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Slate--Like Rest of MSM-- Misses What's Killing Journalism

10/26/2006 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a rather bizarre series of columns, Slate's Jack Shafer has attacked newspapers for being self-important and mocked journalists for whining that lower news budgets and increasing layoffs of experienced reporters might lead to declines in journalistic quality. He claims that little that makes it into newspapers is investigative reporting that serves the function of checking governmental power anyway, closing the first piece this way:

I suspect that the egotistical proclamations of journalists really mask the low esteem they hold for the total product they produce. If you fillet the average daily newspaper--cutting out the sports section, the comics, the crossword, the horoscope, the opinion pages, the entertainment coverage, and the special sections devoted to home, dining, medicine, travel, cars, real estate, and TV listings--relatively little of the democracy-enhancing, life-sustaining reportage they boast about actually gets printed.

First of all, though opinion journalism often doesn't explicitly check governmental power, where else but the op-ed page does Shafer find actual arguments for and against particular policies in newspapers? Most newspapers cover health care policy in their news pages, for example, by focusing on "how proposing universal health care affects Democrats' electability," rather than giving people details about particular health policies and arguments for and against implementing them.

The op-ed pages (with the exception of the idea-free Maureen Dowd) are one of the rare refuges for people who actually care about policy, not politics-- a place where readers can find debates on the ideas that are fundamental to civic understanding of the world and what kind of government would best serve them. Yes, they are often these days invaded by Dowd-like supercilious commentary on political foibles -- but at least the op-ed pages frequently include and are intended to contain reasoned arguments for various positions of the type needed to help citizens make informed decisions.

And, how does a section on medicine necessarily fail to provide important civically useful information? Sure, some are simply adverts-- but there are many that expose insurance flaws, frauds, scams and research problems that again help citizens learn important things about medical science that have policy implications and thereby do help check government.

In his second piece, Shafer makes the even more ridiculous claim that newsroom cuts won't hurt investigative journalism because most of it is actually based on work originally done by government agencies or nonprofit groups.

Well, that's all right then-- no need to bother to report it and check it out, the government and nonprofits can handle that. And people can find their way to these reports by hopefully setting appropriate google alerts and reading blogs by people with non-journalism jobs who have no time to actually talk to people and figure out what's what because this isn't their paying work?

I'm sure most busy people can get by with the executive summary in bureaucratese-- no investigative reporter needed to find out that the conclusions don't actually follow from the data, none needed to look at the politics of the agency that produced it or the agenda of the nonprofit that came out with the latest scare about child pornography.

Shafer's series is a classic example of the contrarianism for its own sake that is putting people off the mainstream media. He's certainly right that too many investigative pieces fail to make it into the pages of newspapers-- but that's not because there are too many journalists or because the newsroom budget is too big.

It's because executives have decided that people care only about politics, not policy-- because the default is to cover news as though we care about "what this means for those in power" rather than what it means for us as citizens. It's because the corporate media don't want investigations into how their lobbyists and those of other corporations influence policy-- and because they've convinced reporters that people care more about where politicians put their dicks then where they put our money.

It's because journalists haven't had the balls to stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes-- until they began to think that someone else might say it first.

As a result, journalists are finally getting tired of their editors rejecting sharp investigative pieces that cover untold stories-- and readers are becoming furious that pieces like Matt Taibbi's expose on the Republican Congress, a story that could have been reported years ago, are only now getting wide attention.

We haven't yet figured out a way to get both wide exposure and enough remuneration to support investigative work that completely bypasses the bottleneck-- but many smart people are working on it and the recent spate of manifestos and media critiques suggests that it won't be long now.

Either the mainstream media will respond to the hunger for better information (heartening to see for example, that number-one rated NBC Nightly News is also the one with the greatest proportion of hard news) or audiences will find it elsewhere.