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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

media scholar Marty Kaplan on why journalism sucks today

I’m not sure that Kaplan says anything that anyone here doesn’t already know, but it’s worth driving home again how much what passes for journalism today sucks, and why it needs to change. Tasty excerpts from an interview Kaplan did with Bill Moyers, “Marty Kaplan on the Weapons of Mass Distraction”:

The news industry is now part of the privileged elite. They are not the scrappy adversaries that one would hope they would be fighting for the little guy. They are the man.

No. They are both creating and responding to demand. But what they’re not doing is exercising journalism. What they’re doing is they’re part of the entertainment industry. They’re providing content. Journalism, in principle, is set apart because it has a notion of what’s important, not just interesting. And in a dream world, journalists would make important stuff interesting. That they would use the same kind of techniques they use in covering the Trayvon Martin case to make stuff like climate change just as compelling.

Watch the birdie over here, not the corruption over there. That’s what circuses are about, is to distract us and make us happy while we’re being distracted. The challenge is not only to give us the information that we should be paying attention to and to do it in a way which keeps our attention, the challenge is also what do we as citizens do with that. And I think there is an aspect of journalism which is afraid of taking that extra step and empowering citizens or covering the citizens who have empowered themselves to try to make a difference.

I just wish someone had some ideas about how to fix the problem.

posted in:
easter eggs
  • LaSargenta

    I think it’s always been a problem (seriously, the NYPL has some great archives of newspapers from back when) and the only solution is that individuals have to beat back the current. Individual publishers, individual reporters. And it’s got to be a mission for them, ’cause they won’t get any thanks. If it is an owner or publisher, they have to be more careful about who they sell their paper to when they retire…Dorothy Schiff, I’m looking at *you*.

  • Bluejay

    Yet another reason you should be watching The Newsroom, MaryAnn.


  • RogerBW

    There’s no money in being a crusading journalist. Web money is mostly advertising, which will never support a crusader.

  • What a fantasy. If only we lived in such a world.

  • Bluejay

    Now there’s no pretence that major parties will do anything differently from each other, what’s the point of knowing about the world?

    This is a generalization that, at least when applied to American politics, really bugs me. Anyone paying attention to current US news — about, among other things, abortion laws, voting requirements, immigration reform, and the decisions of the Supreme Court — knows on which side of these issues the major parties stand, and knows that it makes a real difference to real people which party calls the shots. Yes, there’s corruption in both parties, and both are too beholden to wealthy special interests and the security state. But anyone who thinks we’d be exactly where we are today under President McCain or President Romney, or with a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, or with a Supreme Court dominated by liberal appointees of Democratic presidents, is fooling themselves into apathy.

  • RogerBW

    You mean if you’d elected a Republican president last year you’d have secret prisons, detention without trial, the president authorising himself to murder Americans, and large-scale eavesdropping on phone and net traffic? Good thing you picked the right guy, then.

  • Bluejay

    See where I said: “both parties… are too beholden to wealthy special interests and the security state.” You are right to point out similarities. But to ignore differences, or claim they don’t exist, is folly. Then again, perhaps you can’t see differences because, as you say, you don’t pay attention to the news.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    This is called being a one issue voter. You, Roger, appear to be a “civil liberty voter”. We also have “national security” voters (who would largely applaud all these things, sometimes even in these stark terms), “abortion rights” voters (both pro and con), “taxation” voters, “defense” voters (a little different from security these days), “gun” (pro and con) voters, “religious” voters, and I’m sure a bunch more. They all share something in common, though: only their issue matters. Everything else is noise.

    It leads to some bad conclusions. Such as, “both parties are polar opposites” when they differ on the issue in question (unlikely, as it’s nearly impossible to govern from both extremes), or “both parties are exactly the same” if they don’t (demonstrably false on a host of other issues). The “both parties are the same” line is also a favorite of a lot of third party enthusiasts, Libertarians and Greens in particular. Ironically, all it does is bifurcate the political spectrum once more, from Reps v. Dems, to “Establishment” vs [third part of choice]. Either way, it’s “us vs. them”, which is very very simplistic political thinking.

