Michael Schudson

Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press, Part II

VTR Date: October 20, 2008

Michael Schudson discusses journalism and democracy.


GUEST: Michael Schudson
VTR: 10/20/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And, as I noted last time, because I’ve read him so often and for so long now – regularly in the Columbia Journalism Review and in The American Prospect, as well as on the OpEd pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times…and, of course, because of his recently published collection of provocative essays on journalism and democracy titled Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press – I’ve invited an eminent sociologist to be our Open Mind guest once again today.

A Harvard Ph.D., a Guggenheim fellow and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, Michael Schudson is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California in San Diego and Professor of Communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University.

Today I want to begin by asking Professor Schudson what his fix is on that famous – or perhaps infamous – first paragraph of Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker Magazine piece on “The Journalist And The Murderer” from twenty years ago:

And she wrote, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

“He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

“Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns — when the article or book appears — his hard lesson.

“Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments”, she concludes.

“The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

Now, Michael, I’ve asked this question and read that quotation to many, many, many people here from the world of journalism. Ah, most of them people who say, “there’s no one in here but us chickens.” We journalists, or professor journalism have no influence whatsoever. What do you think about that comment that Janet Malcolm made, rather bitterly.

SCHUDSON: It, it’s a comment that even before she wrote it, I’d thought about in a more personal way … about sociologists because we’re also con men and con women.

Those of us who, who do interviewing or ethno-graphic work we’re entering into a community, a set of people, “just us chickens”, just one person talking to another. But those people are going to stay living in that community and I’m going to go back to my study and write a book and make an academic career.

HEFFNER: But they’re going to stay anonymous.

SCHUDSON: They’re going to stay anonymous, that’s true. That, that, that’s different from, from the journalist, but, but the, the person to person connection there is, is similar. I’m, I’m asking a question to you as a, as a sociologist in the field, or an anthropologist with a different audience in mind. It’s not just you. It’s a peculiar kind of question asking for a public that will someday be there whether we still have a relationship or not.

The journalist is, is different … I think … and you make a good point. Because the damage that can be done to an individual through this con game is enormous.

Because I am going to say what your name … usually. Usually. And so I take her famous paragraph … Malcolm’s famous paragraph quite seriously. I also see it in, in some historical perspective. The … interviewing … journalistic interviewing has a history.

And it’s actually not that long a history. It was, for all practical purposes, invented by American journalists in the late 19th century … had journalists talked to other human being before that? Yes. But they did not report their conversations. Their, their … that form of journalism just didn’t exist and when it started in the US, late 19th century … European observers were horrified. They, they thought this was presumptuous. They thought it was an invasion of privacy. They … of course … they also didn’t like reporting of any sort. I mean reporting seemed a diminution of what, to them, French visitors, English visitors, Danish visitors … seemed the more high literary aspirations that journalism should have.

The Americans were plebian, the American journalists were plebian … they were in the streets, they were having these conversations and then reporting them. And the, the Europeans really felt that this was a “dumbing down” and Americanization of, of what had been a, a highly regarded occupation, as they saw it.

HEFFNER: Even then, huh?

SCHUDSON: Even then. Even then. So and, and indeed it took American journalists to teach their European counterparts during World War I that they could try interviewing a British Cabinet officer, a Scandinavian monarch, the Pope and, and the first journalist to interview any of those categories of people were Americans. Again late 19th and early 20th century.

Well, that … I think … was progress. There was something not only about journalism, as such, but about … you know … American habits of social democracy that produced interviewing.

Is it a product that is paradoxical and dangerous and, and in which the interviewee puts himself or herself at risk? Yeah. It is. And that’s, that’s just part of the, part of the game that we’re in. Part of the enterprise.

And it’s an enterprise that, on balance, I think, is, is good for a system that invites people in to participate in governing.

HEFFNER: It’s sort of the kind of answer that you offer in the title of your book … Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press … it goes with the territory.

SCHUDSON: I, I think that’s right. You know … does that mean you can’t have some rules? Some guidelines? Some self-imposed ways of being respectable. No, of course, you can, and you should. And, and it is still true in, in the mainstream news media that if you fake something and it’s discovered you lose your job. Quickly. And this has happened again and again, unfortunately.

HEFFNER: Of course that … you’re talking now about faking something and we’ve seen too much of that …


HEFFNER: … recently. But you’re right, if it’s discovered you lose your job. But I think she was talking, writing about something somewhat different than ….


