Who Owns the Fourth Estate?

Who Owns the Fourth Estate?

Dentists and cardiologists warn their patients about plaque, harmful to both teeth and arteries.


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.”

Yet by any measure, What Are Journalists For? arrives as the most intellectually textured explanation of public journalism to date. Rather than mockery, Rosen deserves a tip of the green eyeshade for an earnest, fair-minded and candid account of the newsroom phenomenon he helped shepherd. An academic with virtually no reporting experience beyond a summer internship with the Buffalo Courier Express, Rosen is used to being tweaked and condescended to by hardboiled editors in the Eastern media establishment. They like to marginalize him and pointy-headed colleagues as dreamers who confuse newspapers with the League of Women Voters. Rosen, who admits his own missteps as a public advocate, is by contrast remarkably fair in his assessments here, much more generous to opponents than they’ve ever been to him.

Still, What Are Journalists For? surprises with the weight of its anecdotal reportage, its repetitive citation of war stories from the front, its flattering of the foundations–Kettering, Pew and Knight–funding the movement’s work and its dwelling on the many seminars and interviews that came Rosen’s way. At times, Rosen’s perspective seems plainly affected (“In 1989, the same year as my Des Moines talk and Batten’s speech on community life, a lot of exciting things happened. The Berlin Wall fell, democracy returned to a part of Eastern Europe…”).

Ironically, in light of Rosen’s view that only a press “that consciously puts itself in the philosophy business” can do its job in the modern era, the book’s chief weaknesses turn out to be philosophical: paltry argument, undeveloped principles for dividing public from private, a failure to assess journalism comparatively, a reluctance to probe public journalism’s logical paradoxes. Instead, Rosen resolutely trains his attention on the twin worlds of actual and think-tank journalism–the latter being America’s network of foundation-funded institutes, seminars, retreats and fellowship programs in which ex-journalists, leave-of-absence journalists and communications theorists mull over how to build a better mousetrap.

In that sphere, What Are Journalists For? accomplishes multiple tasks with grace and smoothness, authoritatively outlining public journalism’s origins, ideological context and uncertainties. Rosen first describes how public journalism, as currently conceived, emerged around 1989 from converging worries of communications theorists about the “depressed civic climate”–the decline of our deliberative public space–and those of press leaders such as Knight-Ridder’s James Batten over newspapers’ decline in circulation and their connection to readers. (In the case of some papers, the former had dropped from 80 percent to 55 percent penetration of local households.)

Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, an early activist in the movement, saw a need for papers to emphasize citizens’ perspectives on issues, not the mechanics of campaign process favored by political operatives. The Washington Post‘s David Broder bemoaned the poverty of political reporting, and Rosen himself grew fascinated with the leadership of Georgia’s Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, which galvanized citizens of its town into meetings and formation of a citizens’ group, United Beyond 2000, that strategized about the town’s future.

Rosen next places those early palpitations of public journalism within the growing academic interest at the time in issues of public deliberation, and he elaborates on the views of important theorists of communication like Dewey, Lippmann, Habermas and James Carey. In some ways, Rosen argues, public journalism recapitulates the twenties debate between Dewey and Lippmann over whether the public (Dewey’s choice) or experts (Lippmann’s) should run democracy. Here, Rosen tends to align journalists and readers with Dewey’s and Lippmann’s models rather than analyze the fit. In any event, public journalism began to jell within a few years, and Rosen spends several chapters reporting the experiences of seven newspapers that attempted to practice it.

Examples include the Dayton Daily News taking charge of local debates on plant closings; the Akron Beacon Journal following a yearlong series devoted to citizen opinion on race with a regional planning organization called Coming Together; the San Jose Mercury News‘s decision to supplement editorials with public forums and discussion guides; the Colorado Springs Gazette‘s move to make its reporters engage in “public listening” and its editors frame stories from a number of perspectives; and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot‘s whole-hog “intellectual journey” into public journalism.

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.

Rosen’s notion of journalists as “trustees” of the public draws credibility from envisioning the usual suspects when one thinks of them: the nonstop mouths on a Washington chatfest. But where’s the argument for considering it a duty that falls equally on all journalists, let alone artists? Perhaps we impose it by custom on the political hunter-gatherers of the New York Times and Washington Post, expecting them to gather allegedly neutral facts about public life like robots picking cherries. But do we include the Slate-istas, churning out in-group chatter as if it were reportage? The celebrity sighters of “Page Six”? The compulsive book-borrowers of the New York Press? Monitors of automobile or advertising industry gossip in the trades? Critics of all stripes, inevitably weighing elements of artistic and scholarly life with a mental hand on the scales?

