Journalism a religion? God help America!

Jane Tillman Irving, top left with the \

Jane Tillman Irving, top left, with some of us oldsters of ’91

I spent several days in New York City last week with fellow alumni of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (class of 1991). Other (than) one or two quick visits, the two-day event was my first re-immersion into the culture and campus where I was confirmed as a professional journalist.

In a moment I’ll share some of the intellectually stimulating and personally uplifting experiences I enjoyed but first, true to the ethos of my craft I must lede with my one gripe. But it’s a big one — to this day folks at school still talk about journalism with a reverence bordering on the religious, a mindset that greatly inhibits the desperately-needed self-reformation of mainstream media.

I will brook no argument over the fact that journalism deems it a duty to reach into the barrel and pick out the rottenest apple because I learned that lesson from legendary broadcaster, Fred Friendly, who visited one of the large class sessions back in the day when Joan Konner was dean and Steven D. Isaacs was the school’s ethicist-in-chief. It was at one of these big sessions that Fred offered the following parable of news judgment: if 100 planes land at the airport safely and one doesn’t what’s the news?

Of course there is but one right answer, yet even then, when I was new to professional journalism, I was leery of this notion that our solemn mission was fault-finding. It seemed both self-righteous and distorted, because when professional go dirt-hunting of course they’re going to find scandal, even perhaps when they are hoodwinked into falsely maligning the occasional Puff Daddy. Perhaps because I came at journalism with the eye of a science writer I have always felt as if my proper mission were more like: Behold this marvelous creation and here are some of its fascinating niches, but please pay particular attention here because there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.

My two-day re-submersion into Orthodox Journalism only strengthened my conviction that the “sacred mission” is the wrong metaphor to guide journalism, but this pseudo religious mantra does at least help expose the hypocrisy of America’s Fourth Estate.

Let’s start with the sanctimonious references to past glories of journalism, natural though this may be at an alumni gathering. But we are journalists, the self-anointed guardians of freedom. Surely we know that we are the first Americans since the Civil War who can be arrested without right of appeal to a judge thanks to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which suspended Habeus Corpus. I’m sure most Americans would say, “What?” but given our work and our duty, we know that this right has been a bulwark against tyranny since 1215 when English nobles forced King John of Robin Hood fame to sign the Magna Carta.

So without spoiling the fun I would have thought we should have worn black armbands or some such to acknowledge that, while we stood guard over civil liberties, Congress turned back the clock of freedom to the era of the sundial. But how can Orthodox Journalism question the political system at such a deep level when this righteous profession is deeply embedded into the fabric of the system? If journalism is righteous then the system must righteous, except for those sins which it is our solemn, if dishy, duty to expose. Nor can journalism seek absolution for its stenographic reporting of many utterances together constituted the Big Lie that made Congress so fearful as to forget what happens when power approaches the absolute.

Oh, well, enough kvetching. Let me share a few of my personal highlights:

Most inspiring: Dele Olojede is a Nigerian native who came to the Columbia J-school circa 1987 as a political refugee of sorts and had a long career as a U.S reporter. He got an alumni award last week and in listening to his acceptance speech I learned that he had won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for work done in 94. I took notes of his remarks. He spoke quietly about how he had decided in 1994, as a foreign correspondent in Africa, to cover the Mandela inauguration and NOT the Rawandan genocide. He said he had always wondered “if I had been in Rwanda at the start of the genocide” and had written forcefully about it would there have been 800,000 lives lost? Even sitting in the back of a large ballroom this man radiated integrity the way a wood stove puts out heat. Dele said something to the effect that anguish over winning the Pulitzer for covering what many have been the wrong story was part of his motivation for going back to Nigeria. He plans to start Timbuktu Media “to build a civic space first in Nigeria and then in the rest of Africa.”

Most Useful: A woman in a green blouse at the Class of ’68 session Friday night asked: Is anybody pairing older and younger reporters? Or words to that effect. What a notion. Pair experience and beat savvy with eager and new-media savvy. If anyone knows the speaker was please comment. It’s a great yet simple idea that could do a lot to improve the newsroom.

Most energetic: Columbia J-school prof Sree Sreenavasan showed a room full of journalists how to use blogging and new media tools to improve their print product or create new digital news outlets. The audience ranged from never-bloggers to daily-bloggers, and I think everyone learned something useful. Sree has posted beaucoup tips online.

Most Disturbing: Professor Mike Shapiro’s case study session led a roomful of working press through an exercise in whether or not to publish a titillating story on libel-proof but flimsy she-said, he-said input. I was profoundly disturbed by willingness to run with the scandal and I think it shows the prevalence of the dirt-mongering mentality that got the LA Times into trouble.

Most telling: My concept of culture is the complete collection of Star Trek DVDs so I decided to expand my horizons at a lecture from aesthete and critic David Hadju. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t deliver some news I could use. Hajdu talked about the notion of product placement throughout history. Seems like ever since Homer entertainers sucked up to the rich and powerful, a practice that continued up through the Renaissance when painters PhotoShopped their patrons’ faces into artworks. Hadju said this practice stopped during the modern industrial era ((which corresponds with the rise of democracy, n’est-pas?) during which time the “starving artist” made integrity the cornerstone of art. Nowadays, Hajdu said, culture is going to back to this suck-up future, as evidenced by the placement of Tequila references in a Broadway remake of Sweet Charity. So I’m thinking, is this Aristocracy 2.0?, so I ask Hadju something like: Does this mean we’re returning to a he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune paradigm? And he says something like: Yes. Which I find very useful because it dovetails with an essay from techno-seer Kevin Kelly who recently wrote the New Age Guide to Sucking Up As a Business Model. (Memo to self: work on this ingratiating thing.)

Most Businessy: The final session I attended was a gripe session by the alternative press at which I heard Victor Navasky, editor of the leftist, money-losing Nation, echo the latest Big Idea from Chris Anderson, the libertarian editor of the new-agey, fabulously rich Wired. Navasky said that since The Nation began posting its articles on the web it has experienced a huge spike in subscriber-ship from about 15,000 to 150,000 — which is exactly as Anderson predicts. If I have the numbers wrong someone please correct me, but if I did goof it’s because I was practically nodding off at the end of two-days of speechifying that culminated with a 25-minute victory lap by San Francisco alternative media icon, Bruce Brugmann. Brucie baby thanks for the tip of the hat at the event, but next time you appear at a one-hour session with four speakers, do the math!