Media and Journalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Will great newspapers survive? Hard to say. But there will always be a place, indeed a need, for great journalism.

| Thu Jan. 19, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Article created by The Century Foundation.

In 1966, I was the $100-a-week assistant to I. F. Stone on his weekly newsletter. Izzy’s publication, at a cost of $5 a year, addressed readers directly rather than through the filter of what is now called MSM (mainstream media) which had jettisoned him as a radical. The United States was in the midst of an unpopular war, based then in Vietnam, against the international menace of communism. The conflict, with nine years yet to run, had already been framed by David Halberstam as a “quagmire” and the president had tried to have the New York Times recall him.

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The CIA had recently been exposed as the covert funder of information programs intended to influence our global war of ideas and values in print and on the radio. The FBI was embarked on penetrating, one way or another, “subversive” conversations among suspected domestic terrorists. The venerable New York Herald Tribune was about to be subsumed into the now also defunct World Journal Tribune. And Fred Friendly, the respected president of CBS News, resigned because the network would not pre-empt daytime programming in favor of Sen. William Fulbright’s hearings on Vietnam.

Well, Stone was a forerunner of today’s bloggers (and descendent of 18th century pamphleteers). The war in Iraq is perceived as a deep morass. The administration contends that “negative” reporting by reporters on the scene is a major reason for that perception. The Pentagon is funding propaganda stories in Iraqi newspapers. The NSA is engaged in warrentless entry and the president tried to stop the New York Times from saying so. Newspapers are cutting back across the country because of financial strains. And the last luminaries of serious news on television are, alas, deceased, retired, old or have moved on to lesser venues.

That is why this piece is called “Media and Journalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” These are the issues: government pressure on the media and the media’s response; the evolving nature of distribution and the pressure that puts on journalists and managers; and the struggle to maintain quality in the face of business demands by proponents of shareholder value. They are, in their way, eternal issues, modified by time and subject, but constant in theme. What I hope to do in these occasional contributions to The Century Foundation’s Web site and in other formats is discuss these matters with a perspective that comes from 40 years of involvement in journalism and publishing and some of the major subjects of our era in politics, human rights and national security. As I see it there are three major tugs-of-war that continue pretty much all the time in these arenas:

  1. The tussle between national security and open expression, most recently demonstrated in President Bush’s effort to restrain the Times’ NSA reporting, followed by the ritual investigation of leaks that led to the story. Journalists should pursue those stories and editors should recognize that administrations will try to contain them. In 1980, in an incident I was involved in as national editor of the Washington Post, then-President Carter called in Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Post and warned him of the consequences of a story reporting the U.S. weaponry was transshipped through Egypt on the way to the Mujahadeen battling the Russians in Afghanistan. The story ran and anyone would be hard-put today to figure out what the negative impact of the revelation might have been. I believe that an analysis of the record of at least the last 50 years would show that aggressive reporting is in the interests of the American people, even when their elected officials say it isn’t.

  2. The technology front and the push-pull of gadgetry. We are unquestionably in the midst of a profound change in how information is distributed. That statement is so widely accepted that it is banal. Telegrams, telephone, telex, and the advent of radio and television have all had their similarly enormous effect on information. One of the most important recent changes is speed. During the Vietnam War, film from the battlefield had to make its way to New York, which took 48 hours. More recently, television became instantaneous and pervasive. Today, because of the internet, images go directly from the camera to the viewer. What I believe is that the breakneck speed is most valuable if there are still experienced, sophisticated gatekeepers (editors) to frame and package the material both for context and substance. We have the capacity to provide massive amounts of unadulterated data to consumers, but managing that process is a major challenge of our era.

  3. Commerce versus quality. Great journalism is a premium product, but it does not always have to be as expensive as it appears to be. With the decline of the network news divisions and the distinctly shallow essence of 24-hour news, the best broadcast journalism today is on National Public Radio. NPR has more foreign correspondents than all the all television networks combined. A generation ago, radio seemed virtually irrelevant as a news source compared to television. Yet, when television news began paying entertainment salaries and became a profit-center instead of a service, its role was actually defined downwards. Of course, Fred Friendly and Ed Murrow said all that was already happening 50 years ago. Newspapers are in another struggle as advertising migrates away from print and news is no longer a report of events, but increasingly of attitudes.

Will great newspapers survive? Hard to say. But there will always be a place, indeed a need, for great journalism.

For the past 20 years, I have been an editor and publisher of books, which have their own version of all these same problems, with one significant exception: Books have no advertising and no subscriptions to protect because there are none. The revenue stream for books is the most limited of all the media. In sum, therefore, I see the considerable challenges faced by journalism today and think I understand how they compare to those of yesterday with some sense of how they may unfold tomorrow. Trying to bring any measure of order to the patterns is formidable, but I am eager to try.