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Long Winter for the Media

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, March 2, 2008

It is an unsettling time to be a journalist. You are either on the edge of extinction or in charge of the universe.

The newspaper industry is condemned to write piecemeal its own obituary without knowing when or how -- or, truth be told, if -- the end will come. Broadcast media now possess a self-inflated importance that they rarely bother to deny. Television today is the warp and the woof of news -- and often through its presence or absence it is the news itself.

Access to the Internet gives the generations living today the choice to be the best-informed, or the worst-informed, human beings in history -- but we will never be able to claim that we were the least-informed. Celebrity, slime and crude polemics pour from the electronic faucets as easily as high-minded exegeses.

This is not exactly the change that those of us in the trade for decades have been waiting for. But it is the change we have -- and it permanently alters the nature and the perception of what we do.

Paradoxically, during a period of severe economic transition in the industry and greater self-questioning than at any time I can remember, journalists must abandon the hoary claim that they deserve neither the honor nor the indignity of being considered important forces in the stories they cover.

They are. Television is now life's blood for politicians, as well as for celebrities and aspirin advertisers. That medium's weight and the increasingly desperate quest by the print media for novelty and "edge" in presenting complex events and trends -- often at the expense of understanding and fairness -- make the storytellers and the highly stressed environment in which they labor part of the story as never before.

The final days of the Democratic and Republican primary seasons demonstrate the new, still-volatile role and reach of the media. The same point is brought home -- in the negative -- by, of all things, a television show that is ending its run as well.

One article of faith unites Hillary Clinton's supporters in these grim days even more tightly than universal health care: It is the idea that the media's adulatory coverage of Barack Obama and their failure to scrutinize his past have caused her campaign's downward spiral from inevitability to desperation.

This is a serious charge, but it has not been made in an equally serious way by the Clintonites, who seem to believe in a vast media-wing conspiracy. They have neither inflicted political damage on Obama nor provoked a serious examination by the accused culprits -- that is, us -- of the behavior in question.

Clinton raised the theme of victimization by the media in last week's televised debate in such a convoluted manner that it seemed to fall somewhere between campaign tactics and personal obsession. Her complaint about always getting the first question and a muffed reference to a "Saturday Night Live" joke fell flat, and Obama again danced lightly away from any confrontation that would have made him seem menacing to or dismissive of her.

The scuffle between the New York Times and John McCain over the newspaper's slightly salacious and seriously undersourced account of the senator's ties to a female lobbyist also raises important questions about how turmoil in and around the newsroom may indirectly affect coverage.

I don't think the Times, one of the world's great newspapers, published its account out of political bias or for titillation. A better question is this: What effect did a string of well-publicized, morale-damaging crises in the newsroom, as well as the industry's darkening economic skies, have on the decision to print before the story was ready?

Good editors protect their staffs as fiercely as they prod and push them. Awarding prime front-page display to stories with heavy investments of sweat and resources is an important tool in lifting morale. The decision might have looked less urgent in a more confident, more settled newsroom.

History, of course, does not disclose its alternatives. But anyone who has been watching HBO's "The Wire" this year will understand why newsrooms might need morale-boosters now -- and how easily such attempts can misfire.

This magnificent dramatization of life in Baltimore's violent ghettos has systematically shown the failure of the city's police, schools, unions and politicians to deal with a modern urban crisis.

This final season focuses on a newsroom in turmoil and the broad failure of the city's media to reflect the corruption of the institutions they are supposed to cover. The grim results of that inattention show how power unused by the media is just as destructive as its misuse.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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