Civic Leadership: The Newsroom Model

14 Nov

Last week, I introduced my mother to The Newsroom. A retired journalist, she adored the program almost as much as I do.

After seeing several pals on social media go cuckoo over the opening scene of the first episode in a way usually reserved for idiotic cat memes, I was hooked from the moment I watched what most of them called the “most honest three minutes of television you’ll ever see.”  In the clip, the main character flies into a rant about how America used to be and could be again after being inspired to the truth by the Strong Mother Leader character (not shown).

(Harsh language warning.)

In addition to providing a thoughtful commentary on the political divisiveness in America and our tendency to be too easily misled while distracted by DWTSThe Newsroom provides a much-needed critique of the current state of the Fourth Estate.

I have not been an avid television viewer since our airwaves became reality void cesspools for dumbed-down faux reality series that provide no more than electronic Soma for the masses who might otherwise learn something more useful than how to make a fool of oneself in a never-ending quest for 15 minutes of fame. Yet, I confess to rearranging my schedule to catch the latest episodes of The Newsroom all last spring because I couldn’t wait for the replays.

“The first step in solving any problem is admitting there is one.”

Unlike my mother, I was not trained in a prestigious J-school before working as a freelance writer and editor. My degrees are in Political Science and Public Administration. I had plenty of training in journalism ethics from my mother, however.  I grew up in newsrooms when the ranks of crusty old characters with more integrity than style had not yet given way to the current corporate model that places advertisers’ interests ahead of the public’s need for unbiased, reliable information for decision-making.

Watching The Newsroom not only made me yearn for newsroom characters of my childhood, it made me downright angry at the corporate media machines that have all but forced so many reporters to give up their responsibility to provide fact-checked information to support engaged citizenry.

News should not be entertainment. It should be educational and factual. Period. There is no spin on the truth. Reporters should feel obligated to differentiate themselves from the spinmasters – and spinmasters should never be allowed to call themselves journalists.

Most writers and reporters I know feel pretty much the same way but they have to make a living in the system as it exists today. Hopefully, what Clay Shirky has called the most transformative communications development since the printing press, social media, and the developing models for nonprofit media organizations, will remedy that tragic situation.

If we are to find our way out of the partisan bickering 24-hour-news cycle cacophony of Orwellian double-think, we must restore faith in the Fact Finders.

We don’t need opinion-free journalists. We need to free our press from corporate mandates and fear. We don’t need cable news networks with agendas. We need factual reporting no matter who it helps or hurts. We need less sensational trial coverage and more Matt Taibbi!

What does it say about America that “most trusted newsman in America” reports on the Comedy Central network? It says that our “real” news industries have failed us.

Democracy requires an educated electorate with reliable access to hard facts from trusted sources. While television, print and the internet have given us access aplenty, the destruction of trust and the plethora of unethical sources has confused an already bewildered electorate who need trustworthy media leaders like Cronkite and Murrow.

As often as not, life imitates art. Perhaps if we see more fictional “real” journalists doing their civic duty on screen, we will eventually demand to see them again more often in real life.

How the press perform the necessary watchdog role if the public is so skeptical of it? I think the simple answer is that it cannot.

“It’s not so much (that) it’s bad. It’s hurting America.” -Jon Stewart

If you have never seen Stewart’s masterful performance on the defunct cable news show “Crossfire,” I can’t recommend it enough for those out there who pine away for a good old civic-minded press which refuses to spin or sensationalize to make a buck.  Ever since I saw this interview almost a decade ago, I have had no doubt that Jon Stewart will be heralded as quite the journalist and civic leader in the history books one day.






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