Journalism still vital, new book’s authors tell critics

Saturday, August 25, 2007 | 5:16 p.m. CDT; updated 7:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I’m back from vacation, and what better way to renew our conversation than with a plug for a new book?

The book is called “What Good is Journalism?” Every right-thinking, newspaper-reading, NPR-listening, democracy-loving citizen should read it. Before I explain why, I must offer two extra inducements. First, although mine is one of the names on the cover, I didn’t write much of it. And second, in case anybody does buy it, the proceeds will go into a fund here at the School of Journalism that supports students doing interesting projects.

As is true with many a work of literature, this one had its genesis in despair. Several years ago, a bunch of us at the Journalism School were engaging in one of our favorite pastimes, whining about the sad state of the profession, when somebody suggested that we shut up and try to do something to stem the tidal wave of criticism and the accompanying loss of trust by the news-consuming (or, increasingly, nonconsuming) public.

So we did. A baker’s dozen authors have fingerprints on this project, whose aim is nothing less than, to quote myself from the book’s introduction, “to show readers the most important roles that journalism, with all its well-documented faults, plays in the world’s oldest democracy. Those roles, we argue, are vital to the health of the democracy.”

It’s an argument in the sense that there are plenty to take the other side. From the rantingly irresponsible — Ann Coulter comes to mind­ — to the scholarly thoughtful — Harvard Prof. Thomas Patterson, for one — journalism’s critics always emphasize the faults and often downplay the importance.

Missourian readers are no doubt intelligently alert to both. Still, even you may not be fully aware of just how powerful a voice NPR has become in an era in which actual journalism — honest reporting and serious commentary — has become an endangered species on the nation’s airwaves. You’ve probably never heard of the Anniston (Ala.) Star, and most likely you don’t spend much time thinking about how central to a community is its daily newspaper, or in the rare cases of especially fortunate communities, newspapers plural.

Keen students of history though you are, you may have forgotten John Peter Zenger, Jay Near and Ida B. Wells. And while Jim Lehrer and Brian Williams are household names, it’s altogether possible that you haven’t heard of Sean Naylor, Greg Gordon or Lee Davidson. They’re Washington correspondents whose work has literally saved lives, but whose stories don’t turn up in Columbia.

Then there are the dogged practitioners of investigative reporting, such as the Chicago Tribune reporters whose work led to a moratorium on legal executions and the exposers of crimes great and small that corrupt governments and rob taxpayers.

There’s even more, including a chapter on how news consumers can improve the quality of the product we’re supplying.

The University of Missouri Press is the publisher. The paperback edition costs less than 20 bucks. There’s never been a more critical time for journalism or democracy. Think about it.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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