime, also admires Breslin’s approach, despite being his main rival on the famous Son of Sam serial killer stories in New York in the late 70s: “He wasn’t a guy who reported from behind the barricades. I remember just after a very, very big shootout during the Cleveland riots years ago, the African-American population was very, very angry, and it was very, very dangerous, and he was wandering around, and I’ll never forget. He was wandering around from door to door. He ignored the hostile crowd, even though it could get ugly.”

And Dunleavy, who once said there was a virus in the New York Post newsroom called the Columbia University School of Journalism, also shared a disdain for journalism schools with Jimmy Breslin: “To some degree, people think that’s a gateway to journalism. And I’ve given some lectures to classes up there, and they don’t seem to get jobs … they almost seem to think it’s a clearing house for jobs they’re going to get, and it’s not necessarily true.”

In an interview with his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, on her program on the City University of New York’s TV channel in 2005, Breslin told her the problem with college-educated journalists was “they came out of journalism school and they thought in terms of journalism. I thought in terms of reporting. It was no contest.”

But others I talked to, like the Fred Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society (in 2006, it was just Fred Friendly Professor of Journalism!) at Columbia University Journalism School, and the executive editor of the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review (a great magazine website, by the way: http://www.cjr.org/ ), Mike Hoyt, believe j-schools are necessary because they’ve become places where you can make mistakes – and not get the sack.

But even Professor Wald, who was Breslin’s managing editor at the New York Herald Tribune, admits that journalism needs people like Jimmy: “It is so easy to get information off the Internet. It is so easy to trade emails instead of going to talk to him or her that Jimmy has become a sort of guru of shoe leather. He is somebody who preaches literally about going out and seeing the people, not because he thinks that’s the only way to do it, because he does it that way, but because it’s becoming rarer and rarer, because technology has made reporting impersonal, and Jimmy’s reporting is personal.”

And Richard Wald says journalism schools may not have been necessary in the past, but they are now: “ … because of the present financial problems of many news organisations, and … the firing of lots of people, there’s no more time for people to come and make mistakes and learn. Journalism schools are now the places where you do that. Journalism schools used to teach a kind of abstract journalism, and I’m sure, some still do. But places like this, Columbia, teach both what it is we should be doing, and how to do it, go out and be a reporter. This place is run like a giant newsroom, and so are most of the better journalism schools.”

EFFETE INTELLECTUALS

Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the CJR, has an old typewriter, his father’s Underwood, in his office, as well as a real passion for new journalism and Columbia’s j-school: “I consider this a reporting school and I think the best teachers here consider this a reporting school, so I don’t think we’re that far apart from Breslin. He probably thinks it’s full of effete intellectuals, and there may be a couple here and there, but it’s a reporting school. And it’s also a place where you have to know a lot about what you’re reporting, as the world gets more and more complex – medicine, science, politics, everything gets more complex, so you go have to learn your subject, but all reporters do, so you can learn a lot about Jimmy Breslin.”

Okay, I’ve been able to get old but still relevant and unused quotes from Richard Wald and Mike Hoyt into this piece about the growing war between teachers and practitioners of journalism. Both are still at the Columbia Journalism School. Let me return to the controversy over the Finkelstein Inquiry and its call for a New Media Council that could legally enforce journalistic fairness and make the media answerable to the courts.

Sorry, I can’t imagine a government body being able to do that, no matter how fair and independent it would try to be – politics would always get in the way. (Niki Savva paints a possible scenario in The Australian if the government gets its way on a regulatory body: http://bit.ly/z2UudJ ) I agree with Michael Gawenda that it should be a professional body, with the power to deal with bad or shoddy journalism, and impose penalties on individuals and media organisations that committed egregious acts of journalism. And it should be able to set and enforce standards, with a board containing both teachers and practitioners of journalism.  In other words, a Media Council with teeth run by journalists.

Setting standards wouldn’t be difficult, just make every member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance live up to the Journalist Code of Ethics (okay, a bit difficult!). And add a few resolutions from the mission statement of the Society of Professional Journalists in the US:

— Stimulate high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism
— Foster excellence and encourage diversity among journalists
— Inspire successive generations of talented individuals to become dedicated journalists

And, for even cynical journalists – which may be a tautology – to aspire to a tribute that James Bone of the Manchester Guardian bestowed upon his boss, the long-time editor of the liberal paper, C.P. Scott, in the early twentieth century: “He made righteousness readable.”

About these ads

7 thoughts on “Finkelstein Inquiry: Someone to watch over me

  1. I’m surprised when I hear intelligent people express offence whenever someone suggests that “the public” might be unable to determine whether what they read in the media is the truth or whether the media is leaving out important facts and giving a deliberately biased account of the story.

