Nobody will say what's really wrong with U.S. journalism

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Members of the media have faced rising anger from people at Donald Trump events, such as here at a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla.

I've read a lot of folks saying after last week's election that America has never been so divided. And, if you're under the age of 50, that probably feels true. But if you go back in time, the bar on this one -- 620,000 dead, much of the American South burned to the ground -- is actually pretty high. And the other reality is that in one way, America is actually pretty unified right now.

It's about me ... and my colleagues. The media. The press. You hate us, you really, really hate us. Conservatives hate us. Liberals hate us. Adorable toddlers uttering their first words hate us. Just read the comments section of this news organization, Philly.com (that was a rhetorical device -- please don't actually read them) on any remotely political story in the eight days since Donald Trump was elected president. It is a roving band of angry townspeople, jabbing at both news and opinion articles with pitchforks and setting each piece on fire before vanishing into the darkness of anonymity.

And since Tuesday, even the media hates the media in America. There's been more bloody self-flagellation from journalists than an international convention of Opus Dei. (I'm assuming here you read The Da Vinci Code.) Journalists have gone through the five stages of humiliation -- humble apologies, promises to do better, to listen to the readers, blah blah blah.

Still, a visitor from outer space who read these dozens of "think pieces" by journalists on journalism would be baffled at what the actual problem is, beyond the fact that a man named Donald Trump was elected president of the United States earlier this month. Apparently, the media didn't do enough investigative reporting about this Trump fellow -- his myriad conflicts of interest, his skeazy advisers, his history of grifting, etc., etc. -- and was inadequate to the task of warning American citizens that a dangerous, and dangerously unprepared man, with an authoritarian bent was about to capture the White House. Also, the nation's free press didn't send reporters into the rural areas where Trump supporters live and didn't reflect the views, or give an editorial voice, to the millions of citizens who voted for him. In other words, newspapers, TV and other outlets failed because they didn't give a powerful enough voice to the masses. As they were electing a man who will destroy 240 years of U.S. democracy. You don't have to be from Mars to see a contradiction here.

Let's look at the "ur document" of the journalism-must-change-after-Trump movement, the letter that New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sent to readers on Sunday. The letter that Trump himself called "an apology," which Politifact quickly and correctly branded as "false." I've read the letter a couple of times now and Sulzberger never apologizes or says he's sorry; in fact, the Times publisher said: "We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism." It almost sounds like he's bragging, and yet anyone -- regardless of political ideology -- can read between the lines and hear that he's saying something needs to change.

But what?

Look, this member of the media doesn't think there's a lot -- outside of some amazing investigative reporting by the likes of the Times' Suzanne Craig, the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold, and others -- that the media should "re-commit" to after 2016. The wall-to-wall cable TV coverage of Trump's rallies -- because he was an "entertaining" reality show star who might say anything, unlike the other candidates who gave old-fashioned speeches on "boring" policy matters -- was a disgrace. The obsession on so many polls -- many of which proved in the end to be highly inaccurate -- was ridiculous. So was the media's quickness to be distracted by the shiny object -- FBI director Jim Comey's letters on Hillary Clinton's emails spring to mind -- and not cover substance. There was certainly a failure to see the passion for Trump in the Rust Belt and the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton in America's cities or college campuses, or to understand why.

Many of the journalists and outside critics who've talked about the failures of journalism since Trump's election have touched on some or all of these factors. But most of the media criticism has come up bone dry when it comes to solving these problems -- because almost all of this conversation takes place in the tiny, suffocating box of stale journalism ideas that have slowly been choking the profession for decades.

Some critics say that newsrooms should hire more reporters from rural and from the working class (implied here is the white working class) and that's absolutely true; but we can't forget that newsrooms are still also way behind the 8-ball in hiring and promoting non-whites and women. Many have said news organizations didn't send enough reporters to the outlying places like Pennsylvania's Potter County that voted 4-1 for Trump, and that's also true. But no one has talked about what this legion of extra journalists was supposed to actually to do out there in Trump Nation. Write down what angry and disconnected voters had to say? OK, that's a start ... but then what?

