Journalism 2014: On the Road to Irrelevance?

       “Journalists have no choice but to fight back because if they don’t, they will become irrelevant.” James Risen, NYT investigative reporter

What are they supposed to fight against? Fellow journalist Lindsey Bever of the UK’s Guardian spelled it out: “Committing an act of journalism could soon become an imprisonable offense.” That’s so because Risen refused to name sources for his report on a botched CIA operation in Iran (in his 2006 book “State of War”) in court and may soon go to prison rather than “break his vow of confidentiality.”

Despite the significance of his case (described fully by his own paper: “Reporter’s Case Poses Dilemma for Justice Department,” Jonathan Mahler, June 27, 2014), Bever is shocked “how little publicity it has received from major media outlets with direct interest in its outcome.”

Risen himself linked the outcome of his case in a speech on October 5 at Colby College in Maine, where he received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism, to the survival of journalism as a relevant force in an open society. (Lovejoy, 1802 -1837 native of Maine and passionate abolitionist became editor of the St. Louis Observer and was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois.)

Some journalists, law professors and scientists have rallied to support Risen, as noted in the June NYT article. But the general public has received little information about it and may not care very much even if it were well-informed. Don’t most Americans give a damn if they are not enlightened about the misdemeanors and malfeasances among the powerful in our governmental, commercial and social institutions?

Not so long ago the public followed the opening and unfolding of one “gate” after another, from Watergate to Monicagate, from Clinton’s denial of having had sex “with that woman” to Bush’s lame-joke search for Saddam’s WMDs under the Oval Office furniture. All the president’s sins, the CEOs’ outrageous golden parachutes, the defense contractors’ madcap charges for wrench or toilet seat were examined and absorbed with fascination and outrage, with Joe Q. Public’s indignation or laughter. Those days are gone and may never return. Today’s television-trained and computer addicted audiences require new and different material and exposure of incompetence and transgression among the powerful is not worthy the attention Risen and other courageous journalists have paid recent reruns and sequels.

Risen is right when he suggests that “the only reason the public knows about secret prisons and other activities is that whistle-blowers and journalists have written about them.” For a vast number of Americans the alternative he paints seems preferable: “If you’d rather live in a society in which you don’t know anything, then that’s the alternative.” Why is that?

In large part, because the “news” about the economic, political and cultural state of the union has been so demoralizing (if not stunningly silly) for at least three decades (except, of course, for the 10 to 15 percent on top of the economic pyramid) and reports have therefore relentlessly smothered interest and response. People wanted to know about Watergate because they expected a better moral climate to emerge in Washington in its aftermath.

While our president was a rousing salesman of hope, his product hardly lived up the promise he wrapped it in. (Whose fault that is can be debated.) Why would a botched operation in Iran (didn’t Jimmy Carter initiate that category of misadventure?) that cost millions of dollars interest a forklift operator in Dayton when there’s no money to repair the buses his children ride to school daily or the bridges those buses cross?

Why be interested in wars that cannot be won in places you can’t pronounce or locate on a map and that are fought for reasons unexplained or couched in incomprehensible gibberish or geopolitical bombast Henry Kissinger has patented. Risen is so right, and we should support his fight. But victory or defeat will not mean all that much to most Americans. It should, Risen says, and he’s right again.

His paper publishes many pieces about the issues that get to the heart of the “average American” malaise and indifference. (“The New York Times holds up       mirror to America – but who’s looking?” in this publication, March 14, 2013) Risen wishes other publications and stations would follow and inform and enlighten, and a few do. But looking into that mirror takes time and focus and understanding comes slowly and with some effort. How many people took the time and energy to understand how the financial meltdown of 2008 came about, for example? Even NYT readers and NPR listeners had trouble getting a handle on the great con Wall Street pulled on America.)

And put yourself through all that when you feel in your bones and know in your heart that change is not on the way. Risen and other investigative journalists should continue their excellent work and receive their profession’s awards for it. Other media no longer have the resources to follow their lead. The public has lost much of the ability and curiosity to dig into the dark corners they’ve lit up for us to gaze into. It’s more fun to tune into the warriors of sound bites. Their morsels are easy to digest. But Risen knows that, an hour later, some are still hungry for knowledge and understanding.

Share our journalism