    I’m never quite sure whether these intelligent people are genuinely offended or whether they’re just pretending to be offended in order to remain consistent with their ideological beliefs about free speech and libertarianism.

    Surely, there isn’t a person alive that would suggest that 100% of the public are good at identifying biased media stories, is there? Certainly no sane person is going to argue that most people with IQ’s in the bottom 10% of the population are good at identifying biased media stories, are they?

    So instead of acting offended and dismissing the issue out of hand why not be honest and admit that there are a certain percentage of people that will be very good at identifying media bias and untruth, and a certain percent that will be very bad at it, and that the rest of “the public” will fall somewhere in the middle, along a bell distribution curve. Surely, this proposition is indisputable!

    I wish these “freedom of the press” spruikers would get real and start talking about what percentage of people regularly have some difficulty identifying media bias, instead of pretending that we’re all superstars at it!

    And what about the people who have difficulty identifying media bias and untruth? Don’t we care about them? Don’t they have any rights? What if there are fraudsters and con men in the media who are out to dupe these people? Doesn’t a compassionate society have a duty of care to protect them from the worst excesses of such con men?

    This is the beginning of a post at http://www.amimakingsense.com.au
    Its followed by another good post that demonstrates that freedom of the press is not the vital ingredient that ensures a well functioning democracy – its truth in media that is important… Sometimes freedom will lead to truth but sometimes it won’t… its not the freedom we seek … its the truth!

    I’d love to hear what you think about the ideas I’ve expressed in these two posts. I haven’t really seen other writers making these sort of points but I think they’re pretty compelling.

    • Lau,
      I agree with most of the things you say. Let me give you a proper reply when I’ve read your two posts. I’m a bit snowed under as a long-time friend of mine has just died and I don’t have time to read your posts properly. But thanks for reading mine and I promise to do it as soon as I can.

    • Hi Lau,
      Thanks for your comment on my post on journalism, and I have just read your two posts. You have some interesting ideas and you argue well, but when I read this in your post on freedom of the press: “While some people in the media strive to deliver this level of truth, the vast majority do not. I believe there are many who don’t even acknowledge this as a desirable goal,” I have to say I strongly disagree with you. I have been a journalist for 40 years, and the vast majority of people in the media do strive to deliver the truth, and would consider it as their main goal. There are a few rotten apples, as we’ve seen in the UK hacking inquiry, but the vast majority of British journalists do try to seek the truth. And in Australia, the Journalist Code of Ethics for the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance starts with this paragraph: “Respect for the truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.”
      Kind regards, Tom Krause

  2. Thanks for your considered response Tom.
    When I say that most journalists don’t strive to deliver this level of truth” what I mean is “deep truth” – I don’t mean that they’re deliberately deceitful or anything like that.

    What I mean is that in a lot of articles and interviews I encounter, the journalist is content to report the surface level stuff – he said this and she said that.

    When they interview a spokesperson for an industry group, they ask the basic questions, receive a biased answer and mostly move on to the next question. They tend not to ask probing questions and try to pin down the interviewee on contradictory points or use of statistics that is being used to give a deceptive story.

    I guess part of the reason for this is that the journalist may not have had time to research the topic deeply and therefore is not aware of the deeper truths.

    Perhaps another issue is that they don’t want to embarrass a guest too badly because that guest may freeze the journalist out of future stories – I don’t know, is this an issue?

    regards
    Lau

    • Hi again Lau, Yes, time is of the essence to journalists, but we do research before an interview. That is essential! And most journalists try to pin down the interviewee when they have time. We don’t mind embarrassing the guest if we suspect him or her of not telling the truth. You can’t worry about whether you will get another interview! Regards.
      Sent from my BlackBerry® from Optus

      • Hi Tom,

        Given you vast media experience, I’m hoping you can help a complete novice like me out with some advice.

        I’ve written a 3000 word article on the issue of freedom of the press with a critical look at its historical roots in John Milton and debunks his flawed logic.

        I think its a waste just to post it on my blog where only a handful of people will read it.

        Can you suggest any places where I should submit my article for publication?

        I submitted it to New Matilda and they turned it down with these comments:
        “It’s a good read, with some nice historical detours. That said, it’s a no from us. The piece is far too long for NM (we rarely publish articles over 1200w) and we look for a more sustained news focus.”

        I can email it to you if you’d like to read it (just email me directly with your email address and I’ll send it to you.)

        Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated.

        Regards
        Lau

      • Hi Lau,

        I have emailed you some suggestions, but it’s not going to be easy. The market for 3000-word articles on freedom of the press is very small these days. But I wish you luck.

        Kind regards,
        Tom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s