Where have all the journalists gone?

By Brian Russell

When left-leaning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and I agree that something’s bad, you know it’s really bad. Pitts and I both have criticized the Journal News, an Upstate New York paper, for recently publishing the names and addresses of all registered gun owners residing in its circulation area (and the tabloid website Gawker has since done the same in New York City). It was a reckless, propagandistic stunt with no significant news value which served no public interest and instead compromised the collective security of gun owners and defenseless citizens alike.

Apologists have argued that the information could be helpful to parents who want to make sure that their children don’t play unsupervised at the homes of friends whose parents might have guns lying around. The paper did not, however, also publish the names and addresses of all homeowners in the area who have backyard swimming pools, which statistically pose a much higher risk of death to unsupervised child visitors. The paper didn’t even publish the names and addresses of all registered sex offenders in the area, who’ve actually proven themselves to be risks. No, the paper saw fit to publish only the names and addresses of registered gun owners.

While registration doesn’t guarantee that a gun will never be involved in a crime (Adam Lanza stole his mother’s guns to perpetrate a massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last month), it’s a safe bet that most people who are averse to committing misdemeanors by not registering their guns are also averse to committing felonies with those guns. That notwithstanding, the clear underlying intent of publishing registrants’ names and addresses was to frighten readers of “the gun next door” as New York and the nation debate new restrictions on gun purchases and possession in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy.

As a psychologist and national news pundit, I believe that what the Journal News did in this instance is symptomatic of a broader shift in the mentalities of people who’ve been drawn to journalism as a profession in recent years. Previous generations of journalists, harkening all the way back to the “town criers” of old, understood that it was fundamentally their job to tell people what other people, including the powerful, were doing. The very publication/broadcast of such information, particularly alerting the citizenry to corrupt behavior of public officials, has always had the potential to mobilize the listening/reading/viewing public to action, and in doing so, has operated as a check on government. Indeed Alexander Solzhenitsyn once equated skilled writers to another branch of government, sometimes referenced historically as the “Fourth Estate.”

So what’s changed? I believe that past generations of journalists understood their job as to expose facts of reasonable public value, fully and unadulterated, to public view so that the public would be informed and could, if so inclined, mobilize accordingly. I believe that too many of today’s journalists, however, begin with particular, ideologically driven ends in mind – they understand their job as to expose facts, whether of reasonable public value or not, selectively and strategically, to public view so as to maximize the likelihood that the public will mobilize in a particular way. In short, too many of today’s journalists, particularly those with expansionist views of the power that secular social institutions should exert in the lives of individuals generally, appear to make little distinction between reportage and editorial.

I’m a university faculty member, and all one need do to corroborate my contention is visit a university campus and ask aspiring journalists why they want to be journalists. Fifty years ago, I believe that you would’ve gotten a majority of responses along the lines of, “Because I want to help make sure people have accurate information so they can make informed decisions about how to live happy, healthy, productive, free lives.” Today, I can caution you to expect a lot of responses along the lines of, “Because I want to help change the world.” And if you follow up and ask what it means to “change the world,” you’re likely to get responses along the lines of, “I want to help people understand that we need to (insert secular-social-institutional-expansionist objective here).”

To some, that distinction may seem minor, but it’s major; it’s the distinction between a passion for accurate reporting and a passion for propagandizing. There certainly are places for news analysis, commentary and editorial. I’ve made a name for myself performing those functions in the national media, but in doing so, I present myself as an analyst/commentator/pundit, not as a reporter. The conflation of reportage with editorial extends far beyond New York; it’s pervading journalism nation- and world-wide, and it’s diminishing both the public’s trust of the media and the efficacy of the “Fourth Estate” as a check on power. And, at this time of unprecedented expansion of government and of the accompanying public debt, it’s not healthy for the nation.

Where have all the journalists gone? We need them back.

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