Let’s bring an end to setting ants on fire

Who knew that the most succinct, articulate summary of what ails journalism would come from a guy who makes a living on a pretend news show?

Probably anyone who has been watching Jon Stewart over the course of the last couple of years and how he has turned that pretend news show into anything but that.

When I stood on the National Mall with more than 200,000 others on Saturday at the Rally to Restore Sanity, I felt that Stewart had some kind of window into my own tortured journalist’s soul. Finally, I thought, the words I have been struggling for and been unable to find.

He just said it, plain and straight out, when he spoke about living in hard times, not end times, about having animus but not being enemies.

The press is broken. And that is making it really difficult for people to find common ground.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.’’

Yes, I thought. Yes.

This is the point some of us have been trying to make for years but it has never been more important to articulate than it is right now. The idea of amplifying conflict, of sounding the alarm over and over and over again about things that are either so unlikely as to be absurd or so insignificant as to be ridiculous, is part of the reason journalism credibility dwells alongside that of car salesmen.

Like the boy who cried wolf, we wear out our welcome. We make it impossible to discern when we’re just prattling for attention and when we’re saying something important.

We make everybody – including ourselves – exhausted and cranky. Exhausted, cranky people are not exactly the preferred prototype for a society based on discernment and self-governance.

I found it interesting that Stewart used the rather old-fashioned term “the press’’ during his moment of sincerity on Saturday. I wondered if it was purposeful, and given all the evidence that he’s a pretty smart guy, I figured it was.

There’s no doubt that “the country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator’’ is an especially acute problem on cable television. But cable TV doesn’t have the exclusive franchise, and it’s not limited to the overtly political or the national level.

We see it in local newspaper websites that are trolling for page views by touting police mug shot galleries – see you neighbor at his very worst, and never mind that he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet.  We see it in the emphasis on crime on metro section fronts and home pages in nearly every market in America.  We see it in insistence of newspapers that they need to leave user comments open without taking the responsibility to participate in those discussions themselves – losing the opportunity to fact check and correct outrageous statements and instead enabling a ceasepool that makes everybody feel slimed.

What’s the common denominator in those practices? Is it intentional evil?  A purposeful abdication of responsibility and journalistic duty?

Nope. It’s expense and difficulty. Crime coverage is cheap. Police mug shot galleries are free. Converting reader comments from a wall full of graffiti to a discussion takes time and effort and resources.

That’s all true. And I’m just as guilty as anyone of not pushing hard enough to move beyond crime coverage, to dedicate the time and resources to clean up user comments. I know first-hand how hard it is to manage a newsroom these days, how diminished they feel, how much mourning there is for what has been lost to the slashing of newsroom budgets, how overworked everyone is.

But as I listened to Stewart talk, I felt what he said he felt: “Good. Strangely, calmly good.’’ It felt good just hearing someone name it. It felt good just hearing someone call out the plain cold fact that the image of Americans – of the people I was standing with on that mall – shown to us by our journalists and our politicians is false.

The morning after conversation has already begun. As Jeff Jarvis noted in his post, the coverage by traditional media has been generally dismissive. And the reaction by some individual journalists – David Carr,I’m looking at you – has been extraordinarily defensive. That defensive stance posits that the media is an easy target, that we didn’t cause our country’s problems, that Stewart took aim at us because he was trying to avoid looking partisan by taking aim at the politicians, that the problem is cable news and not the rest of journalism.

To that, I say: Believe that little delusion all you want, and then go back to setting ants on fire at your own risk.