So why did I go to Cambridge last week anyway? To attend a lecture in honor of the Wolfson Press Fellowship's 25th anniversary, delivered by Financial Times columnist and Reuters Institute brain John Lloyd. It was a sobering catalogue of the challenges facing the media.
Lloyd said journalists are right to reflect with "some foreboding" on the woes we face, "but we must have some faith that serious journalism is worth doing." (An excerpt from his remarks ran in Cambridge's Varsity student newspaper.)
The evening reminded me of one of those Agatha Christie mysteries where it turns out more than one killer offed the victim. Who does Lloyd think has stabbed serious journalism, leaving it hovering near death in the intensive-care unit, a respirator in its mouth, a catheter bag hanging by the bedside? Among the suspects:
Pack journalism that's intent on tearing down politicians and other public figures by accentuating the negative. (Especially in Britain, which suffers, Lloyd said, from "endemic incivility.")
The concomitant rise in spin, as politicians try to shape the news.
The hungry maw of the 24-hour news cycle, which requires a constant supply of fresh meat on which to chew.
Dwindling news staffs, which means fewer journalists doing more work of lower quality.
The growth of the public relations industry and the embrace journalism has given it, resulting in journalists who do little more than "launder" press releases.
Free sheets such as Metro, which threaten established evening papers such as the Evening Standard.
The ability of consumers to put together their own news from myriad sources, commodifying journalism.
Most of these, Lloyd suggested, are the result of market forces, prompting him to wonder if perhaps the market has failed when it comes to providing serious journalism. If that is the case, then other methods of support should be contemplated, including funding from the state (as with the BBC) or from not-for-profit institutions (such as Pew or Carnegie).
I would hate to see it come to that, desirous as I am that journalism--serious and otherwise--be able to pay its own way. And I was trying to see the appeal that would be made to the public on journalism's behalf. Would the argument by that this is like trying to save, say, a homegrown steel industry (vital national security issues are at stake) or like seeking funding for an experimental ballet company (sure, it only appeals to a few people but culture is important for our society)?
Sean Taylor, R.I.P.
Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins player, was shot and killed near Miami earlier this week. A tragedy to be sure. It's interesting watching the media pick through the 24-year-old's life and death and create narratives or explanations. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson makes an impassioned plea that we resist thinking in these terms. Writes Robinson: "Do me a favor: If you have to impose an off-the-shelf narrative on Sean Taylor's death, pick something other than the Young Black Men story."
The Post's Len Shapiro performs the sort of linguistic gymnastics columnists all over America are doing today, writing in one paragraph "At the moment, it is far too soon to draw any conclusions as to how or why this tragedy occurred..." before a few lines later concluding: "Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming?"
Taylor had several well-publicized brushes with the law, with the NFL and with his own team. He once spit in an opposing player's face. He allegedly threatened a group of men he thought had stolen his all-terrain vehicle (not his car, as a British paper reported yesterday). (And what is it about ATVs anyway? They're always in the news for the wrong reasons: breaking the necks of 6-year-olds or inspiring feats of misguided loyalty.)
Every story about Taylor mentions that his father is a police chief. I guess the two didn't talk much about the best way to behave in tense situations. We can be sure of one thing: Writer's strike or no, the folks at "CSI: Miami" are sharpening their pencils as we speak.