COMMENTARY : Passion for Journalism

In 1986, I was toiling at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when a sudden management change brought in a new editor. The new guy had the zeal of a true newshound, the belief that we were capable of great things, and some specific ideas about how to accomplish them.

In 1986, I was toiling at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when a sudden management change brought in a new editor. The new guy had the zeal of a true newshound, the belief that we were capable of great things, and some specific ideas about how to accomplish them.

Almost overnight, what had been a middling sort of newspaper blossomed into a first-rate news organization. Investigative journalism flourished.

Bill Dedman wrote a series about redlining by banks that won a Pulitzer; the late Doug Marlette drew political cartoons that also won one. I was covering legal affairs then, and I ventured out into the hinterlands to look at Georgia’s rural judicial circuits.

One of the stories I discovered involved an indigent black defendant whose public defender had pled him guilty to manslaughter without ever talking to him or to the dead man’s wife, who was prepared to testify the defendant shot her husband in self-defense.

He got five years. After my story ran, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted his sentence.
I’ve never worked harder than I did during those two years; I’ve also never had more fun.

That idyllic period was the combination of many factors, one of which was a terrific editor (who happened to be Bill Kovach, now head of CCJ—and no, I have not had any purple Kool Aid lately).

Equally important was the sense of passion most of us felt about what we were doing. We were a young staff, running on a high-octane mixture of ambition and idealism. We wanted to do well (for ourselves) by doing good (for the public). And once we got the opportunity, we did.

I bring this up because a certain amount of passion was the reason many of us got into journalism in the first place, a fact worth remembering now that Rupert Murdoch has taken over the Wall Street Journal. His acquisition leaves only two mighty oaks—the New York Times and the Washington Post—as major family-owned newspapers, reminders of the days when newspapers weren’t just cogs in a corporate machine but the voice of a region, a strong publisher, or both.

What does passion have to do with Rupert Murdoch? Nothing. That’s the point.

When I got into the news biz, I was a devout believer in what New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen calls the “high church of journalism,” the tenets of which, since I never went to J-school, I absorbed by a kind of osmosis.

To me, the journalist was a kind of citizen representative who asked the questions any resident of a democracy would ask if he or she were watching the inner machinations of government.

There was a time when the public shared this view. From the 1940s to the 1970s, as Russell Baker notes in the Aug. 16 issue of the New York Review of Books, the image of reporters in the movies remained pretty much the same: “salt-of-the-earth, wise-cracking, sassy, but high-principled types” who stood up for the little guy.

It’s been a while since the public held us in that kind of esteem, to say the least. But the sense of being part of an elite—a member of the tribe—is something that came with the old orthodoxy, and that self-image dies hard. Passion fuels idealism, but it also fuels ambition, and ambition easily morphs into self-importance.

How else to explain the belief, expressed by grizzled veterans of this trade who are cynical about everything else, that Murdoch will keep his promise not to tamper with the WSJ’s journalistic “culture”?

Can’t he see how special and rare it is, how democracy itself hangs in the balance?—when in fact the question is really, Why on earth wouldn’t he tamper? It’s his newspaper now, isn’t it?

These days, a person eavesdropping on the guardians of democracy in a newsroom wouldn’t hear much about crusading against injustice. They’d hear about online/offline integration and widgets and connectivity and the “dead tree” edition—that is, when they weren’t hearing about another newsroom budget cut.

The business is in turmoil, and the high church of journalism is headed for “schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway,” Rosen wrote in a 2004 essay, and he’s clearly correct.

I don’t belong to the high church of journalism anymore. I’ve come to believe that the sooner journalists stop thinking of themselves as members of some kind of priesthood whose job is to “inform” the ignorant masses, the better off we’ll all be.

I’ve been out of the newsroom long enough to miss being an active member of the tribe, and long enough to see what an insular little bubble that tribe looks to those who aren’t in it.

But in the process of reinventing our profession, which is a good and necessary thing, I hope we don’t forget one important piece of the old orthodoxy: passion. It’s not much evident in the top levels of the mainstream media these days, and “inside the Beltway” it’s considered kind of nerdy and uncool.

The flame burns brightly in a few old timers, like Daniel Schorr and Helen Thomas and Charlie Peters, God bless them—but these days you’re more likely to find passion in blogs, in the rise of “citizen journalism,” and (not coincidentally) in critiques of the media.

And you’ll find it quietly at work among what another media critic, Tim Porter, calls “the real heroes” of journalism—the many reporters and editors out there who are surfing the tides of change while “working the problem, finding solutions, making hard choices, learning to think differently.”

Passion is a tough thing to cultivate in the day-to-day turmoil of meeting deadlines, and there have been long periods when I’ve lost mine.

And yet, after all this time, I have come to the conclusion that no matter how journalism is practiced, and no matter how the definition of the word “journalist” is enlarged, a sense of passion is vital. You have to care—about the accuracy of what you report, about the necessity of this continuing conversation among citizens of a democracy about the way things should be.

I think I’ve lost the inflated sense of myself that I had as a younger reporter, when I was a self-appointed watchdog whose job was cherry-picking the news I deemed worthy of public consumption.

But the fundamental passion that drove me—the excitement of discovery, the pressing need to find out what was going on, the powerful sense that some things are just not right—is something I hope I never lose, whether you call me an “engaged citizen” or a “citizen journalist” or (I love this one) “mommyblogger.” With it, one person can inspire an entire staff. With it, you can sometimes even get an innocent man out of jail.

The author is CCJ Traveling Curriculum Trainer and a former Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and an author of two books.

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