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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Can 20th Century Journalism Make it in the 21st Century?

Blogger and Talk Radio host Hugh Hewitt has a fascinating and important column in the latest Weekly Standard entitled "The Media's Ancien Regime." To put it bluntly, Hewitt has little hope for anything remotely resembling a bright future for what has passed for much of the previous century as objective journalism.

In the course of reaching that conclusion, however, Hewitt provides quite an interesting account of his recent venture into the Columbia Journalism School at Columbia University in New York City.

Reading the Hewitt account of his experience at Columbia suggests a taste of what might result were it possible for a Paul Johnson of our own day to go back in time to observe and write an account of the latter days of the Roman Empire.

The occasion for Hewitt's journey to CJS was an invitation from Nicholas Lemann, the veteran New Yorker journalist who took over the journalism program two years ago, following a fundamental re-examination led by Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, of how the journalism program fits into the school's overall goals.

Lemann is one of the aging golden boys of 1960s journalism, having started out with an alternative newspaper in New Orleans and then gaining national recognition with extremely successful stints at Texas Monthly and Washington Monthly. He represents in many respects the very best of his generation of journalists.

Lemann seems to believe he carries a great burden for saving traditional journalism -the vision of reportorial objectivity whose historic and professional inspirations are drawn mainly from Joseph Pulitzer and Walter Lippman - and he believes he has found the tool with which to carry out the noble mission.

It is a tool that immediately caught my eye because it is one with which I am quite familiar. As related by Hewitt, Lemann explained it in this manner:

"Lemann's hope for this course is to cultivate in his students a capacity to discover and analyze data. He repeatedly uses the term 'power skills,' and he has in mind a deeper appreciation, and use, of more sophisticated research and analytical skills than most journalists bring to the table.

"'Regression analysis is the best example,' he tells me. 'Every social science study in the United States depends upon regression analysis, but almost no reporters understand it. You can't read and understand these studies if you don't know how regression analysis works. I taught myself how to do it, and we are going to teach the M.A. students, equipping them to go beyond their ordinary reliance on dueling experts interpreting studies.'"

What Lemann is talking about is what is otherwise known as Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting (CARR). I left a daily newspaper in 1999 to start just such a program at The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.

In the years since, more than 200 editors, producers, reporters and researchers, as well as a growing number of bloggers in recent months, have graduated from the eight to 10 "CARR Boot Camps" I oversee each year at the National Press Club in coordination with the latter's Erik Friedheim Library, ably assisted by a bevy of Heritage colleagues who just happen to be masters of statistical analysis.

My enthusiasm for CARR is grounded in the belief that it holds the potential to change the basic journalism paradigm based on anecdote and selective quotation to one based on objective data-driven analytical reporting.

Put another way, CARR can move reporters from a "Bush said/Critics responded" approach to one in which the claims of all participants in the public policy debate, including those of government officials, think tank analysts and non-profit community advocates, are subjected to a trial-by-statistical fire.

Simple Example: Politician Jones claims his education subsidy program has caused improved student academic performance by increasing public spending on schools. Such a claim is easily assessed via such statistical tools as the regression analysis so valued by Lemann.

We've also begun using instructors from other think tanks, including the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. If you recognize those as left-of-center outfits, you begin to see why Lemann has such hopes for those power skills and the future of traditional - i.e. objective - journalism.

There is no "conservative way" or "liberal way" to teach journalists how to use an Excel spreadsheet to analyze a county government's budget. Either you know how to use Excel or you don't. So I am eager to recruit statistical experts from throughout the think tank comnunity because so many of them have skills that are desperately needed by journalists and bloggers.

Hewitt is deeply skeptical that Lemann's approach will be sufficient to save traditional journalism and, based on my own experience in the newsroom and the journalism classroom, I am inclined to agree, though for slightly different reasons.

Hewitt thinks mainstream or traditional journalism is doomed because its myth of objectivity has been irretrievably exposed as fraudulent:

"Every conversation with one of the old guard citing the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer.

"In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs."

Lemann is right to look to those "power skills" for the salvation of traditional journalism. I believe the underlying problem driving the demise of traditional journalism, however, is not a lack of practical skills but a desperately serious absence of intellectual independence in the newsroom.

Don't misunderstand me. Certainly the legions of reporters and editors with whom I have worked and managed during my decade and a half in the newsroom is far from a scientific sampling of contemporary journalism.

But the problems I have observed directly over the years are evident throughout the profession. You need only read the front pages of the great dailies. Too many journalists blindly accept as gospel the essential goodness of government programs in solving societal problems.

What skepticism they can muster is typically saved for critics of activist government who are understood primarily through the lens of stereotype and newsroom uniformity of thought seen in the extraordinarily high percentages of journalists voting Democratic.

This intellectual laziness is the main - but not the only - reason why so much mainstream media reporting in print and broadcast comes across as biased in favor of liberal Democrats and against conservative Republicans. Journalists simply do not think to ask either themselves or the politicians they cover the most basic question: Is a public policy claim true or false?

Lemann knows public policy claims can often be shown through statistical analysis to be true or false or only partly true or false. The biggest problem he faces in reforming traditional journalism, however, is not a lack of intelligence or idealism or commitment among those who aspire to such a career.

The great obstacle is that too many of the aspirants aren't even aware of their inability to pose the most basic questions and to then think through the possible answers in a logical and systematic manner.

They listen to the politicians but then instead of asking "let me see the data upon which you base your claim," they uncritically parrot the assertions and balance them with a few quotes from "the other side."

I hope that Hewitt and I are both wrong and that Lemann succeeds in sparking a reformation of traditional journalism that is known by its accuracy, fairness and comprehensiveness in reporting the great issue and events of the day.

But the odds are overwhelmingly on the side of those of us who see in the blunt skepticism and outright hostility to conventional wisdom of so many bloggers the most fertile ground for the growth of public policy journalism that deserves respect and inspires trust.

UPDATE: Austin Bay and "the Bomb" at CJS

Austin Bay - who undoubtedly qualifies as a modern Renaissance Man par excellence - was at Columbia University in the early 80s and happened to take a Journalism Ethics course there on a lark.

He tells us of the day the professor threw out a hypothetical drawn from history that he clearly designed to trap the naive young scribes before him in an ethical quandry from which they likely could not extract themselves.

Bay knew what the professor was doing almost immediately (thus revealing the vital importance of journalists knowing the history that went before them before writing the first draft of the history that follows them) and ended up leading the distinct minority in the class that voted the right way.

Bay further describes subsequent vignettes of his relationship with the professor and thereby illustrates a major part of the flaw that continues to hobble the mainstream media from understanding why it faces being dropped in the dustbin of history in the not-so-distant future.

Go here for the full Bay, which is always a pleasure.

UPDATE II: Stan Running Two Minute Offense

And finding much to agree with in Hewitt's original piece and in my response. He also has some prescient points of his own to make regarding the similarities between good trial lawyers and good journalists.