Press, Politics, and Public Life

By Michael Janeway

Yale University Press. 216 pp. $22.50


By Jay Rosen

Yale University Press. 338 pp. $29.95

Once there was a time when anyone could describe a journalist. Either he was a disheveled reporter with worn shoe leather loitering at the local police precinct, snooping out the scoop that would have us all talking the next day, or he was the world-weary columnist telling us what the scoop meant the day after that. But now even journalists have an identity crisis.

"Where giants walked then, midgets pose now," writes former Boston Globe and Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Janeway, striking the dominant chord that rings throughout the masterly--and mercifully short--"Republic of Denial," one of two books just released by Yale University Press that graph the seismic shifts altering the channels through which we are informed about public affairs. Janeway's is the journalist's take, while the other, "What Are Journalists For?," by Jay Rosen of New York University, provides an account of an academic's philosophical excursions into the newsroom.

What some deem a full-scale crisis of confidence among journalists, others will consider merely a series of dislocations inevitable in a rapidly changing marketplace. While Janeway and Rosen gravitate to the first, more worrisome view, the idols of the marketplace are the ones most profaned here. It is now the accountant's pencil, not the reporter's, writing the "first draft of history."

The troubles besetting journalism aren't insular and private. We're told that a healthy democracy moves in lockstep with a healthy press. Eighty years ago Walter Lippmann averred that "the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism," claiming quite a bit for himself and his colleagues. Janeway and Rosen renew this claim. Journalism served the public better in an earlier day because its role in raising, rather than manipulating, public consciousness was largely a salutary one. Now we Americans find ourselves, in Janeway's words, within "the eye of a storm," amounting to "a democratic crisis in a republic of denial," due in no small part to the morphing of sound journalism into marketing and entertainment.

These two books set out to explain this "denial" of the imperatives of public life and the parts played by journalists and their publishers in fostering it. And, as we quickly learn, there's enough blame to go around. Politicians also share a heavy responsibility for cheapening the public life. Any believer in spontaneous social progress will find little comfort in the pictures here painted. Despite a few flaccidly hopeful nods to the future, the story they tell of contemporary journalism is a story of decline.

Janeway's is the more reflective book. Beginning with a thumbnail historical sketch of both press and politics from the 1920s through the 1960s, he describes an energetic time that benefited from clarity of purpose and civility of manner among journalists and politicians. "And Then . . ." (as he titles the following chapter) came the shattering events from 1963 to the day before yesterday, which he recounts with a quick-cutting, telegraphic brevity resembling nothing so much as newsreel footage. We're led through the disarray befalling public life, from the erosion of political parties to the (perhaps predictable) fixation on the private lives of public figures attendant upon the politics of personality. In this transformation the press was complicit and its dignity--not to mention its claim to serve the commonweal--seriously compromised.

Then came the men in suits. Newspapers were changed not only by the snare of television and the foreshortened attention spans of readers, but also by relentless bottom-line innovators whose cost-cutting manias drove one former editor to lament that "a business that has always claimed to rest on a public trust" now must live by "delivering advertising sold for the highest possible retail price to the fewest high-income customers necessary to justify the highest rates to advertisers."

So the question of Rosen's title becomes a timely one. Just what is the proper place for journalists in contemporary life? Perceiving the crises both of identity and of subscription readership--as well as sensing the same "civic withdrawal" noted by Janeway--Rosen, along with a handful of reputable journalists around the country, lit out to report on an experiment. Over 10 years ago they consorted to find a movement called "public" or "civic" journalism, which sought to expand, even reconfigure, journalism's task. Lines commonly separating the reportorial and editorial functions were to be, if not crossed, certainly thinned. No longer was the local newspaper idly to report the goings-on in city hall; it was to stir up its readership to act, for example, by sponsoring evening forums on local problems and perhaps forcing government's hand to solve them--a movement sure to leave any editor of the old school writhing in his chair.

But a few notable journalists, like David Broder, supported the movement's intentions, if not always the results, and public journalism had a few remarkable successes, some explored here in detail.

Rosen writes with an apostolic zeal. Providing us with a refreshingly jargon-free manifesto of public journalism, he proceeds in a spirit of fairness--and at formidable length--to record both those successes and the criticisms of its myriad detractors. Yet while Rosen begins with an apologetic history of the idea, by the end of the book that history has turned into an obituary.

We needn't look far to see that the ideal of public service doesn't always spur the antagonistic reporter or columnist waiting to pounce on the peccadilloes of public officials. But we knew that already. What's changed is the nature and number of obstacles to the older clarity and confidence rightly yearned for by Janeway and Rosen. Both the deadline and the bottom line should still be drawn in different rooms. A book explaining how journalism can newly mint, in these latter days, the coin with which it once traded most--public trust--would make for scintillating copy.

Tracy Lee Simmons, director of the Dow program in American journalism at Hillsdale College.