Looking at American Journalism From the Outside In
‘As journalists struggle to report on and understand their times, they cannot escape being part of their times.’
I returned from Mexico City to find that spring, reluctantly, had sprung in New York. The city’s journalistic tom-toms were beating out their ritualistic tattoos: Mayor Bloomberg’s future; the market’s fall; a subway fare hike; the Yankees’ chances. And from farther afield, The New York Times, in her gray but still somehow glorious way, deigned to examine in detail the conclave to pick a pope; the significance of more hostage taking in Iraq; the condition of nukes in North Korea, and the fallout in friendship between China and Japan. All on Page One, thus setting much of the agenda for the rest of the nation’s roiling news media and, for that matter, for a great deal of the world’s.
It was good to be back home. And good to be reading the Times which, for all its pretense and its post-Jayson Blair faux humility, remains perhaps the best daily newspaper in the world. Yet at the Times, as at every other American newspaper I know, there is a lot of headscratching and nail biting going on right now. Many readers are abandoning newspapers, and newspaper editors have begun asking why. Magazine editors are not far behind, as shifting tastes and the Internet are making inroads into their own readerships. And pity the poor network news, now struggling to reinvent itself as Rather, Jennings and Brokaw fade to black. So what’s going on here in the nation that invented all of these suddenly embattled genres?
Looking With Different Eyes
As an American journalist who spends a great deal of his time outside America working with foreign journalists, I have a great window to view the American media market from the outside in. The myopic handwringers in New York and Washington newsrooms and on the TV news sets might be surprised to find that journalism’s problems are indeed worldwide—and in many countries journalism is in worse shape than it is here and for a variety of reasons.
Consider Mexico, my last journalistic port of call. Even Reforma, the cream of a small crop of revitalizing papers, is no match for the mighty Times, not to speak of other top-notch and even middle-notch newsrooms up North. But the paper is trying, and so are many Mexican journalists on many papers and magazines, despite a weak economy, persistent poverty, shifting standards, implicit and explicit journalistic corruption, and an audience that often seems mugged by TV soaps and unable or unwilling to read.
In Tokyo, where I spent a week this spring, the problem with the news is not so much circulation: it’s stultification. In that wealthy country the political and journalistic poverty is a poverty of the imagination. The huge, mechanized shimbuns of the world’s number two economy turn out vast wastelands of dry, statistical reporting and dependably dull commentary, graced here and there by the odd scoop or superstar correspondent having a good day. Tokyo’s notorious “press club” rules insure that all reporters behave responsibly if they want to remain members of the club. Most are inveterate belongers.
In China not long ago, I met with one of the brightest and most talented young journalists in the country. But sadly, both for him and for China, he was busy editing a glossy celebrity magazine. There weren’t really that many “real” jobs in Chinese journalism, he explained ruefully, so he was doing the best he could, waiting for “the great opening” now some thousands of years in the making. (When it comes, I thought, it had better be good.) Meanwhile, he assured me, the money to be made covering the lifestyles of China’s newly rich and famous wasn’t so bad.
I work for Newsweek, and my job is the editorial oversight of all of Newsweek’s foreign-language editions published outside the United States. Right now, that means magazines in China, Japan, South Korea, the Middle East, Latin America, Poland and Russia. It’s a fair-sized piece of territory, so I travel a lot. Wherever I go, there’s still a great deal of respect for American-style journalism, although foreign journalists are sometimes better at finding its flaws than we are here at home.
The problems we wrestle with in our “mature” and gigantic media market— the commoditization of news, the sameness in the way we tend to tell stories and report events, the wavering line between reporting and opinion, the rise of personality journalism—have not yet surfaced in some of the markets I visit. In others, particularly in Western Europe, editors and producers have some of the same worries, but hardly the angst. Journalism in Europe, particularly in England, Germany and France, still retains much of the verve and excitement of the Great Game. American journalists are sometimes viewed as taking themselves just a tad too seriously in places where “sell papers and raise hell” remains the object of the game.
In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, journalists are trying to develop standards for reporting in societies where, for more than 50 years, no real reporting existed at all. In those places young men and women with an inclination towards journalism often have found themselves shunted into government-ministry mouthpiece jobs or to obscure niches in academia. Only now are some of them starting to come out, and for many it is too late. Forwardlooking publishers are turning to the young. The average age of our staff at Newsweek-Russia is somewhere in the early 30’s. In Poland it’s the mid-30’s.
