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September 22, 2003

Spokesman for Press Priesthood Laughs

Jack Shafer of Slate says public journalism bombed. Here's what I say back to him.

Jack Shafer, who writes the PressBox column for Slate, was for ten years the editor of Washington City Paper, the alternative weekly in DC. This is an extremely good vantage point on big time journalism, for Shafer had to succeed every week at being in some way “alternative” to the Washington Post and the rest of the national press corps gathered in the Capital.

One of the simplest ways of proving this is to report heavily on the goings on at the Post, especially in times of agony, strife or high gossip. A weekly in Washington that does real journalism in between the ads competes on some stories with the big guns in the daily press, and all the bureaus. It’s hard to imagine a better education—or acculturation—in press think at the top than Shafer’s ten years as editor of City Paper. They gave him intimate knowledge of how elite journalism works and they required him to think in alternatives.

But one alternative he cannot stand is the one I have actively stood for: public journalism, also known as civic journalism, also known as failed idea, well funded in Shafer’s corner of Slate. Just so you have it clear, Shafer didn’t like my book about the public journalism movement, Shafer didn’t care much for James Fallows writing favorably about it in the conclusion to Breaking the News, (a book that is very critical of elite journalism, from the Washington editor of the Atlantic) and Shafer wants to make sure that people know how insidious and stupid the whole thing is.

He is especially wary of public journalism’s central claim, which is to him preposterous and vain. Here is how I would put it:

People ought to participate more in American democracy, and if journalists wanted to help, they could probably find better ways to engage us as citizens with a stake in what happens. They might also realize their own contribution to public frustration, and change some of their more careless practices. This in turn might be good for us, good for them, good for things overall. After all, everyone knows that the press is not just a source of information but a force of its own in public life, a player in our democracy.

The public journalism movement was several thousand professionals who said “yeah” to that. No matter what anyone tells you—especially Jack Shafer—these four sentences are the heart of it. Lots of things bother him about the argument above, but a key to his frustration is that people bought into this nonsense. He has special scorn for the foundations and nonprofit institutes that sheltered and funded public journalism. This paragraph (posted Friday at Slate) gives summary to Shafer’s view, but more important is the tone:

The journalistic priesthood abhors advice, but it reserves special scorn for those who would counsel them to rejigger coverage in a way to “improve” society. This do-gooder school of journalism, which answered to the names of “public journalism” and “civic journalism” in the ’90s, received funding and promotion from the moneybags at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Poynter Institute, spawned laudatory books by James Fallows (Breaking the News) and Jay Rosen (What Are Journalists For?), and picked up a few adherents at the dailies in Wichita, Kan.; Charlotte, Va.; and Norfolk, Va.; before groaning to a halt under the weight of its own pretension.

Through the weekend and into Monday, Shafer had Charlotte’s state wrong. It’s in North Carolina; Charlottesville is the one in Virginia. This is a trivial error, (since corrected) except that Shafer’s point in naming towns is to show how provincial and third rate the journalism must be there. More telling is how it counts against public journalism that the do-gooding “moneybags” at Pew and Poynter supported some of the costs of the experiment. Now since Shafer’s salary is paid by Microsoft, world’s most powerful corporation, it would seem that supporters of public journalism might at least win a draw in the “who’s more polluted by funding” contest. His purpose in mentioning foundation support is to explain how the idea got as far as it did in the mainstream press: the do-gooders poured money into it. But since Pew is no longer funding its Center for Civic Journalism, why worry?

One reason might be James Fallows—alleged banner waver for the movement —who isn’t a provincial or a professor, isn’t funded by Pew, isn’t known for being especially soft headed and sentimental, and isn’t so easily dismissed. Fallows has a professional reputation that is at least equal to Jack Shafer’s, and he is a Slate author. I’m not surprised that Shafer doesn’t link to or mention Fallows amusing piece in Slate from December, 2001 in which he proposed nominating Howell Raines for a civic journalism award because so much of what the New York Times did in the aftermath of 09/11 tracked closely with the movement’s logic:

Last month I asked a Times-man about the reason for the tone of the portraits, and he said it was to “give solace to the families.” Conceivably that’s what the Times tells itself—although in itself that’s a departure from past policy on obituaries. But the real significance of this series is clearly to give solace to a community—not simply the community of New York or those who knew the victims personally but the entire national community for which the remembrances have become a powerful sacrament. Why should a newspaper bother to give solace to anyone? Because it has stopped kidding itself about its ability to remain detached from and objective about public life. It is trying to help its city and its nation, and it is succeeding. The Times of this era will always be known for this coverage, especially for the portraits. They will be the monuments to the greatest public journalist of them all, Howell Raines.

Many journalists have stopped kidding themselves about their ability to remain completely detached. But this thought is rarely developed because it might lead to asking: what kind of attachment to the republic—or local community—should journalists be developing today, given everything going on around them? Existing press think does not cover this ground, which is more important than ever. You can call the press a player, but what you cannot do is ask: what’s it playing for? Fallows tried to sketch a few ideas, and that is why he was attacked by Howell Raines in 1996 and ignored by Jack Shafer Friday.

Shafer’s immediate purpose in ridiculing the public journalism “crusade” is to associate it with another “horrible idea”—columnist Matt Miller’s “two-percent solution” for America’s domestic problems, which Miller has bravely put into a book of that title. Solutions journalism—what a joke! Shafer reminds us that journalists aren’t “catalysts of change, social engineers, or builders of political cadre.” He speaks up for readers who “tend to cringe if preached to from a pulpit, no matter how well-meaning the sermon might be.” Journalists hate it, readers hate it, PressBox hates it, and so public journalism “bombed,” he says. “But never underestimate the power of a bad idea.”

Where could this power possibly originate? Perhaps it has something to do with the insularity of a journalistic priesthood that hates getting advice, shows scorn for those who would try reform the church, and can’t remember what state the hicks in Charlotte are from.

See Art Cline’s carefully-written Rhetorica for more on Shafer’s column.

Correction Box: I had earlier written: “(Also, Shafer has his facts wrong about Poynter, which never funded or promoted public journalism.)” But this was incorrect. In 1994, there was an NPR project in which Pew and Poynter collaborated. What I should have said is that Poynter was not a major institutional supporter of public journalism. Thanks to Straci Kramer of OJR for correcting the record.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 22, 2003 10:02 AM