Folks at the New York Times can lose their jobs for making shit up, while the gang over at TruePatriotDemocracyStraightShooterBulletinAlarmForFreedom.com are accountable to no one. This is news as circle jerk, and it is very unhelpful for anything more meaningful. Of course, distortion also happens at organizations much, much bigger than the dorky little blogs it’s so easy to make fun of. Which is to say, size does not guarantee legitimacy.
But real journalists glory in getting it right.
The ragnarok of our times will be when the ice giants of pay-for-play, partisan-shill, news-o-tainment finally overwhelm the doomed(?) pains-taking truth-seekers of yore, who’ll just say “fuck it” and start writing novels. They don’t need us; we need them.
Here is a list of books all about real journalism. This is the string of pearls we are dangling over an already flushing toilet.
Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men is the classic. This is the incredible story of how work-a-day beat reporters and their stogie-chomping, heart-burned editor (I don’t know if Bradlee smoked cigars or had heartburn, but it paints the right image) brought down the President of the United States. Yeah, you could watch the excellent movie with Redford and Hoffman, but the book is going to have all the gritty details. If this doesn’t make you disgusted about the swill we call news today, I don’t know what will. These guys were hardcore, typewriting warriors, and they inspired a million careers in journalism.
Another showcase for the power of the press is Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. At the beginning of the civil rights movement, almost all coverage of African-American life in the South was by and for African-Americans. The mainstream press had little interest. Race Beat is the complex story of how the national media slowly woke up and became a critical player in the movement.
If you’re still not excited, how about a little fiction to wake up that imagination? Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is the story of an inexperienced reporter sent to Africa to cover a war. Satire ensues. Waugh himself covered a war in Ethiopia. In fact, you can pick up Waugh in Abyssinia, which is his story of that experience.
The Creation of the Media by Paul Starr, tells us how we got here. This is the fascinating story of the development of what we take for granted: publicly available accounts of what’s happening in the world. This book focuses on media (and journalism) in the US, from colonial times up to World War II, with a close look at the constant tension between media and government.
All the News That’s Fit to Sell from James Hamilton cuts right into the problem of news with a profit motive. He explains the development of news over the years, from how it became disinterested in the 1800s to its swing back to demand-focused selectivity in the 20th century. The clear and present danger of losing “hard news” in a flood of flaccid entertainment-only news is answered with the bold idea of removing journalism from the marketplace completely, and treating it instead as a critical public service.
The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, is a renewal of purpose for the journalist. It works thru nine basic elements, such as “Its essence is a discipline of verification” and “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover” and “It must serve as an independent monitor of power.” This is dynamite. This is what we all have in the back of our heads when we long for a legit take on what’s happening.
The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook from Len Bruzzese, Brant Houston and Steve Weinberg is what you need to actually get your journalism career started. This is the “how” of making sure you’re not talking thru your b-cheeks when you lay out some dramatic story that brings the house of power down. And if it’s not the case that you actually want to be a journalist, then this book will give you a familiarity with legit news-gathering techniques that will tune your sniffer, and you’ll know when that story you’re reading needs a change and a wipe. To be clear, this is a professional text, not a light overview.
A bit more accessible, though no less professional, is William Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. With all your high quality investigation and information gathering, you still need to know how to shape it into a coherent and powerful story. A lot of this will be familiar if you are a writer, but you could learn a thing or two from a former WSJ editor.
What can we do to stop our downward spiral into editorial-as-fact, celebrity-trivia-as-news hell? Besides not clicking on meaningless crap on Facebook (yes, maybe we can turn our algorithms against our oppressors), how about just subscribing to a newspaper? It’s pretty cheap. You’ve got the LA Times or NY Times or WSJ or maybe a local paper. No doubt any news source is going to have some measure of bias, but they stick that bias on the editorial page. They have histories and reputations that – believe it or not – they really care about. And yeah – I have bias, too, but I must not rid the room of argument by only listening to folks I already know I agree with.
Well, I could, but then I wouldn’t really know what’s going on, would I?