I’ve spent the last decade writing articles for daily newspapers, national magazines, and the web.
But I never graduated from journalism school, a fact that haunted me for years. I used to feel as if I didn’t belong in the newsroom even though the modest paychecks kept coming my way.
The sorry state of journalism circa 2009 shouldn’t leave any writer, university-trained or otherwise, feeling inferior. I earned three arts degrees during my protracted college career, but even a recovering art major can share a little wisdom with today’s working reporters:
1. Hypocrisy works both ways. It’s hypocritical for a family values proponent to step out on his wife. That same standard applies to global warming advocates who leave carbon footprints that would dwarf Godzilla’s instep.
Or, for a more recent example, it’s hypocritical for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to label boisterous town hall protesters “un-American” even though she applauded liberal activists who spoke out just as loudly a few years back.
2. Don’t take your marching orders from Media Matters. Two organizations scour the media for bias and misinformation — Media Matters for America from the left and Newsbusters from the right. Read both daily and you’ll be a better, more informed reporter. But please don’t take Media Matters’ talking points as gospel. That group occasionally overplays its hand — just witness its silly assault on Rush Limbaugh over the faux “phony soldiers” scandal.
3. Read both right and left political blogs (and Andrew Sullivan‘s site doesn’t count as conservative). Blogs can be silly, full of misinformation, and downright deceitful, but the best of the best offer savvy insights into politicians and the reporters who cover them.
4. Hold the powerful accountable, even if they echo your views. Michael Moore’s upcoming film, Capitalism: A Love Story, hits theaters this fall. It’s a lock to earn rave reviews and countless softball interviews. Try questioning the tactics used in the film, the facts on the display, and Moore himself.
5. Give Rush a listen. Instead of demonizing Limbaugh, the most powerful radio talker on the right, why not tune him in for an hour or three? Limbaugh’s shtick is seriously one-sided, but his analysis routinely trumps conventional wisdom, and his assaults on media bias should be on the tips of every journalism school professor‘s tongue. There’s a reason he’s survived two decades in the business and remains on top.
And speaking of hypocrisy, if a reporter wants to slam Limbaugh for saying he wants President Obama to fail, then he or she should slam Senator Harry Reid for declaring the “surge” a failure before it even had time to work.
6. Read — and respond to — your critics. If a reader accuses you of bias or any other journalistic indiscretion, consider the argument. And assuming the e-mail or letter didn’t devolve into name calling or obscenities, write back with a personal note. You’ll improve the reporter-reader relationship, which has been severely damaged over time due to arrogance, and let them know you take their views seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with their critique.
7. Stop with the phony self-defense measures. If I hear one more journalist cry: “Well, I get hate mail from the left and the right, so I must be doing my job,” I’ll scream. There’s a very good reason bias-spotting sites like Newsbusters.org are updated virtually ‘round the clock.
8. Label, label label. Ever read a newspaper account of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that didn’t label him “conservative”? Didn’t think so. So why don’t Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, and Bill Maher get plastered with the “liberal“ label? Reporters need to be more fair and more consistent with how they present sources so the audience knows where each person or group is coming from. And that also goes for the folks behind various polls and research efforts — the Southern Poverty Law Center is a left-leaning outfit, but that fact is routinely left out of media accounts.
And just because Bill Maher calls himself a libertarian doesn’t mean that’s the proper label. The same goes for the so-called King of All Media, Howard Stern. Deion Sanders got away with calling himself “Prime Time,” and the name stuck. You’re a journalist. Try harder.
9. View press releases with suspicion. That press release that just landed in your e-mail could be the spark that ignites a terrific story. Or it could just be another group trying to spin the news of the day to its liking. Find out which is the case before filing your story.
10. Stop slamming Bernard Goldberg. It must feel good for journalists to call the former CBS newsman and author of Bias a hack — or worse. But he’s no Ann Coulter. He’s an Emmy-winning reporter who cares plenty about journalism. Discount his wisdom at your own peril.
11. Watch Fox News and take notes. The cable channel’s ratings continue to climb, while CNN and MSNBC keep falling. Find out why. Check out the stories they cover and consider whether your publication should do the same.
Consider the case of Van Jones, the former “green jobs” czar. for President Obama. His radical past forced him to resign. Fox News covered Jones’ outrageous comments in the days leading up to his resignation, while nearly every major media outlet snoozed. Aren’t reporters supposed to be grumpy when they’re beat to a story?
12. Acknowledge that the news needs a reboot. Journalism today is broken. Blame media bias, the internet, reader apathy … what have you. Ultimately, the public wants something different.
So be different, before the last newspaper rolls off the presses.