Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The World Shall Know

That was Pulitzer's mantra. It's the saying emblazoned across one of my favorite sweatshirts, and it's on a mug I received while a student at Columbia.

"Shine the light into the darkest corners," we were told, that is what a journalist does. And many of my classmates are doing wonderful work in places like Iraq, China, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC.

The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University was founded with the idea that journalists should be trained with the same care and intensity as doctors and lawyers.

But while the notion is altruistic, and the Pulitzer Prizes honor the best the craft has to offer, the fact is that Pulitzer made his money doing what most serious journalists would call "bottom feeding." This is no different from today. While working in TV we had to balance our desire for ratings with our notions of what people really needed to hear. Sure, they want to see stories about Brad and Jen, but they need to hear about the changes in the tax law. As the song goes, a spoonful of sugar....

The other problem is that you need a license to practice medicine or law, but the first amendment guarantees freedom of speech to everyone, so everyone can speak and report. In other words, everyone can be a journalist. Welcome to the 21st century.

Still, the idea is sound. News and information is essential to a society that governs itself with a democratic process. Should we trust that to just anyone who may have any of a number of influences? Should we trust someone who has a limited background on the topic and who may have a strong bias?

A basic idea we were taught concerned ethics. One of my favorite professors, Sandy Padwe, who spent years working for Sports Illustrated, used to tell us not to eat the food that publicists would lay out for us. His reason? It clouds judgment. It's a big problem, for example, in sports reporting where you often hear beat reporters talking about which teams give the best spreads. You know that if you submit that story ripping a sports program, you're probably never getting that great crab dip again. Or worse, can a company that is so nice to us really be that mean to its employees?

To prove his point he handed us all a brown paper bag and told us to bring our own food.

The message was clear: keep money and journalism separate. Don't let the corporations affect how you report, you must remain independent.

It's great in theory, and I tried to live by it, but when you're earning $18K at your first job with $120,000 in loans staring you in the face, a free meal is pretty enticing.

But what happens now that journalism is being paid for by corporations? Does the sheer volume of information sources make up for the shift?

In Pulitzer's day New York had just a handful of information sources, all newspapers. In later years radio and TV joined the mix, but the number of sources remained small, so the voices remained loud. But if you have so many voices, and each diminished in volume, does it matter that some have an obvious corporate bias?

And, dare I say, does it make for better journalism? Take the field of science, for example. While much basic research goes on in the universities, major advances like the microchip come from corporations. It's corporations that support artists in this country. I know many artists who do what they want on the weekends producing beautiful sculptures, paintings and photographs, but make their living as graphic artists or corporate photographers, putting together brochures, Web site and other marketing material.

Is journalism headed down the same path? With just a handful of people making a living by doing it full time, with the rest working in some other job?

Frankly, I'm not sure but it's a question worth exploring.

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