many reporters--especially, but not exclusively, on television--want
to make a splash, scuttle a campaign, get someone indicted,
blow someone or something out of the water," said Jon Margolis
'62, a 22-year veteran of The Chicago Tribune who now
freelances from Vermont. "Too few want to explain how things
work, the way we live now, or what the world is like, all
of which is
both harder work and less likely to lead to an invitation
on the next Sunday's chat shows.
the Tribune's former chief national political correspondent
is serious about the larger critique, and he's earned his
jaundice. Having escaped daily deadlines and recently published
the well-received book, The Last Innocent Year: America
in 1964, Margolis can see the schlock, hear the contrived
TV shoutfests, feel the rumbling of a tectonic shift in
information delivery. All of which can unsettle those many
Oberlin graduates who know, like Margolis, the unique compensations
of journalism well practiced.
are still times," said Bonnie DeSimone '79, a former WOBC
sports director and now a top Chicago Tribune sportswriter,
"when I'm at a sporting event, seeing something really cool,
and I think, 'I can't believe they're paying me to do this.'"
the rub. The profession is counting its pocket change and
searching its soul. Individual journalists, though, can
still have a high old time in what is, for all the gnashing
of teeth, one of the tastiest jobs around. You don't have
to sell your soul or somebody else's soap. You can touch
people's lives. You're courtside at history and getting
paid to learn. The powerful return your phone calls, and
Mom sees your byline.
Keller '79, an International Herald Tribune veteran
now on leave to raise her young daughter, noted the essential
fact that "newsrooms are fun, even though they're not as
fun as they used to be." And, she added with a dollop of
newsroom sauce, "you can still help people who are getting
screwed by exposing the people who are screwing them."
depressing to see the cynicism and the willingness of many
papers to compromise to cater to advertisers," said Ulysses
Torassa '84, who covers science and medicine for the San
Francisco Examiner. "But I still feel it's a field that
gives the people in it a great deal of freedom, and where
most of the people in it have a genuine desire to communicate
all the interesting things going on in the world."
Robert Krulwich '69.
ABC correspondent can testify to the transformation of electronically
borne news. National Public Radio, where he was once national
affairs editor, has gotten "very mature and a little flat."
Television news has "become much more of a business." For
a journalist--even an economically fluent one like Krulwich--that's
not a compliment. The old common ground of the evening newscast
has crumbled. About 40 percent of American adults now regularly
watch nightly network news, according to the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press.
Seven years ago, 60 percent of Americans tuned in.
yet. "I'm not in the camp of 'Omigod, the sky is falling,'"
Krulwich said. "I have a great job. I get to do whatever
I want, on whichever program I please."
summer, for instance, Krulwich initiated a program entitled
"Brave New World." He took "frisky people" and a fresh
format and explored "unapologetically complex" ideas like
human cloning. It was exemplary TV journalism. Treating
viewers with such intellectual respect, moreover, may
also make business sense. A 1999 survey by Rosenstiel's
Project for Excellence in Journalism found, reassuringly,
that TV stations with high ratings produced more long
stories than those dropping in ratings. It seems the best
news stations were commercially flourishing.
survey, though, tempered the good news: 43 percent of
the stories involving controversy gave only one side,
and there was on the whole little enterprise reporting.
Hackneyed journalism is distressingly common in the profession
that, by Krulwich's accounting, is divided into three
tribes. One is that of The Explainers, and theirs is a
complex and sometimes costly job. It's much safer for
management to deploy the other two tribes: The Entertainers
and The Witnesses.
Entertainers choose topics that people already know about,
and their purpose is to be huge," Krulwich said. "The
Witness's job is to stand next to important people, and
say, 'I saw you' or 'Watch this.'"
as it happens, is a journalist-plus. He holds a degree
from Columbia Law School. He's reflective, in that sense,
of another trend in journalism: the evolution from ink-stained
outsiders to advance-degreed insiders. Rosenstiel, along
with many other Oberlin journalists, earned a master's
degree at the Columbia University journalism school. Others
have re-sampled academia through mid-career fellowships:
Tom Hamburger '74 of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
and Zajac of The Chicago Tribune as Knight Journalism
Fellows at Stanford, and Ulysses Torassa at the University
of Michigan as a Michigan Journalism Fellow. And at the
University of North Carolina, veteran Seattle Post-Intelligencer
reporter Scott Maier '78 is a full-ride Park Fellow earning
a doctorate in communications in preparation for a teaching
used to think," Maier said, "that studying journalism
was the worst way to prepare to be a reporter. There
is no better training than to pound out story after
story, to see how it is edited, sometimes for the better,
and to experience the thrill of seeing your byline in
all its obvious advantages, the increased professionalism
accompanies more complicated trends. As recounted by
old-time reporter Jack Germond, political writers once
characterized themselves as SLIMSIN: Shabby Little Insignificant
Men Scribbling In Notebooks. With Watergate, journalism
became sexier; and, at the higher levels, far more remunerative.
One consequence, on television, has been the rise of
journalist-as-celebrity and the displacement of information.
The scribbler became the talker, and the notebook was
put away. Another consequence has been a growing distance
from the readers journalists ostensibly serve.
are better educated, younger, and often more highly
paid than the general public, a 1999 American Society
of Newspaper Editors survey found. The survey noted
journalists tend to be more liberal than the public.
Little surprise, then, that 77 percent of the public
thought newspapers pay too much attention to stories
supporting the journalists' point of view.
newspapers take a liberal slant, but would never admit
it, and even seem oblivious to the bias when it's
obvious to readers," said Patrice Hill '76, chief
economics correspondent for the conservative Washington
Times. "The result is, the public discounts what
it reads in the newspapers, and assumes it's not accurate