News demagoguery: an omen of reform

A six-month sabbatical and journalism as a civic duty provide a new model for the news industry.

Ashley Dresser

Watching the newspaper industry attempt to reinvent itself before its final hour is kind of like watching my grandmother dress herself 40 years younger in time for her cardiology appointment. âÄúDonâÄôt you think these pantyhose make my legs look slimmer?âÄù she requests. I am reminded of the 100 Star Tribune jobs that were slashed this month in the wake of their exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Yes, the Strib is now âÄúslimmer,âÄù but there is no promise in how long their pantyhose are going to hold, especially with the kind of financial deficiencies lurking underneath. âÄúAnd how about this red lipstick?âÄù she asks, making a face that only porn stars should. It looks just like the cover of last weekâÄôs Pioneer Press: two big, bold-faced banner ads on the front page, screaming âÄútake me fast and easy.âÄù But I dare not disparage my grandmother out loud. In our society, it is customary that we respect and take care of our elders, however old and decrepit they may be. They are still our best hope for obtaining concrete facts, interpreting new information and providing a historical perspective to understand our world. You could say the same about the newspaper industry, yet we seem to be content with casting it aside. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center poll, 46 percent of the public relies heavily on local and major network news to stay informed. Television was the primary news source for 26 percent of those surveyed. These are not new facts, but whatâÄôs increasing my alarm is the type of people our new preferences have continued to prop up. Take last weekâÄôs Sean Hannity snafu. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called out Fox NewsâÄôs use of footage from a larger Sept. 12 âÄútea partyâÄù gathering to illustrate a much smaller health care rally on Capitol Hill last week. The segment aired on HannityâÄôs show and although Hannity apologized on-air to Jon Stewart for being caught, he didnâÄôt apologize to the rest of us. CNNâÄôs Lou Dobbs also recently delivered his resignation, suspiciously timed with increased scrutiny over his anti-immigration statements. After an errant hunterâÄôs shot was fired on his house three weeks ago, Dobbs concocted yet another conspiracy theory against the Latino community on his show. Latinos were already carrying out a campaign to cancel Dobbs due to his persistently baseless commentary, but CNN likely dubbed the gunshot grandstanding: the final nail in his coffin. This kind of poor, opinion-based âÄúreportingâÄù is what passes for news today; we seem willing to sacrifice quality and content for the sake of speed and entertainment. And so I ask you, have we learned nothing from some of the worldâÄôs most brilliant minds? Thoreau, Joyce, Hemingway and others, who took care to live in relative seclusion? And what about those who, if not physically in exile, pursued a state of mind that kept them close to it: Kerouac, Thompson and Freud to name a few. In order to make sense of the madness of Earth, these giants deemed it necessary to disconnect from what is familiar and expected. They let go âĦ and sometime later, they came out with some of the greatest insights of our time. Whatever happened to praising these six-month to seven-year sabbaticals? Today, the staying power of the sabbatical is a secret that IâÄôm pretty sure nobody knows, except for Johnny Depp. Have you ever noticed how Depp manages to make himself completely void in headlines until he has a new movie debut? We wonâÄôt hear from him for months at a time and then he will come out with something unquestionably brilliant, and we ask ourselves, what has he been doing? Who is this man? He is so mysterious that he must be intelligent. This is what I suggest for the news industry. Instead of creating demagogues, let us create demigods. Dobbs doesnâÄôt have to say something every day. Sometimes there is nothing new to say and this lack of material is what gets people in trouble. We need more reporters, not fewer, but we need more reporters with less frequency. We need to give our commentators more time to develop their thought process and to physically connect with the world that they report on. To facilitate this flexibility, we need to make journalism a civic responsibility. Like jury duty, we should be given the obligation to preserve justice and transparency within our communities. Instead of a permanent staff, newspapers could tap from a rotating pool of citizen reporters. A journalist will suddenly become everyoneâÄôs part-time job, and under this model, no one can get too comfortable with the level of power and influence they might acquire. A seed of this idea is already beginning here at home via Minnesota Public RadioâÄôs Public Insight Network. As a member, one volunteers oneâÄôs expertise and commentary to journalists in need of a source on the same subject matter. This substantially diversifies the reporting process as journalists no longer need to rely on the same access points or spokespeople for the same organizations every time. The newspaper industry is not dead, nor is it dying. We do not discard our elders, so we should not so quickly discard real news. If anything, it is our culture that has lost its way. I beg newspapers to find ways to stay afloat without compromising their core foundations. News is like a powerful muscle: one either uses it or loses it. People must once again acknowledge the content value of journalism, that great grandparent, the archivist of our time, and take care to use, like a grandparentâÄôs advice, the âÄúgood stuff.âÄù Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]