What I’ve learned in nearly a decade of talking to foreign journalists, sometimes hiring them, a few times firing them, always trying to listen to them, is that there is no such thing as stateof- the-art journalism, some world-class, shining example that all practitioners can be held to. Instead, there are many journalisms, all of them flawed, though some, at least on the surface, might appear more advanced. In navel-gazing America we sometimes miss the point that in other places the stakes for journalists are quite a bit higher than who will replace an aging anchorman or whether to hire an ombudsman.
In Moscow last year, our very young top editor took an excited call from the switchboard. “Come quick! Someone’s shot the American editor of Forbes-Russia and he’s bleeding in the parking lot!” Two of the editors from Newsweek- Russia then rushed downstairs from the offices they share with the Forbes-Russia staff, found the wounded American, Paul Klebnikov, and rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital. Too late. He was dead. Both his friends and the Russian authorities suspected it was because he had written a lot about the grimy intersection of government and organized crime in today’s Russia. The crime remains unsolved. And a lot of people are still working on what remains a very important, difficult, dangerous story.
The Changed American Press
American journalists like to think of themselves as people interested in looking beneath the surface, in righting big wrongs, in speaking truth to power. And often, after a hard day at our corporate, hydra-headed, deeply conflicted offices, we may even feel good about some of the work we do. As I’ve told so many prospective journalists in so many countries: It still beats banking. But beneath the self-satisfying surface, there may be more similarities to a cruder commerce than many of us think.
During the last several decades, American society has moved steadily to the right and so has the journalism that reflects the society. Too many reporters and editors seem to have become “embedded” in the nation’s present way of viewing the economy. The French, who have their own term for everything, call this “capitalisme sauvage,” an extreme set of economic arrangements that in the name of economic realism secure the future not only to the Darwinian “fittest,” but also often to the most brutal practitioners of the doctrine of Me First.
Many in the American media seem to have embraced, or at least failed to question, this extreme form of capitalism. They’ve become market watchers, wideeyed observers of the corporate world, pitchmen and women for The Next Big Thing. Consider the burgeoning areas of media and technology reporting, which in many cases are closer to product promotion or to celebrity watching (Hello Messrs. Gates, Murdoch and Diller!) than to any hard-eyed analysis of what may be behind the wizard’s curtain. The journalist’s agenda, historically tinged with the need to sell papers and court power, today sometimes seems in real danger of becoming one gigantic special advertising section. Following the economic dictum of supply and demand, young reporters who write about subjects like business, personal finance and technology have become far more easily employable than those who want to cover wars or world hunger.
The very language we use to describe our world which, increasingly, is the world of life’s winners, has changed to reflect a changed point of view. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? That notion seems to have gone out with trade unionism and the pension system. What was once routinely called a corporate “pension grab” by editorialists in the 1950’s or 60’s has become “pension reform” in today’s journalistic parlance. “Layoffs,” which once connoted pain and unemployment, have become “restructurings,” the cool, disinterested, business-school-prescription for most corporate woes. “Pay” is what a worker gets. And this year it will keep him or her just behind the growing rate of inflation. “Compensation” is what an executive gets. And last year, for many executives the increase was many times, often shockingly and unexplainably many times, the rate of inflation.
As journalists struggle to report on and understand their times, they cannot escape being part of their times. This is true in any society and under any system. In Guangzhou, China, not long ago, I met a very successful, rather progressive newspaper publisher—who also served as that city’s Communist Party propaganda director. “How in the world do you do it?” I asked. “Simple,” he replied. “I wear two hats!” (Actually, it might have been three: About a year after I interviewed him he was jailed for corruption.)
Yet when I read a Chinese or a Russian or an Arab newspaper—always in translation, unfortunately, though I have very good translators—I still thank heaven, not only for the Times, but also for Newsweek (and, yes, Time, too). We’ve got flaws, but it is hardly midnight for journalism in America. And for much of the rest of the developing world, it’s barely morning.
I am grateful, too, for some of the amazing foreign journalists I’ve met, many of whom seem to accomplish a lot under a lot more strait circumstances than most American journalists face. In my conversations with aspiring, young foreign journalists, like any good reporter, I try not to let my biases show. I try to point out to them that in the United States, as in the rest of the world, there are many journalisms, all imperfect, all developing journalisms. I suspect that right now, while we Americans are biting our nails over the circulation numbers, some new Woodwards and Bernsteins—Chinese variants maybe, or even Russians—are slouching their slow way towards their very own Watergates.
Ron Javers, a 1976 Nieman Fellow, is assistant managing editor of Newsweek International.