Journalism's weakest link

Anyone who loves journalism and has worked in it long enough to really know it can't feel verygood these days.

It likes to call itself a profession but wants no part of the idea that its practitioners get a license to do their jobs, as do lawyers or doctors or beauticians. It shrinks from identifying itself as what it most likely is - a business that when properly done brings great benefit to the public.

If it is the latter, right now business is awful. Newspapers and magazines fret over sagging readership and advertising. Money problems chew away at network news operations, and radio-station news staffs are swallowed whole as chain ownership climbs.

To this scene comes a 27-year-old news reporter who is caught - finally - committing what the newspaper he worked for called "frequent acts of journalistic fraud." That revelation and the newspaper's reaction to its wounds have come to journalism with the impact of a perfect, breath-depriving tackle by a really good football linebacker.

Those non-journalists who feel that the profession/business loves the sound of its own voice talking about its problems - and there is truth to that - need to consider two things. The victimized newspaper is considered the best in the country. And, the breadth of the young man's deceptions - and the newspaper's inability to recognize them - is absolutely staggering.

The slew of articles written about the affair seem to fall into these opinion groups:

• Young Jayson Blair, an African-American, got too many chances because he was part of a minority-hiring program.

• Race did not matter, and something was wrong with the staff of The New York Times for not catching him before he defrauded again.

• Something was wrong - and still is - with journalism in general.

From an editor whose first work on the tough job of bringing diversity to the newsroom took place almost 40 years ago and who has worked in newsrooms that would have handed this kid his head very early in the game, I suggest that all three are correct.

You could almost hear the whir of the computerized library searches: Journalism voices that deny that minority hires occasionally get extra chances went to work finding non- minorities who had defrauded. They were there. So are those who are not minorities and are given extra chances. The sons and daughters of bosses, the college friend's nephew, a troubled reporter whose luck is low. Journalism is not unusual, though it tries to be.

But there is a difference here. There were no hiring programs for lippy, white Boston columnists or the brilliant deviant who set out to defraud a national commentary magazine. Blessed is the voice that is able to say that the Times program, or any minority hiring program, might be a good one, but sometimes people take advantage.

Only one editor got credit for sounding the fraud alarm at The New York Times, although surely there were more who were too quiet. There is a strange and disturbing absence of strength at the middle level in American newspapers. Strong, creative top guns, yes. But down where reality meets the road each day, there is a scary lack of experience and direction.

Most colleges emphasize turning out reporters, not editors. Newspapers do not often train journalists for the next step up - editing. Find one that does and you have found a progressive, thinking newspaper.

As for what is wrong with American journalism generally, we need a new definition of success. Mr. Blair was operating under the credo - self-imposed or not - that to make it in a profession/business that increasingly measures its victories on celebrity and not substance, you have to win big and you have to win often.

It is a mentality that has grown over the past 20 years as electronic news outlets flourished. Thousands of the "grunts" of journalism labor each day around the country to help you understand the world. They get little public acclaim. It would be a start to get the industry to talk up the premise that you're just as valuable to good journalism, and maybe more, if you cover city hall or the statehouse well as if you are a Washington TV talk-show regular.

And that changed attitude should begin where most journalists get their start - in colleges and universities, including the one Blair left without graduating to take a plum of an internship at just about the most desirable newspaper for young people like him.

Ed Goodpaster has been an editor at Time magazine, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun. He taught journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md.

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