HEFFNER: … in terms of the relationship between the asked and asker …

SCHUDSON: Yes, absolutely. I’m, I’m just saying how, how do you, how do you patrol that? I mean … in a sense I don’t think you do. There, the reporter wants to extract information from an interviewee that that interviewee, depending on the circumstances … may be very unwilling to give. Or may give “off” as Irving Goffman would say, sort of accidentally, without intending to. And will then harm that person.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that the interviewee and I know this from so many times having told my students about this piece or having given them the Janet Malcolm piece to read, and taken it as a warning to watch out when you talk to the press … what the press’s interest is. Then I’ll do it myself again and again and again. That wonderful feeling “Well, I’m going to say it how it is. I’m going to tell the truth. And of course it will be reported just as I say it.” And that’s not the truth. So maybe it’s a little training of the rest of us, rather than just the press.

SCHUDSON: Maybe, maybe. Yeah. And, too many people have that experience. I’m saying … “well, those are the words I said, but, but that’s not what I meant. And, and I know that reporter knows that. But the reporter reframed it in, in some different context than I had expected. It looks different in print than the way I said it to that person across the table.”

HEFFNER: Of course we were talking last time about political candidates and about presidents and that’s how they must feel with a vengeance.

SCHUDSON: I’m sure they do … yes. I, I remember from Teddy White’s book on The Making of the President, 1960, talked about the multiple campaigns and how easy it, it was for a candidate even far behind in the polls to feel that things were going well because the candidate was speaking to crowds who were very enthusiastic … huge numbers of people, more than he’d ever spoken to in his life.

There, there are different things going on simultaneously … multiple conversations at, at once. You know that’s just the peculiar system we have when, when we have so many different competing media covering the same story at the same time for different audiences, in different ways.

Douglass complained of Lincoln that he said one thing in Northern Illinois, which was strongly anti-slavery, and another thing when he was speaking in Southern Illinois which was strongly pro-slavery. It’s … you can still do that, but it’s harder …

HEFFNER: Not so easy.

SCHUDSON: It’s not so easy.

HEFFNER: Not so easy. Which, which leads me, Michael, to ask you about the impact … as you teach communications, as you write about the media … all I can think of is to ask what about the new modalities of communications? How are they impacting upon journalism, the teaching of journalism, your feelings about journalism? Scared?

SCHUDSON: Well, the, the scary part … and there is a scary part to it to me, although I’m mostly an optimist about it. The scary part is the, the damage being done to the economic basis of the daily newspaper. Because, to this day, the, the rest of the media … television, radio and the blogosphere, the, the web media in general … are all parasitic on the daily newspaper and the wire services. They have … they are the ones that invest enormous resources in hiring reporters, people who go out … telephone or shoe leather … and investigate the world. Ahem, most everyone else is commenting on what they read in the newspaper. And, that … that’s … I mean there are … the is some investigative reporting online now … Talking Points won an key investigative journalism award for its work. Others are doing that. But they’re small operations. I would guess, you know, that they’re the eight or nine hundred … no, it’s over a thousand editorial employees at The New York Times, outweighs by itself all of the actual trained investigators that online only … in, in the country, maybe in the world, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Trained.

SCHUDSON: Trained, I said “trained” … yes. Because there are hundreds, thousands of citizens, so-called “citizen journalist”. Huffington Post, you know, put together a kind of network of several hundred, by itself, just this one online organization. And, and it had some impact. I mean in particular one citizen journalist working for the Huffington Post picked up the line in Barack Obama’s campaign in Pennsylvania about bitter working class people. And then it was a two or three or four day … maybe more … media event for a while as, as the Republicans started … and at that point it wasn’t Republican, it was Hillary Clinton saying, “Yeah, that, that’s right that you’re … he’s the wrong man for you.”

HEFFNER: Well, but I’m sure you make this point … not out of a sense that this is unfair, these are parasites, feeding upon the printed press, but out of a concern the printed press will disappear.

SCHUDSON: Right. And you’re, you’re right.

HEFFNER: And then we’ll have nothing.

SCHUDSON: I didn’t quite finish my point though … yes, the, the economic future of, of the newspaper … magazines are doing better … but the, the newspaper where, again, they’re the ones making the real investment in reporting.

It is troubled, just as our, our leading organizations, New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post have all cut back their staffs. Lesser lights have already done so and are continuing to do so … you know that’s, that’s part of the context, too, for teaching in a journalism school.

Journalism schools … you know, I have the luxury of being the armchair theorist. I’m, I’m not teaching students to go out there and report. But those who do that … teaching … are teaching simultaneously … here’s how you write a story and here’s how you do the story on television, and here’s how you do the story online … all at once.

And each … you know, at, at the J School at Columbia … each section of that intro reporting and writing course has its own website and the stories go up on the website.

HEFFNER: What’s your prediction about what is going to happen to the printed press?

SCHUDSON: I … it’s going to shrink. It is already shrinking. Is it going to disappear? I, I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: What’s going to keep it from disappearing?

SCHUDSON: It, it, it will evolve in several way. But, you know, I have no formula for this. One, one … all the print media essentially have online operations. They’re not bringing in the dollars yet. And, and ours is a commercially based system. That’s been it’s greatest strength and also, at this point, possibly it’s greatest weakness (laugh).