    I assume, since I know you to be a thoughtful person, that you’re just snarking on American politics from the outside. But that’s not really a great idea. For example, as an American, I might view UK politics as being dominated by an unchecked conservative party, despite the demonstrable failure of their economic policies and the blatant incompetence of David Cameron. (Kind of like the Bush Administration, if the Great Recession had hit between 2 and 5 years earlier.) But I feel confident that, from the inside, it’s a lot more complicated than that, with a lot of good being done by the opposition, so I try not to view London that way.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    This is the “much happier” version of you?? Good god, man. ;-)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’ve got a half-baked, ad-hoc theory* stewing in my head right now, and it goes like this:

    1) these aren’t new problems, just the same problems being filtered through nostalgia in an attempt to find meaning.

    2) outside of personal interaction with local community, three entities** manipulate public opinion: politicians, businesspeople, and journalists.

    3) all three are capable of using their powers for both good and evil, and since none is a monolithic entity, all three are doing both at all times.

    4) “good” and”evil” remain, as always, in the eye of the beholder, but I feel fairly certain there are no glowing saints nor cackling villains lurking in any of these three groups

    5) either way, manipulation is manipulation, and no politician, businessperson, or journalist ever became famous for dispassionately providing facts

    6) Americans (because those are the people I know) have a complicated relationship with all three, dating back to the Revolutionary era, wherein journalists (the various Revolutionary pamphlet writers) used business concerns (the various taxation acts) to push for political change (a constitutional democracy, minus even a token monarchy)

    7) American tend to romanticize journalism because politicians namechecked and codified “freedom of the press” prominently in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment, but business issues, while present in that document, are far less prominent

    * I recently ran across this term – ad hoc theory – as something to mean “a scientific conjecture, more broad but less rigorous than an hypothesis”. I like that, and plan to use it often.

    ** one might include the arts, but I think the arts a) exists independently of these issues, and b) is most often a tool used by the three entities I did include to facilitate manipulation

  • RogerBW

    I know a bit more about the UK situation, since I live here, and largely I think the problem is that we’ve got a political class, people whose entire careers have been in politics, quite often shifting from one party to another depending on which was in favour. That’s generally speaking a moneyed group, but not at all the old money that people think of when they hear “conservative party”; rather, it’s the people who can’t quite make it, who are forever reliant on outside sources of funding, which is why both parties are so ready to get into bed with anyone who promises them funds. The same people who are being blatantly corrupt now are the people who were pointing out the blatant corruption when the other guys were doing it, and vice versa.
    But none of this is really relevant, so I’ll shut up now.

  • OnceJolly

    Replace “manipulation” with “persuasion” and add various elements of civil society as the fourth actor.

    I’m curious about how you’re using “rigor” in your definition of “ad hoc theory.” In my field (economics), ad hoc assumptions are often made to facilitate tractable solutions to “rigourous” mathematical models.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “Various elements of social society” is kind of vague. And I tried to include all possible fourth actors into “local community”.


    Well, I did say “science”. :-)

    I kid…

    Anyhoo… By “ad hoc”, I mean a theory-like explanation, consistent with the evidence (as I see it), but not the result of testable, or tested, hypotheses. In other words, something I basically pull out of my ass, but that seems reasonable. When the average person on the street refers to something as “just a theory”, they’re (unwittingly) referring to ad hoc theories, whether such a description applies or not.On the other hand, when I say “theory”, I mean something like the Standard Model.

  • OnceJolly

    My undergrad was in physics, and I certainly don’t take any offense at the notion that my current field is not a science (or at least not a very successful one…there are, to varying degrees, genuine attempts at trying to use the scientific method to understand economic phenomena).

    At least you’re notion of “ad-hoc theory” acknowledges uncertainty about the validity of your notions of how the world works. My impression is that most people place a far greater faith in their pet theories.

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