He was a gentleman and a scholar. And a journalist. Michael Janeway (73), former editor of the Boston Globe, executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly, professor and dean at two of America’s leading schools of journalism and author of “The Fall of the House of Roosevelt” (2004), died on April 17.
The rambling obituary in his old paper recalls the details of his eight years there and his brief tenure of fourteen months as its editor between January 1985 and March 1986. He was not suited to gaining the popularity of his predecessor and Globe icon Thomas Winship, although he was lauded as a “very good line-by-line editor.” His attempt to focus the paper on national and international events did not sit well with newsroom colleagues who favored emphasis on local and regional coverage.
It is the shorter obituary in the New York Times, however, that captured his historian’s ability to depict a vision of the media’s role in a democracy and critique its diminishing ability and interest in assuming that role by the end of the 2oth century.
In his first book, “Republic of Denial. Press, Politics and Public Life” (1999) he spelled out what he saw as the role of the press in a democratic society, namely to “question, investigate, connect, critique, fill in that which officials and politicians celebrate, claim, charge, conceal, overlook, evade, deny, wish, pretend and actually do.”
And for him, all of that if reported would have presented readers with the big picture of America’s public life from World War II to the close of the century, or “America’s passage from a nation of cohesion, heroic national enterprise, fortune and spirit to times in which alienation, pessimism, loss and disintegration become rampant.” That story, he saw, was being told in the streets, by friends, in family circles as well as by novelists and playwrights.
“But the story of that passage,” he suggested, “is not for the most part the subject of political or journalistic discourse.” Neither politicians nor mainstream journalists “have been able to name or contend with the story in a sustained and comprehensive way.”
Toward the end of the 20th century, the fault wasn’t necessarily that of journalists. Janeway realized that this central story of the century’s second half would have backfired in the news business “with bedrock constituents and audiences, giving them more harsh news when what they wanted (was) relief from it.” That’s the way it still is today, as predicted by Neil Postman in his “Amusing Ourselves to Death. Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” (1985).
Postman quotes former USA Today editor John Quinn: “We are not up to undertaking projects of the dimension needed to win prizes. They don’t give awards for the best investigative paragraph.”
Pieces of the ongoing big picture story are, nonetheless, available today. One appeared in the April 21 NYT, looking at lives endured by citizens in America’s poorest counties, “50 Years Later, Hardships Endure,” p. 1) The opening paragraph tells readers quite a lot: “When people visit with friends and neighbors in southern West Virginia, where paved roads give way to dirt before winding steeply up wooded hollows, the talk is often of lives that never got off the ground.”
Janeway wanted journalism to become the first draft of the history of those 50 years. That was likely to happen only in bits and pieces in the age of Wall Street rule and obsession with entertainment, with the bread and circuses of our day. Still, readers with curiosity and time can connect some of the dots in the archives of papers and magazines. Others will have to turn to the history books, perhaps to the 464-page volume by Jeff Madrick: “Age of Greed. The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present.” (2011) It is, as the NYT used to say, a good read. But it does not offer relief.