The most insightful recent piece about journalism's problems appeared -- ironically, perhaps -- in the New York Times. The op-ed by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, award-winning journalists and founders of the Solutions Journalism Network, said that modern journalism's prevailing value of cynicism -- i.e., thinking that serious news is only institutions or leaders that fail -- has created a society of distrust, even as that distrust has blown back onto journalism itself, now our least trusted institution. They write:

We’re talking about a problem at the very core of journalism: the unstated theory of change that might be summed up as: “Society will get better when we show where it is going wrong.” We are presenting what’s wrong with the world as if that’s all there is.

As a result, what audiences see beyond their direct experience is a world of unchecked pathology, and it makes it all too easy to fear and demonize others. It shapes people’s behaviors and choice of leaders. During the election, citizens had considerable information about the candidates, and they knew about their own lives and problems. But they were easily bamboozled about the extent and nature of problems in the country and the world.

I think the problem is even deeper. The reality is that there is a decent amount of journalism -- there could always be more, of course -- in the places that voted for Trump, both by visiting journalists and small hometown papers, about the plants that closed and sent jobs to Mexico or China or about the epidemic of opioid addiction. Now, journalism experts and critics are saying more reporters should have listened to and amplified the grievances in these communities, and that's probably right.

But that also doesn't go far enough. Journalism will slowly perish unless we take that to the next level: Actually helping citizens in solving these problems. That means more than merely "reporting on the community." That means the simple acknowledgment that news organizations and their readers or viewers or listeners are all part of one community. And then, building tools that won't just inform people about what's wrong in our society, but help them with how to fix it.

This is neither a new nor a radical idea. In fact, in the 1990s there was a small movement, among some innovative people in and around the news business, that was called "public journalism" (or, "civic journalism"). Its advocates, including my boss in the late 1990s, then Philadelphia Daily News editor Zack Stalberg, understood even before the internet came along to topple us, much as the Huns overran the decadent Roman Empire, that news organizations simply weren't connecting with regular people. So "public journalism" was a way not only to uncover civic problems through good shoe-leather reporting, but to bring citizens together to talk about solutions and, if necessary (and it usually is), pressure the public officials whose default setting was to ignore these problems.

To offer a small example, at one point someone -- a reader, or maybe an editor at the paper -- drove across Philadelphia's narrow Platt Bridge at night and noticed almost all of the lights were broken. The Daily News wrote about it, and when nobody fixed all of them right away, the newspaper wrote about the issue again and contacted the officials until they did fix them. OK, it wasn't a cure for cancer, but it's also probably worth more that sending reporters to Ohio simply to transcribe how mad the voters are.

I've reported from some of these neglected communities over the last decade, from Kentucky to rural Delaware, and anyone can tell you that the economic problems in these areas are compounded by a justifiably perceived lack of respect. They see that elites simply don't care about their problems. If news organizations did the hard work of showing they actually do care about making life better in neglected communities -- not just in the Rust Belt, but pockets of poverty in and around the nation's cities -- they would start to win back some of the public's respect. That would require a radical change from the 20th Century norms of detachment and often-contrived objectivity. But news organizations have to understand that it's time to change radically. Or die.

There's one other issue when it comes to journalism and the public's lack of respect. The fact is, people will respect you if you abide by a moral code -- and stick to it. This is the other challenge, I believe, of a Donald Trump presidency. As he picks his Cabinet and transitions into the White House, it's important that journalists cover Trump with the core values: Fairness, and respect for facts. But it's also true that Trump ran a campaign that in many ways attacked the basic moral code of American democracy. If news organizations won't fight hard against a feared assault on freedom of the press, and by any means necessary, then American journalism won't be worth saving.

But journalists can't only fight for the rights of journalists. Trump's rhetoric, his past actions and now some of his key appointments have posed a direct threat to the rights of minority groups and the less privileged in American society -- Muslims, migrants, women, the disabled, among others. A free and functioning press is one of the key elements of the so-called "American Experiment" launched here in Philadelphia in 1776. That means there's no real space for objectivity or detachment when the core values are threatened. The next four years require clear thinking and a kind of boldness that hasn't always been easy to find in America's newsrooms.

Let's cut through all the gibberish of recent days, because this isn't rocket science, or Journalism 101. Instead of looking down at communities, join them. Instead of just writing about how bad the problems are, engage in the fight to fix them. And instead of muttering "on one hand, on the other hand" about the greatest threat to American democracy in the last 150 years, speak up with a clear set of unimpeachable morals. We probably won't win back the respect of all of the American people, not right away. But at least journalists will start respecting ourselves again, and that's a start.

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