Who Owns the Fourth Estate?
Rosen's chapter discussing some of the media types involved shows they had to overcome attitudinal clichés endemic to the field--testosteronic toughness, sports and war metaphors, adversarial vibes toward officials and citizens--in what sounds like a twelve-step program to de-Front Page the mind. That hardly prepares one for the lively and rambunctious third section of the book, devoted to reactions to public journalism by its most prominent skeptics. Rosen honorably gives his powerful critics, including New Yorker editor David Remnick and honchos Max Frankel of the New York Times and Leonard Downie of the Washington Post, ample space to vent their views. He then offers a brisk paragraph summarizing key criticisms of his cause:
Nothing new. A gimmick that draws attention away from cutbacks that have led to bad coverage and a dissatisfied public. A marketing ploy by an industry desperate to retain market share. A misplaced longing among editors who want to be loved. An invitation to go soft. An assault on the profession's prerogative to judge what's important. A call for advocacy journalism, which would usurp the political process and further erode public trust. A distraction from the basic task of covering the news, difficult enough without adding the duty to repair society. An arrogant and preachy movement that pretends to have all the answers. A recipe for dumbing down the newspaper and backing away from courageous stands that defy popular opinion.
One extremely vociferous detractor was former NBC News president Michael Gartner, who patronized PJ as a fad designed to help journalism professors get tenure and "shake loose foundation grants." Gartner warned: "Newspapers are supposed to explain the community, not convene it. News reporters are supposed to explore the issues, not solve them. Newspapers are supposed to expose the wrongs, not campaign against them. Reporters and city editors are not supposed to write legislation or lead campaigns or pass moral judgments."
Rosen more or less answers: Relax, it's new, and traditionalists offer no alternative but old failed ways. Rosen believes those critical attitudes came from
an essentialist view of the journalist's task that afforded little room for experiment; a narrow reading of press history that allowed tradition to speak against reform and renewal; a frozen image of what journalists were for that disabled civic imagination in the craft; a quest for innocence amid the entangling forces of the media age, which disallowed any view of the press as a political actor with decisions to make about the aim of its actions; a desire to keep a firm distance between the press and a navel-gazing public, from which the serious professional had much to fear.
With all volleys returned, Rosen draws lessons from the decade in his final chapter, which summarizes public journalism's ups and downs and offers an answer to the book's title question that jibes with his opening "Journalist's Creed." What he doesn't do leaves the book with four main weaknesses: (1) failure to subject the journalist's duties to comparative analysis, (2) neglect of a key logical problem with public journalism, (3) neglect of a key practical problem--boredom--and (4) the contradiction between pragmatist anti-essentialism and the image of the journalist as a duty-bound citizen.
Imagine, to sketch the first flaw, a civic-minded professor of comedy, Henny Adams, inclined to confront comics as they sneak a smoke outside their improv haunts. He subjects them to a higher form of heckling when they're on stage, even proselytizes their bosses at conferences of talk-show bookers and resort/hotel managers.
"Sure, you're funny," Adams tells the shticksters. "But to what deeper democratic purpose? Your jokes assume beliefs in your audience when they should be ferreting out the truth. The stereotypes you rely on antagonize already injured subgroups, further damaging our fragile polis. What we need is a 'public comedy' in which stand-ups stand for solutions and don't just milk problems for laughs--we need citizen-comics."
Professor Adams would meet resistance from Comedy Central sorts. One, flicking his cigarette, might deliver an in-character rebuke: "How many professors does it take to confuse a gig that's not already confused?"
Or consider Adams's equally plausible colleague, Irving Whitman, a literature professor furious at the solipsism of modern novelists. In prestigious piece after piece, he castigates writers for their inward bent. "Yes," he concedes, "you devised an ingenious story. Sure, your characters stretch souls, forcing us to apprehend subneighborhoods of reality in fresh ways. Yet a fiction that lectures readers ex cathedra instead of conversing with them and learning from them is not fiction for our interactive, interconnected times. We need 'public fiction,' a practice sensitive to the challenges of the millennium, ready to eliminate rather than mirror dysfunctional horrors, aware of why dialogue controlled only by creators poisons the democratic community."
Do public journalists make more sense than public comics, public novelists, public painters, other public "expressers"? How could the First Amendment protect their right to oblique citizenship but not the journalist's? Public journalism may have an answer, but it's not in Rosen's book. It's simply on the plaque.