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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

A Call to Arms for Journalists Who Care   

What the People Know: Freedom and the Press

By Richard Reeves
Harvard University Press
159 pages; $19.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

In one slender, elegant volume, the seasoned journalist Richard Reeves has written many things, among them a critique, a remembrance and a lamentation. Most of all, he has issued a call to arms.

Representing himself as one of the "old farts who care," Reeves looks back with affection on a lifetime of reporting. And he looks ahead with consternation about what is becoming of his beloved news business.

Remarkably, even though he struggles with change and tends to romanticize the past, Reeves mostly manages to avoid sounding whiny and old fogeyish. He is a good reporter, an unsparing analyst and a graceful writer, and these gifts serve him well in engaging a subject so close to his own art.

Reeves perceptively recognizes that journalists are "more tribal than professional," and he understands that the tribe sees itself "not as solid citizens, but as adventurers on deadline." But these cavaliers are aging--nearly half are older than 40, he says, compared with about a fourth when this decade began. And their way of life is in dramatic flux.

The result, he believes, is that journalists have become "the lost tribe of America," their careers transformed by the ascent of infotainment and infomercials, pandering and tabloidism, parochialism and profit-craving.

"Were it a person," Reeves declares, "journalism would be diagnosed as depressed." Thus, the call to arms:

"This is obviously the time to sound the alarm, to gain enough attention and create enough excitement (or controversy) to force a more public and more urgent debate about the role (or the survival) of what we called journalism."

The book grew out of a lecture given by Reeves, a reporter, columnist, author and journalism teacher at the University of Southern California. Accordingly, its seven essays have a conversational tone, and they don't provide as much depth and detail as James Fallows' similar book, "Breaking the News," did two years ago. But Reeves is blunt and pointed about what worries him:

The apparent triumph of "the lords of profit centers," who "invaded and occupied" journalism during the past two decades. The result, he writes, is that "the field has tilted away from journalism values to business dogma."

The abdication of serious coverage of government by media infected with a "self-destructive journalistic hubris" left over from Watergate. "We took down politicians and politics, without pausing to think that maybe we would go down with them," Reeves writes. "If we are in decline, it is because we have again fallen into the trap of ignoring what government does and focusing on what it has done wrong."

The frailty of the notion of news itself. Reeves bristles at the modern-day trend toward giving readers what they want, and he homes in on several inflammatory quotes of the past decade: the editor who said, "News is what our readers say it is"; the editor who confessed, "If readers said they wanted more comics and less foreign news..I'm going to give them more comics and less foreign news."

I'm inclined to think Reeves has taken some of these customer-friendly quotes out of context and that he underestimates the urgency of changing and adapting to new times. But his passion is unmistakable and his analysis crisp.

He deplores the rise of a celebrity-fied "demi-news," which he calls "an entertainment trap." Many newspapers, he writes, have turned "from being a local necessity, essential to community life, to becoming just another entertainment, not a very good one, competing for public attention and focus group approval."

Television, of course, is worse. "The question now is whether real news or hard news can survive at the networks," Reeves asserts.

What is his definition of "real news?" It is an exquisite one: "the news you and I need to keep our freedom."

Reeves has a pithy way of noting the speed and direction of change. "Technology happens fast," he notes. "When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, there was no PhotoSmart--and no CNN, VCR, CD, PC or fax."

As time gets away from us, he seems to be saying, so may ideals about public service and social responsibility that once appeared bedrock and indestructible. There may be a hint of nostalgic mist in Reeves' thinking, but his point is persuasive. The franchise is trustworthy news coverage, and surrendering it would be a mortal error.

To fend off this potential destruction, Reeves proposes first raising the debate's decibel level. "We cannot do much about our owners--except to Yell All About It! in public if they are cheating the citizens, the voters, the readers, the viewers, the customers," he writes.

He also beseeches individual journalists to heed their consciences. "The issue is truth, not packaging," he declares. "What we can do something about is truth telling. That is where we...have to fight or die--or both."

Reeves doesn't get into civic journalism or the complex debate about how journalists can balance their roles as citizens and professionals. It is, I think, an important omission. He tells a funny story, for instance, of being in an elevator at the 1972 Republican National Convention:

"I smell something," said one of the Republicans crowded into the elevator.

"Reporter," said another, glancing at him.

"That was fair," Reeves concluded. "I was not one of them and never will be--I'm just a reporter."

This is a good story with a sharp punchline. But it left me unsettled.

Reporters are both outsiders and insiders, both apart from and deeply vested in the system. This is a central tension of our journalistic times, and it, too, needs some yelling about--or at least some sober consideration.