The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, New York: Three Rivers Press, 207 pages, $12
The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pages, $25
Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, edited by Kristina Borjesson, New York: Prometheus Books, $26
The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times From Dullness and Complacency, by Jim Bellows, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 349 pages, $28.95
Profits are robust, even during an advertising recession. Legal protections remain the strongest in the world, even during a time of war. Technology has removed most barriers to entry, ushering in literally hundreds of thousands of new publications, some of which are altering the very way we produce and consume the news. A day's work at the library can now be performed in an hour at your desk, using tools called Google, Nexis, and Findlaw. As a reporter, you can be in instantaneous contact via e-mail, videoconferences, and cell phones.
In short, there have never been better conditions for journalism than in present-day America. Yet there is an influential movement, and an entire publishing mini-genre, dedicated to convincing us that's not so. These scolds may defy common sense, but they're still worthy of attention because they represent the consensus among the profession's elite. At least for now.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel are arguably the two most prominent media critics in America. Kovach, a former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, is often referred to as "the conscience of American journalism"; reporting eminence David Halberstam once described him as "what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they gave us these great freedoms."
Rosenstiel, a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, chairs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a D.C. outfit affiliated with Columbia University's prestigious (though embattled) Graduate School for Journalism. These two are the go-to men if you need a quote lamenting the sensationalism of TV newscasts or a moderator for your National Press Club panel on "how to deal with growing business pressures in news." They are the media establishment's preferred voices of reason and concern.
So just what is that establishment concerned about these days? A clue can be found in the concluding paragraph of the duo's latest book, The Elements of Journalism: "Our best hope is not a future that returns to the past, which was never as sweet as people remember it. But our freedom in a digital century does depend on not forgetting that past, either, or the theory of news it produced, in a surge of faith in technological and corporate rebirth. We fought two conventional world wars and a largely covert Cold War in the last century against such technological utopianism. We may not survive another."
In other words, unless we all remember and adhere to a certain "theory of news" -- Kovach and Rosenstiel's theory, it turns out -- the United States might be annihilated. Our potential destroyer is "technological utopianism," which is apparently comparable to communism, fascism, and, er, whatever ism we were fighting in World War I. Secret-diplomatic-pactism, presumably...or was it Hapsburgism?
Such factually uncluttered hyperbole does not merely invite a certain awe. It also happens to violate at least one of the book's 10 proposed "elements of journalism." It clearly shatters No. 9, which states in part that "journalists should keep the news in proportion," and quite plausibly breaks No. 1, which says "journalism's first obligation is to the truth." Yet, contradictory as it may seem, such hot-winded "journalism of assertion" (another trend the authors lament) is actually quite typical of a curious movement to reform American reporting.
The Elements of Journalism -- and The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, written by top Washington Post editors Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser -- are only the latest of many recent books that reassert the media's core "values" in an age of industry uncertainty, vocational self-doubt, and an ever-splintering audience. But as that odd statement about "technological utopianism" reveals, these critics often flout the very principles they profess to protect. They also reinforce the mores of the country's elite newspapers while exuding a hostile ignorance toward the publishing explosion on the World Wide Web and the boom in cable news -- that is, toward the freshest sources of modern media expression and competition.
Both The Elements of Journalism and The News About the News take nourishment from something called The Committee of Concerned Journalists, an organization of 1,500 worried people chaired by...Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Elements, in fact, kicks off with the committee's creation myth, which positively oozes with unconscious elitism.
"This book began on a rainy Saturday in June 1997, when twenty-five journalists gathered at the Harvard Faculty Club," the eighth paragraph begins. "Around the long table sat editors of several of the nation's top newspapers, as well as some of the most influential names in television and radio, several of the top journalism educators, and some of the country's most prominent authors. They were there because they thought something was seriously wrong with their profession. They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues."
The Harvard 25 charted a suitably academic course of action: They issued a "Statement of Concern," held forums around the country to "engage the public," and commissioned several studies, including one in which developmental psychologists interviewed scores of journalists about their values. The effort struck a nerve among a key sub-demographic of the news business: those who have safe editorial-related jobs at elite journalistic or academic institutions. (For reasons it might take a developmental psychologist to decipher, these people tend to be far more fatalistic than lowly freelancers, mid-market editors, and one-man Web site operators.) The end result was a cottage industry of media hand wringing, constructed on a foundation of relentless sky-has-already-fallen pessimism.