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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Speed Vs. The Press And the Republic   

A relentless enemy rips journalism and our public life.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Government, like journalism, has found a new master: warp speed. Neither is the better for it.

Journalism's surrender was never clearer than during the Clinton-Lewinsky countdown. It lost control. As never before, it lurched with the leak of the day and the counter-leak and sometimes just rumors.

And despite what people said about hearing enough, the public has had an appetite for this. Not a huge appetite for everyday ungrounded top-of-the-news stories, but an appetite nonetheless.

Government's surrender to warp speed was clear in the suddenness of Bill Clinton's descent. One day censure was possible, or even likely. The next day it was out. One day we officially knew virtually nothing for certain about Clinton's main transgressions except that he lied to us. The next day we knew, and the world knew. The winds blew the roof off.

What else can be said of the impact on journalism? But first, this:

We all are losers when the mandates of the Constitution, and constitutional process itself, are subverted by quick assessments of public opinion combined with instant communication. The Founding Fathers gave us a democracy, but a representative democracy. The people we elect are expected to understand the public's wishes but to make their own judgments, at their own pace.

Instead of the radicalism of the disastrous French Revolution, our revolutionaries gave us a conservative framework and rejected direct democracy. They didn't want decisions made by moment-to-moment notions of the public. The congressional showdown with Clinton was accelerated by just that.

Journalism has trended toward its equivalent of direct democracy. We have always needed to know what interests readers and viewers. But more and more the directors of the news flow retreat from their own judgment to follow the new mantra of news according to what the people out there say they want and need.

They often don't know what they want or need until it gets to them, and most news organizations' research about this is so thin it's worthless.

The penny press of the 1830s brought popularization to journalism, but what it did was nothing compared with today's round-the-clock journalism and pseudo-journalism of a thousand faces. Some of it makes Matt Drudge look good.

Competition by the minute all day and night has meant much less careful mediation of the news by the journalists themselves. They are displaced by the sources and the consumers of the news. Direct journalism. Bad journalism.

This and direct democracy might not be so bad if the world were simple, or if every citizen had risen to the best of the Athenian ideal.

But the greatest wisdom of the American public is in quelling final excess, and now and then slowly turning the country toward another path. It is not in legislating, and not in saying what the press should tell it. And surely not in making decisions based on news by the minute.