Everyone’s favorite punching bag fights back
George Kennedy, left, and Daryl Moen pulled together a reasoned and researched rebuttal to critics in their book What Good is Journalism?
When it comes to journalism, the opinions of pugilistic pundits come through loud and clear from talking heads, chattering radios and bile-filled books. Their messages are simple to the point of sloganeering: Journalism is bad for America. The mainstream media is biased beyond redemption. Journalists are inveterate liars and elitists with destructive agendas.
But not everyone buys it. The resistance began over lunch at the Heidelberg.
There, at that iconic restaurant near the J-School, professors and former newspaper men Daryl Moen and George Kennedy decided that the relentless attacks on their chosen profession — and what they see as a vital part of democracy — deserved a reasoned rebuttal.
“Here we are at the Missouri School of Journalism,” Moen says. “If we’re not talking to the public about the role of journalism, who will?”
What started as a lunchtime conversation led to interest from fellow professors and professionals. That interest led to research and writing covering the spectrum of journalism. The resulting book asks and answers the very question on the lips of the punditry: What Good is Journalism?
Putting things into context
What Good is Journalism? came out in 2007, published by University of Missouri Press.
A reporter covering the army writes about the lack of bulletproofing in soldiers’ vests; as a result, the soldiers get the proper protection. A newspaper in Alabama highlights the Civil Rights struggle. Investigative reporters uncover evidence of people wrongfully accused and sent to jail for life.
Critics of journalism rarely mention these things. That’s part of the impetus for What Good is Journalism? Editors Moen and Kennedy thought something crucial was missing from the debate: context.
“(The book’s) purpose is to show readers the most important roles that journalism, with all its well-documented faults, plays in the world’s oldest democracy,” they write in the book’s introduction.
A research survey by Kennedy and fellow professor Glen Cameron shows that people understand this idea. The majority of respondents described themselves as being increasingly skeptical of what they read and hear, but that same majority still sees the value in journalistic roles: providing information to the public, serving as watchdogs of the government, and more.
The editors consciously shied away from ground that’s been covered many times over. For example, instead of focusing on the usual suspects — The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example — Geneva Overholzer paints a vivid portrait of National Public Radio, an outlet whose storytelling style and personal feel give it a brighter future than other national media.
Likewise, Judy Bolch focuses on the inner workings and community relationships of the Anniston Star in Alabama. And longtime Washington reporter Wes Pippert writes about relatively unknown reporters covering national politics for relatively unknown papers.
“We wanted to demonstrate how Washington news coverage affects the lives of ordinary people in the far corners of the country,” Kennedy says.
The book doesn’t limit itself to America, though. A chapter by Byron Scott describes conditions for journalists in Kosovo, Albania, South Africa and Palestine, among other countries where press freedom isn’t so easily taken for granted.
“We whine about some fairly minor things,” Moen says. “We can’t get some records. We have to file a request. At the same time, these people are being shot at for just basic reporting.”
So what can such a reasonable, research-based approach offer in the face of bullying opposition? Kennedy answers with the mixture of hope and skepticism one might expect from someone in the industry:
“If our dreams come true — which they hardly ever do, of course — this book will become the foundation for a conversation that would extend well beyond the academy or the journalistic community and out into the news-consuming public.”