Thomas Frank: Political diversity won’t save newspapers

16 12 2009

Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas” and the Wall Street Journal’s one liberal columnist, challenges the Washington Post’s notion that adding more conservatives would stave off the newspaper’s rapid demise. He makes the case that the two biggest journalistic failures of recent years can hardly be blamed for lack of conservative ideology in the newsroom.

Craziest of all, though, is the prospect of the Post ditching its decades-long pursuit of the grail of objectivity . . . because it got scooped on the Acorn story. If that is all it takes to reduce the Washington Post’s vaunted editorial philosophy to ashes, what is the newspaper industry planning to do to atone for its far more consequential failures?

Remember, this disastrous decade saw two of them: First, the news media’s failure to look critically at the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq War; and then, the business press’s failure to understand the depth of the subprime mortgage problem and to anticipate its massive consequences.

… The problem, in each of these massive failures, wasn’t really ideological at all. The people who got it right, in both cases, were the ones willing to hold power accountable, to directly challenge the conventional wisdom.

What the Post seems to be after is the opposite: A form of journalism that offends nobody, that comes crawling to the powerful, that mirrors the partisan breakdown of the population as a whole. If that’s the future of journalism, we can be certain that ever more catastrophic failures await.

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Journalists’ right turn

17 04 2009

Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News has a good post on the deathbead confessions of several journalists that the modal point of view of the profession has indeed become more conservative.

It’s been pretty obvious that it has happened. Discerning the causes of the shift makes for some good barroom conversation.

My take is that as individuals, journalists start out with a skeptical, anti-establishment point of view but naturally gravitate toward their sources, who more often than not are aligned with the power structure. I saw it happen in myself. Too, journalists can become jaded and cynical more quickly than others because of their frequent exposure to human nature at its worst.

Journalists also are at the front of most social trends, and the trend toward conservatism in U.S. over the last few decades caught many of them. You might expect the current trend toward liberalism to have the same effect. But it is younger journalists who are most trend-sensitive, and because the industry is contracting so rapidly, there are proportionately fewer of those. The profession is top-heavy on the senior end, with many practitioners now set in their philosophical and political ways.

Finally, like any institution, journalism is preoccupied with self-preservation and  maintaining the status quo. It reacts defensively under perceived threat and in turning inward moves toward conservatism. When under pressure of swift changes in their world, journalists — especially news executives — identify more with the establishment and see change as the enemy.