A short idea of what happened to journalism

There are a few movie scenes that I think every journalist can relate to — maybe in “All the President’s Men,” maybe the more recent “State of Play,” where Russell Crowe essentially plays one of the best reporter stereotypes ever.

For me, it’s the movie “Michael Clayton.” It’s the beginning of the movie. The top lawyer for a New York City-based law firm has had a psychotic breakdown, including stripping naked and chasing a plaintiff through a parking lot. He’s now also caused a lot of damage to his firm’s multi-billion dollar case. The other lawyers at the firm are in full damage control mode when a reporter calls — “it’s that [expletive] from the Wall Street Journal,” one guy says to the firm’s top lawyer.

The top lawyer sighs, gets on the phone, and recites a really useless quote that’s so boring the reporter has to say, yes, I know what’s going on and I want a reason why you’re packed in a room late at night closing a multi-billion dollar case. The exchange:

LAWYER: The case you’re referring to, is now, as it has been for the past six years, pending and unresolved. Until our client has their day in court or the plaintiffs come to their senses and drop the suit, I’ll have nothing of value to tell you.

REPORTER: Come on, Marty … I know for a fact you’re in the office right now with like six hundred people trying to push this thing through.

LAWYER: Here’s what I know: your deadline was twenty minutes ago, so either you’re fishing for a story or trying to get out of writing a retraction. In either case, I wish you well…best of luck. [He hangs up]

That’s about it. Out of every journalism movie I’ve seen, that’s probably the most accurate cinematic description of the give-and-take between a reporter and an uncooperative source.

Over the past two weeks, my class has heard from respected print, broadcast and radio media professionals in Rome, Dublin and London— including reporters and editors from The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, BBC, Vatican Radio, etc. Most of our conversations have been a mix of technically-off-the-record and politely-off-the-record, so I’ve struggled to come up with a way to blog about those (and lack of Internet has been a setback).

I’ll reserve some reflections on the past, current and future state of media for a longer post. For now, two thoughts:

1)    In my opinion, the really short, unimportant scene in Michael Clayton where a lawyer says what he knows and a reporter says what she knows is still my depiction of choice for the give and take that often defines journalism. In Italy, where corruption is rampant and most Italian media is controlled by the state, it seems very important to have dirt on a public official to get them to even give a real interview (even in serious journalism, that might include how they’re involved in some scandal or who they’re sleeping with. Seriously.) Our class visited Rome for six days — that was the impression we got from talking to people in the business.

2)    Media is in serious trouble. It’s my belief that the absolute majority of journalism will not survive unless a) they’re subsidized by nonprofits, governments or other public entities or b) Someone does the journalistic equivalent of inventing Henry Ford’s assembly line, and media is saved.

I wrote a column titled “Capitalism is killing journalism — now what?” in April 2009. I’ll try not to be ideological about this situation, but my views on the subject haven’t changed much over the last year. Basically, there’s an answer to the mainstream media’s slow-motion death, but no one has it yet.

Am I optimistic about journalism? Of course. It’s never going to die, and our best minds are on it. But if the private sector can’t do it, the public sector will.

Full disclosure: Michael Clayton is my favorite movie ever.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A short idea of what happened to journalism

  1. Dustin Volz

    Interesting musings. I hope the Europe trip is providing at least some optimism for the future of journalism.

    Oh, and Michael Clayton is a fantastic movie.

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