Last week, I was making breakfast while I was listening to Sarah Hulett’s report on life inside a Detroit public school. I could feel it, hear it, and she even made me see it. I understood what was going on in a multi-dimensional way. Her report brought reality home to many people who haven’t been inside a public school for years.
That’s what the best journalism always does, regardless of the medium. Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between having a government without newspapers, or a free press without a government, he’d vote for a free press, without hesitation.
Naturally, he changed his mind after he became president. But the only reason we have a democracy is because our media are perfectly free to write about anything and criticize anything.
Journalism is sort of the nation’s circulatory system. Journalists at their best carry light, air, and information throughout society. We enable America to talk to itself. That doesn’t always make us popular.
Polls show that journalists are held in generally low esteem. In fact, we sometimes rank lower than used car dealers and lawyers.
That’s not surprising, given that our task is often to bring you the bad news. Sallie Smith won’t make it onto the national news tonight if she has a normal day, goes to work, makes dinner, and helps her kids.
However, if she goes berserk, gets down the elephant gun and heads for the mall, we’ll tell you all about it. That’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say. But these days, Uncle Walter says many news programs make him disgusted or angry.
The problem was first defined by Fred Friendly, the great CBS producer. “Television makes so much money doing its worst that it can’t afford to do its best.” News used to be exempt from that rule. But not any longer. Local news is a major money maker for most commercial stations. Earlier this month, the ABC affiliate in Detroit began showing Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s state of the city speech.
They cut away, however, for an update on the burial arrangements for the woman who had been dismembered and scattered around a park. Most newspapers aren’t much better.
For years, cynics have said that the only real freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one. And that man is frequently too much owned by his advertisers. Personally I don’t care how rich any press lord is. What bothers me is that I teach college seniors who have no idea that the state of Michigan is facing an economic crisis, or why. They can’t find Iran on a map, or North Korea. They don’t know when World War II was, or what the electoral college is.
But they know whether Britney Spears is out of rehab. Doing good journalism and getting people’s attention is an enormous challenge today. And I think the future of America depends on it.