‘The Challenge of Journalism is to Survive in the Pressure Cooker of Plutocracy’

Thank you for allowing me to share this evening with you. I’m delighted to meet these exceptional journalists whose achievements you honor with the Helen Bernstein Book Award.

What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism? But I gulped when [New York Public Library President] Tony Marx asked me to talk about the challenges facing journalism today and gave me 10 to 15 minutes to do so. I seriously thought of taking a powder. Those challenges to journalism are so well identified, so mournfully lamented, and so passionately debated that I wonder if the subject isn’t exhausted. Or if we aren’t exhausted from hearing about it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for journalism or for other journalists or for any journalist except myself. Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Emerson and Boston College, once bemoaned the tendency to lump all of us under the term “media.” As if everyone with a pen, a microphone, a camera (today, a laptop or smartphone) – or just a loud voice – were all one and the same. I consider myself a journalist. But so does James O’Keefe. Matt Drudge is not E.J. Dionne. The National Review is not The Guardian, or Reuters The Huffington Post. Ann Coulter doesn’t speak for Katrina Vanden Heuvel, or Rush Limbaugh for Ira Glass. Yet we are all “media” and as Ted Gup says, “the media” speaks for us all.

So I was just about to email Tony to say, “Sorry, you don’t want someone from the Jurassic era to talk about what’s happening to journalism in the digital era,” when I remembered one of my favorite stories about the late humorist Robert Benchley. He arrived for his final exam in international law at Harvard to find that the test consisted of one instruction: “Discuss the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain.” Benchley was desperate but he was also honest, and he wrote: “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”

So shall I, briefly. One small fish in the vast ocean of media.

I look at your honorees this evening and realize they have already won one of the biggest prizes in journalism — support from venerable institutions: The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. These esteemed news organizations paid — yes, you heard me, paid — them to report and to report painstakingly, intrepidly, often at great risk. Your honorees then took time — money buys time, perhaps its most valuable purchase — to craft the exquisite writing that transports us, their readers, to distant places – China, Afghanistan, the Great Barrier Reef, even that murky hotbed of conspiracy and secession known as Texas.

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And after we read these stories, when we put down our Kindles and iPads, or — what’s that other device called? Oh yes – when we put down our books – we emerge with a different take on a slice of reality, a more precise insight into some of the forces changing our world.

Although they were indeed paid for their work, I’m sure that’s not what drove them to spend months based in Beijing, Kabul and Dallas. Their passion was to go find the story, dig up the facts and follow the trail around every bend in the road until they had the evidence. But to do this — to find what’s been overlooked, or forgotten, or hidden; to put their skill and talent and curiosity to work on behalf of their readers — us — they needed funding. It’s an old story: When our oldest son turned 16 he asked for a raise in his allowance, I said: “Don’t you know there are some things more important than money?” And he answered: “Sure, Dad, but it takes money to date them.” Democracy needs journalists, but it takes money to support them. Yet if present trends continue, Elizabeth Kolbert may well have to update her book with a new chapter on how the dinosaurs of journalism went extinct in the Great Age of Disruption.

You may have read that two Pulitzer Prize winners this year had already left the profession by the time the prize was announced. One had investigated corruption in a tiny, cash-strapped school district for The Daily Breeze of Torrance, California. His story led to changes in California state law. He left journalism for a public relations job that would make it easier to pay his rent. The other helped document domestic violence in South Carolina, which forced the issue onto the state legislative agenda. She left the Charleston Post and Courier for PR, too.

These are but two of thousands. And we are left to wonder what will happen when the old business models no longer support reporters at local news outlets? There’s an ecosystem out there and if the smaller fish die out, eventually the bigger fish will be malnourished, too.

A few examples: The New York Times reporter who rattled the city this month with her report on the awful conditions for nail salon workers was given a month just to see whether it was a story, and a year to conduct her investigation. Money bought time. She began, with the help of six translators, by reading several years of back issues of the foreign language press in this country… and began to understand the scope of the problem. She took up her reporting from there. Big fish, like The New York Times, can amplify the work of the foreign language press and wake the rest of us up.

A free press, you see, doesn’t operate for free at all. Fearless journalism requires a steady stream of independent income. It was the publisher of the Bergen Record, a family-owned paper in New Jersey who got a call from an acquaintance about an unusual traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. The editor assigned their traffic reporter to investigate. (Can you believe? They had a traffic reporter!) The reporter who covered the Port Authority for the Record joined in and discovered a staggering abuse of power by Governor Chris Christie’s minions. WNYC Radio picked up the story and doggedly stuck to it, helped give it a larger audience and broadened its scope to a pattern of political malfeasance that resulted in high-profile resignations and criminal investigations into the Port Authority. Quite a one-two punch: WNYC won a Peabody Award, the Record won a Polk.

A Boston Phoenix reporter broke the story about sexual abuse within the city’s Catholic Church nine months before the Boston Globe picked up the thread. The Globe intensified the reporting and gave the story national and international reach. The Boston Phoenix, alas, died from financial malnutrition in 2013 after 47 years in business.

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