Enough feel-good journalism

Over the last decade the news media have faced a shrinking readership and a decline in TV viewers. Efforts to recapture market share are partly responsible for the evaporation of commitment to serious news, and largely responsible for some vague ideas and wayward experimentation.

Many of these ideas and innovations have been packaged as a new movement called public (or civic) journalism.

The public journalism premise is that Americans are putting down the paper and turning off the news because the reporting is too negative, too coldly objective, and too full of conflict.

Public journalists drone on about the imperative to jettison the "conflict frame" of news reporting and discard what they claim is just the "appearance" of objectivity.

If traditional journalism is a government watchdog, public journalism is a trailer hitched to fickle public sentiment.

The news value of conflict has for years been a primary criterion in college journalism textbooks. For example, when presidential candidates spar over how to stop nuclear proliferation, that's news. Public journalism advocates such as Jay Rosen of New York University and Davis Merritt of The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle emphasize media "responsibility" rather than attention to conflict, objectivity, and detachment. They want to rewrite reporting textbooks, remake newspapers, and redefine news. They believe editors should meet with the public to initiate a civic dialogue.

Public journalism, Mr. Merritt says, mandates reporting the news "in a way that facilitates people thinking about solutions, not just problems and conflict." But he doesn't explain how journalists can achieve this. Instead, he offers sentimental pap. A truly balanced headline for a front page story, he says, would read: "25,890 airplanes land safely; One crashes in NYC."

It's bad enough that public journalists are turning American newspapers into mush and filling TV newscasts with even higher levels of drivel. Now these public journalists want to export their vague journalistic philosophy abroad. Leaders of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism have, on more than one occasion, declared that public journalism has gone global.

Public journalists want to share their flawed model with journalists in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and other developing nations. As an Egyptian journalist who has worked in the Middle East and written about the developing world, I say "No thank you." The problem with the press in many Middle Eastern, African, and other developing nations is that they already have too much public journalism. Their media are already too detached from objectivity; too cozy with bureaucratic rulers; too concerned with social order instead of the truth.

Dissenting views are quashed in the interest of allowing state bureaucrats to work out government-imposed solutions. If public journalists in America are tired of covering conflict, then let them work for a press that offers only sweet hymns and praise for the powers that be. (I had a taste of it while working as a reporter for an English-language daily in the Arab Gulf in 1996.)

In his recent book, "The Public Journalism Movement in America: Evangelists in the Newsroom" (Praeger Publishers), Don Corrigan pinpoints the irony in the declared aim of public journalists to export their hocus-pocus overseas.

My own unhappiness with public journalism stems from the movement's contradiction with the Jeffersonian ideology of the marketplace of ideas, and the objective function of the press. And from its similarity to previous press patterns in emerging nations. Public journalism is nothing more than the "developmental journalism" so often imposed by past dictators in the developing world.

The American press vigorously opposed "development journalism" when some strict regimes tried to dignify it as part of a so-called New World Information Order. These autocratic governments argued that they had a right to censor Western wire services, regulate foreign correspondents, and rein in their conflict-oriented copy in a bid to "make public life go well" in their fragile, developing states.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, distinguished voices in the American news media spoke out against "development journalism" before Congress and in UNESCO. These voices should again rise against the new public journalism movement. This is an export that nations struggling for a critical, robust, and unfettered press can ill afford.

Public journalists have it all wrong. Traditional journalism, with its combative but objective coverage, is the only foundation on which any democracy can be erected. We must not let these ivory-tower public journalists export their flaccid journalistic philosophy to nations seeking more democratic ways. Or else, journalists of the next millennium - be they in the industrialized or developing world - will curse us.

*Mohamed El-Bendary writes on Middle Eastern affairs from St. Louis. His views have been published in major newspapers nationwide.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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