A Postmortem for Journalism

Journalism must grapple with its responsibility in this election, its failure to inform and educate the public, and its culpability in helping to create and feed the phenomenon that has now taken over our nation. Then we can consider whether and how it could be rebuilt. I am not sure it can be.

We must start with blame. Yes, others share that blame. But today we should begin by assessing our own. I start by wishing I had done more to help elect Hillary Clinton: one more door, one more dollar. Then I turn to my own profession, journalism.

Media made Donald Trump. Our entertainment cousins started it but news media picked up where they left off and turned him into their entertaining asset. Journalism built our business on mass and attention, which are entertainment values. Service, information, and education are — or should be — journalism’s values. I wish I had worked harder faster on building new business models around them.

We turned Donald Trump into deadly clickbait. The core problem is that we continue to insist on preserving our mass-media business model built on volume. Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves were right: Trump was good for their bottom lines. Follow their money.

After years of criticism for its horse-race coverage, political journalism continued to construct its work around predicting outcomes rather than helping improve those outcomes by informing the public as its mission. The irony, of course, is that the savvy Washington press corps couldn’t predict a sunset.

If we ever needed a demonstration of the danger of false balance, we have it now. The New York Times trumpeted its Hillary email scoop and the rest of media recycled it over and over every time they needed a segment to balance each discussion of Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, abuse, lies, insanity, and shady connections. The email story was bullshit from start to end.

False balance led TV networks to invite and even hire so-called campaign surrogates on the air to spew nonsense and soon hate, unchallenged except in shouting matches with the other side’s surrogates. Journalism lost its independence along with its credibility. Journalism made civil discourse uncivil.

Journalism has failed to listen to, understand, empathize with, and serve many communities — it sees only the mass. I include in that indictment its failure to reflect, respect, and then inform the worldview of the angry, white men — and women — who became the breeding ground for Trumpism.

In the end, journalism lost sight of its simple, vital reason to exist: to inform the public. Think back on story after story and round table after round table and ask whether it was conceived and executed to help inform the electorate or instead to entertain them and grab their attention or make the journalist look like the smart one. Our job is to make the public smart.

We continue to expect that it is the public’s job to come to us, to buy our newspapers and and watch our networks and click to our sites. We continue to argue that we make the product called journalism and it’s our customers’ fault if they don’t use it and benefit from it. No. It is our job to go to the public and inform their conversations, bringing facts, context, explanation, investigation, and most of all reporting.

I could go on. I will go on. It is vital that we journalists hold a postmortem for journalism in the wake of this this American tragedy. I will join in and where necessary try to convene this discussion, for what other role should a journalism professor have at a time such as this? We must be brutally honest, neither defensive nor eager to shift the blame. Yes, journalism can boast David Fahrenthold. Now keep going. Yes, the parties and campaigns, Comey, Assange, white voters, Democrats who didn’t bother to vote, a failing and overpriced educational system, and many others also share the blame. But let us begin with our responsibility.

Can we then fix journalism? Again, I honestly do not know. I do believe that we must reimagine journalism from its core, starting with its only value — an informed and improved society — and rebuilding from there.

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