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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What is a journalist?

Two "passings" in "journalism" made the headlines locally and nationally today: the sudden and shocking death of NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert and the resignation of WHDH-TV general manager Randi Goldklank.


The suggestion that Goldklank was a journalist because she presided over a television station that touts its newscast is jarring. The self-described "tiny lady" was hired as a sales manager, as far away (or as far away as it should be) from journalism as is possible.

Yet, Northeastern University School of Journalism Director Stephen Burgard seems to bestow news-gathering credentials to her:
"One of the givens that goes with being a senior news executive, or a journalist of any kind, is that you do have a higher standard of behavior and accountability than you might in some other walks of life, because news organizations spend so much time holding others up to scrutiny."
When sales and newsgathering blend into the same thing (see, for example, coverage of Texas house fires because they have nice video) we are in trouble.

And to a lesser extent, I am also troubled by tributes to that labeled Russert a "towering figure" in American journalism.

As chief of a network news Washington bureau and one of the best interviewers in TV news, the term has more standing than when applied or implied to Goldklank.

But Russert (and his ABC News counterpart George Stephanopulos) represent the culmination of what has long been a troubling trend in the news business: the blurring of the lines between news and spin and the people who purvey each.

Russert began his career as an aide to Mario Cuomo. No formal training as a reporter, he was a political operative who knew how to ask questions, whether to sources or to interview subjects. He transmitted what he learned to the public.

On a very basic level that certainly qualified him as a journalist. And as many a Democrat will attest, he showed them no favor. Not to mention that in a society that insists on receiving its information through television rather than ink on dead trees, he was an important information purveyor.

I'm also well aware that journalists come in all shapes and sizes. In print you have reporters, writers and editors and often the twain never meet. There's been an endless argument about whether TV news readers are journalists -- and much of the nuts and bolts of TV news is done by faceless producers who toil tirelessly behind the scene before ceding the limelight to the correspondent.

I'm not arguing that journalism can only be learned at journalism schools. But there is a lot to be said for starting at the bottom -- covering the endlessly boring selectmen and school board (and, horrors) zoning board meetings. Starting at the bottom and working your way up so that you can learn along the way.

Russert and Stephanopulos represent the better aspects of that blurred fine line between news gatherer and newsmaker and journalists born with silver notebooks in their hands. George Will, and the saga of Jimmy Carter's missing debate briefing book, represents the worst.

I agree with my friend Dan Kennedy that television news will be much the worse for wear by Russert's passing. He overcame his partisan roots. But the trend represented by his hiring has led us to endless cable talking heads with partisan axes to grind -- and virtually no one to mediate the conflicts inherent in these exchanges.

In the end, that is the job of a journalist. Maybe then Russert was a "towering" figure. Or maybe the business itself is shrinking.

Rest in Peace Russ.

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