Public journalism’s agenda is partly to make every journalist “major” in political philosophy, a favorite of its leaders. But do we welcome such an oppressive attempt to impose an academic mentality, perhaps leading to opening quotes from Rousseau in the columns of Liz Smith? To some extent, Rosen concedes in his frequent references to the “serious press” that public journalism as philosophy relies on a fallacy of synecdoche. It takes one part of the press–reporters who cover politics and governmental affairs–and suggests they represent all, leaving out critics, obituary writers, city columnists, the outdoors specialist, the editorial cartoonist and others.

Public journalism also contains what can only be described as a reportorial paradox. While Rosen and peers speak often of journalists thinking about making things better, they never comment on the logical implication that making things better includes not making things worse. If that’s so, the journalist, like the doctor, should begin with the Hippocratic principle: First do no harm.

Notice, though, how that principle immediately threatens the flow of information expected from a reporter. She’s covering the chief do-gooder in town, who’s also lightly harassing his secretary. If she reports the ugly behavior, all sorts of good projects will go unachieved. If she doesn’t, she’s already reasoning away potential news. Analyzing what the reporter should do could lead in various directions, but the logical problem remains: Public journalism presumes a Hippocratic principle that may undermine the straightforward reporting of information.

Finally, Rosen’s professed pragmatism clashes with his inclinations as a journalistic reformer. If the classical pragmatism of Dewey and James stands for anything, it’s an anti-essentialist view of concepts. In defending public journalism’s aim to make journalists active citizens and amateur political philosophers, Rosen charges hidebound traditionalists like Gartner with “essentialism,” saying, “An experimental attitude is anti-essentialist.” Yet what could be more essentialist than arguing that ordinary citizens who choose to write, report and share their writings must take on a concern for the state and its welfare as an obligation?

To be fair, Rosen’s rhetoric and vocabulary vary. Sometimes he suggests that public journalism is less a declaration of the rights and duties of journalists than a way to nudge them into nonobligatory but desirable behavior. And the pragmatist may well be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t: impliedly essentialist if he accepts a traditionalist’s version of journalism’s responsibilities, impliedly essentialist if he actively seeks reform.

In the end–oddly for a thinker who professes to be a pragmatist and rejects the mainstream media view that journalists “are not in the philosophy business”–Rosen emerges more as a reporter and policy activist than philosopher. Instead of a Critique of (Allegedly) Pure Journalism, comparable to Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems or Lippmann’s Public Opinion, Rosen’s book swings between an If It’s Tuesday, It’s the Poynter Institute diary form, a Faith of My Brethren inspirational tome that effectively defends the movement against attacks, and a clearly appealing Ethics for the New Journalistic Millennium, offering a slate of recommendations. The combination, one suspects, creates a book that will deepen the understanding of its subject among all interested parties, but change few minds.

Is it unfair to expect public journalism, still but a cultural infant, to plumb theoretical depths in an introductory effort by its most articulate champion? Perhaps. Taken as a plea for better education of journalists in political theory, so they can transcend the naïveté of mainstream journalistic thinking about “objectivity,” What Are Journalists For? makes an important contribution to greater intellectual sophistication in newspaper journalism–the only quality likely to save the latter in an age of competition from shrewd, well-educated Net journalists and their wares. Rosen notes the “weak tradition of debate within the culture of the press” and tries to goose it into robustness, forcing the lame “bystander” image of the press to confront insider E.J. Dionne’s recognition that “the press is now an intimate part of everything having to do with elections.”

Still, until public journalism’s high priests figure out why the First Amendment doesn’t protect the right of journalists to be blithe, selfish, sensationalistic, solipsistic and irresponsibly entertaining–much like comics, novelists and painters not badgered into winning good citizenship medals–public journalism will be less a philosophy or no-brainer social policy than a useful form of critical jawboning. In that exercise, enlightened academics and born-again reporters ought to urge the still benighted to take off their intellectual blinders and, as James Carey advises, look at themselves differently. Anything more than that awaits the Kant of media studies, a position still open despite all the foundation money in the world.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy