Dentists and cardiologists warn their patients about plaque, harmful to both teeth and arteries. Judging by Jay Rosen’s attachment to another sort, found in the National Press Club in Washington, the caveat should be extended to media theorists prone to over-romanticizing their subject. Bearing “The Journalist’s Creed,” this plaque, presented to the club on its fiftieth anniversary in 1958, states principles so powerful to the NYU journalism professor–known in the business for seeking to turn reporters into good democrats–that he declares in his introduction, “Finding a way to take its declarations seriously has become my job as a university professor.”
According to the plaque, journalism is a “public trust” and journalists are “trustees for the public.” Any “acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.” Journalism, Rosen writes, “thus expects the individual practitioner and the practice as a whole to serve the general welfare…directly, through acts of journalism that amount to public service.” As a result, Rosen continues, journalism is “our” possession–it belongs to the public–even if it’s the profession of journalists. (“The trustee–the press–does not own journalism….”) While he acknowledges that how “to square the notion of trusteeship with the First Amendment principle of an unregulated and independent press” is a problem, he never lets that impede the press policy he advocates, an agenda we now call “public journalism.”
What Are Journalists For? is Rosen’s long-awaited book-length treatment of that agenda and topic: the decade-old movement to encourage citizen consciousness among mainstream “objective” journalists. Rightly understood as a state of mind rather than a technique or formula, public journalism aims, says Rosen, at “enhancing democracy, nourishing public life, aiding in the search for solutions to public problems, changing the reflexive attitudes of the profession.” It particularly targets the daily press’s “relentless insiderism, its weakness for cheap drama, its narrow focus on winning as the one true story of politics” and its denial that it is “a political institution.”
As a real-life movement, public journalism’s decade-long track record boasts triumphs and defeats. It gets credit or blame for leading some news organizations to arrange public meetings and exchange traditional horse-race, mudslinging campaign coverage for intense analysis of issues and occasional civic boosterism. It suffuses the nineties media criticism of many journalists, from James Fallows, who quoted Rosen repeatedly in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996), to Jeremy Iggers in Good News, Bad News (1998), who quoted Rosen a little less.
It fits almost hand in glove with burgeoning laments or observations about America’s civic health from different sectors of academe: Robert Putnam’s work on our dwindling associational life, Michael Sandel’s communitarian vision, Michael Schudson’s careful optimism about citizenship in The Good Citizen.
One study suggests that readers of newspapers inclined toward public journalism developed greater respect for the media. At the same time, the movement has driven a few of the “most prestigious minds in journalism,” according to Rosen, to turn “thumbs down on the experiment, using tense words like fraud, menace, cult.” Critics such as Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times, see some public journalism as a smokescreen for diminished coverage of state politics, a misconception of reportorial function and other ills. Rosen, chief academic catalyst of the movement, is sometimes dubbed its “evangelist.”