Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

NewsHour principles a critical reminder

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Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour has been a driving force behind updating the long-running news program. Last Friday Lehrer helped usher in the new version of the 34-year-old public television newscast with a reminder of the program’s values. 

In today’s tumultuous world of news, especially on the internet, these are principles and guidelines well worth repeating. All have their roots in print traditions that made their way to TV and now, in some cases, online.

Here are what Jim Lehrer describes as “guidelines in our practice” of MacNeil/Lehrer journalism:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

For online folks focused on page hits, that last guideline is worth pondering first. If not audience aggregation, then what? How about quality civic journalism, First Amendment journalism, the practice of acquiring and presenting accurate and timely information for an informed citizenry.

The daily onslaught of bloggers and self-described new media practitioners love to pillory the “mainstream media.” (First rule of self-interest blather is to rename your adversary and  redefine it, like Spiro Agnew’s nattering nabobs of negativism.)  The business model of old media is certainly falling apart. But not the need or the mission. What Lehrer reminds us is that journalism — as opposed to entertainment — is about truth, accuracy and fairness.

Neil Postman famously explored the different value systems between print and electronic mediums in the 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Electronic” back them meant television. But Postman’s critique and dire warnings about an entertainment culture are all the more true with the internet.

The foreward to Postman’s book:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.


Written by mroberts8

December 8, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Posted in Newstraining

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