Can independent non-profits work? Can foundations or … help subsidize the press? Will the online operations find a way to make money? Will some of the print operations become more specialized … what … boutique operations? I mean in the way The Wall Street Journal can succeed for a long time because it has a very specialized audience. It … you know … it reaches many more people, too., but it has a core specialized audience in the business community, that needs that newspaper. The New York Times may evolve into a, a kind of national presence, it’s been moving in that direction for 25 years. With a national set of subscribers who will pay perhaps more than they’re paying now … maybe a lot … to keep that newspaper, print or online, coming to them.

Some regional powerhouses may become more magazine-like. I don’t know and I don’t have that answer and I have yet to talk to any one who has a very good sense of what the economic future of this core of our news system is going to be.

HEFFNER: Okay. So much for the economic underpinning. We don’t know. What about other aspects of the impact of the new media? Journalism, you pointed out to me before … teaching journalism and journalism as a profession is comparatively new. I guess we could talk a little over a century …


HEFFNER: … old. Profession. Profession has standards. Profession recognizes its responsibilities. What’s happening to that set of recognitions with the new media, with the blogosphere?

SCHUDSON: Right. It … in some respects it’s under assault. And the, the part where it’s under assault, it’s the speed-up on, on the news assembly lines. The 24 hour news system. It’s having to get your story up on, on your blog or on the online edition before the print edition because someone else is otherwise going to get it up there first.

HEFFNER: In The New York Times 40 seconds ago … entered 40 seconds ago.

SCHUDSON: That’s right. That’s right. And, you know, I’m, I’m a scholar I think and work slowly, you know. And that you have to update your own opinion every 40 seconds seems just crazy to me. And that … every 24 hours is bad enough. My column you read in Columbia Journalism Review comes out six times a year and I’m learning that I’m constantly under deadline.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

SCHUDSON: So, you know, a journalist would find that silly. But there’s, there’s great benefit to slowing things down sometimes. I reading about our Constitutional Convention back in 1787 where … on, on … a request by any State they could delay voting on, on a proposal until the next day … even if debate had been completed.

Why? Well, maybe they wanted to do a little politicking over dinner …

HEFFNER: I’m sure that’s true.

SCHUDSON: I’m sure that’s true. But that also gives people a chance to reflect, to let it settle. So … I mean that’s, that’s a problem, too, that blogosphere and online media present.

The, the great virtue is that … and I think this is good. It will be good in the long run, for the press … that the, the media most of us attend to, the mainstream media which are … this is still overwhelmingly … 95% of what is available to most people that they actually look at.

They’re being looked at by this … a world of media critics, as I say disparagingly, but I think there’s truth in it, that the media critics who are … like me … parasitic on the work that, that the mainstream media do.

I, I think this is going to have many benefits. I think that the mainstream media are watching themselves because somebody’s watching them. Somebody with a voice. Not just Joe Citizen writing a letter to the editor — three days later — about something his newspaper got wrong. But someone with a megaphone, you know. Where people find the time to read all this, I don’t know, but enough do. Enough do so that it, it … information, criticism, revision, improvement circulates with, with kind of remarkable speed.

HEFFNER: We have three minutes left. I want to ask you a question that I, again, ask so many of the people who come from the media, from journalism … you’re a sociologist, you have a longer point of view.

I talk in terms of longer point of view. I talk about the notion that the first draft of history is what appears in the daily press. And I take that and frequently ask my guests, “don’t you then, as writing the first draft of history, have something of the responsibilities of the historian?” And I always get “no, no, no”. And I wonder what you think about that. I get too fast a “no” from most of the people.

SCHUDSON: Yeah. I, I wouldn’t say “no”. You know, if the responsibilities of the historian are to get the story straight and to, to some degree put it in perspective. I, I’d separate those two.

Getting the story straight is absolutely the responsibility of the journalist. Getting it straight, rather than getting it first. And I have to say being relatively new to a journalism school, one of the first things as a new faculty member was that I … a, a student had apparently taken some information from another … from a printed source and presented it as the student’s own … something being reported. This led to a, you know … the student was ultimately removed from the program.

But the discussion among the faculty I found fascinating, as, as at the time, an outsider to this. There was such a sense of moral urgency about it. That, that’s what I found so striking. People had different views of a given situation, but the moral urgency was, without question … “you can’t do that. You have to give the story straight and it has to be you own work. You have to have been there. You had to interview someone. You had to be there.”

Putting in perspective … that’s hard for the historian, too, and the journalist can’t do very much of it. And maybe that’s where the journalists go wrong out of deadline pressure and so forth.

HEFFNER: Your more generous than I am. But you deal with the journalists all the time. Thank you so much for joining me again today, Michael Schudson.

SCHUDSON: A pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.