Friday, December 13, 2013

Rieder: Kinder, gentler, hard-hitting reporting

Journalists are not exactly perceived as heroes these days. Poll after poll finds the public is soured on them, ranking them down toward the bottom of the list with lawyers, congressmen, ax murderers and other lowlifes.

It's no wonder. For years, Hollywood has loved to portray reporters as a cynical lot who would do anything for a story.

And in real life, major mistakes (jumping to bogus conclusions on the D.C.-Navy Yard shooting and the Boston Massacre bombing, 60 Minutes' Benghazi fiasco) haven't helped. Nor has the propensity of some outlets to go overboard on online linkbait ranging from the silly to the inflammatory.

But a different, much more noble side of the profession was on display at a conference this week, one that reflects the romantic belief in their profession as a calling that often underlies the harder shell..

The event was called "Incivility in the Media: Engaging Journalists." It was put together by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, an organization created in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords whose mission is pretty well summed up by its name; the Poynter Institute, a journalism education outfit; and the Newseum, the museum for news in Washington, D.C., that hosted the event. The conveners assembled a strikingly smart, diverse and passionate group of journalists from both legacy news outlets and new-media ventures, representing a broad swath of age groups, ethnic backgrounds, geographic bases and world views.

Incivility in American public life is a pretty big foe to tackle, and a collection of 40 or so journalists, no matter how perspicacious, is not likely to solve it in a few days. Even if the entire news media tightened up their games (don't bet heavily on that), much more would remain to be done, given the sheer amount of vitriol and paralyzing dysfunction that pervade our political life.

But you've got to start somewhere.

And make no mistake: today's civic ugliness is an opponent well worth taking on. Thi! s is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon. President Johnson was vilified by the anti-war movement. Liberals loved poking fun at Presidents Reagan and Bush II for being dumb.

And the right's visceral hatred of President Clinton (and Hillary) was off the charts, and kind of scary.

But in the past few years, it seems as if we have plummeted to a new low. The sense among those who loath him that President Obama is somehow an illegitimate president has triggered an astounding level of antipathy. Even public officials who should know better feel free to say outrageous things about him. Call it the "You lie" era.

Compounding all of this is the disappearing middle in both political parties. A friend of mine recently described her husband as the last surviving Rockefeller Republican. And just a handful of conservative or centrist Democrats remain in Congress.

The days when Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, or Sen. Ted Kennedy, a liberal warhorse, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative stalwart, could cut deals are as hard to remember as a world without Facebook and Miley Cyrus. Although this week's budget accord may be a sign we are tiptoeing back from the brink.

And the news media, or some of its key components, reflect this bitterly polarized world. The advent of right-wing talk radio, dueling partisan cable combatants Fox and MSNBC, digital aggregators and blogs that skew right and left, have combined to give us echo chambers where people who simply want to have their own views reinforced, with brio, can do just that.

Then throw in Twitter, which has revolutionized, as it has so many things, political reporting by dramatically ramping up the RPMs. Now the gaffe of the moment, the latest incendiary comment, goes viral in an instant, further poisoning the civic well.

So back to the journalists. No one at the conference brandished a silver bullet. But there were plenty of ideas that could help improve a fraught situation.

One of life's many ironies is! that a c! onclave of journalists, in a setting devoted to celebration of the First Amendment, was off the record. But the fact that the event happened, and the core values statement cobbled together by the participants, weren't. And that document is an inspirational reminder of why journalism matters.

The statement decreed that journalists, among other things, must:

• "Seek and report truth and information founded in facts, grounded in humanity and necessary to public function."

• "Hold the powerful accountable; challenge them to speak the truth and act with integrity; expose wrongdoing and injustice."

• "Create meaning; report facts in context with fairness, relevance and significance."

None of this is revolutionary, of course. Cynics will no doubt deem it a fantasy. And with the intense pressure in today's newsrooms to move at the speed of tweet, it's not an easy creed to live up to. But the document is an important statement of aspiration, and a valuable reminder that journalism is more than the morsel of the moment.

The sponsors see the gathering as a beginning, not the end. Adding political figures and ordinary citizens to the mix next time would make the conversation even richer..

And perhaps be a step, albeit a small one, toward a more civil society.

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