Writer James Baldwin wrote of Americans: “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
From Baldwin’s observation, today’s journalism springs to mind. Too much of what is portrayed as news should air on “Entertainment Tonight” or run in the National Enquirer. It’s often so empty, so tame and so ugly.
Journalism needs a “Reformation,” such as the 1990s effort by The Wichita Eagle’s former editor, Davis “Buzz” Merritt. Like Martin Luther, Buzz sought to fundamentally change an institution. His grievances and solutions, known as public journalism, lit a new path to covering politics.
We needed it then, and now.
To be clear, the problem is not “fake news,” stories intended to deceive. Rather it’s an intrinsic shortcoming, as journalism scholar Roy Peter Clark put it in a 2016 article, in that media are addicted to conflict, tend to under-cover complex issues, and treat campaigns like “athletic competitions,” focused on polling, not on ideas.
We’re left with a visceral, voting minority exercising outsized political influence, and consent-over-consensus governance.
Buzz evangelized nationally, focusing on “improving voter participation and strengthening political debate,” according to Clark. The Eagle in 1990, for example, dedicated statewide political coverage to 10 key issues, eschewed polling and pressured candidates to respond, Clark said.
I worked for Buzz, who exhorted us to serve the centrist majority rather than fuel extremism, to elevate policy over personalities and to press for solutions while reporting problems. We read his book, “Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough.”
There, Buzz argued that celebrity had infected our conjoined politics and media.
“The unceasing self-promotion of star anchors by television networks and local outlets … began to meld politicians and political journalists into an amorphous and distant ‘they,’” Buzz wrote. “Journalists and politicians looked and often acted like a cohesive establishment of elites.”
This symbiosis undermined both entities.
“The great majority of Americans know of politics mostly what they get through journalism,” Buzz wrote, adding later, “Hating the message of politics inevitably equates with hating the messengers.”
Buzz quoted journalist E.J. Dionne’s 1991 book, “Why Americans Hate Politics”: “We are suffering from a false polarization in our politics, in which liberals and conservatives keep arguing about the same things when the country wants to move on.”
Buzz was right.
We’ve opted for talking-head celebrities over investigative reporting. Extremists gulp airtime while the middle majority gasps. Personality trumps policy. We have a celebrity president, and celebrity journalists opine about him daily.
But Buzz’s crusade ultimately faded. The problems he battled remain. We’re still “trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”
But partly because of Buzz’s work, it’s clearer why “the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
Much of our news is often all of those things.
Mark McCormick previously served as editor of The Journal.
A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.