Quality Journalism

Good Journalism in Unexpected Places

Ever since I read the likes of Todd Gitlin, Gaye Tuchman, and Herbert Gans in graduate school, I’ve been a critic of the standard routines and practices of American journalism. The problems have been well analyzed, and in recent years, pretty well publicized. But in all the criticisms of “the mainstream media” one rarely hears much detail about whatgood journalism would look like, or praise for existing journalists and institutions that manage to rise above the limits of the profession as a whole. I find this absence particularly troubling when facing my undergraduate students; they often enter my classroom already cynical about public life, and I fear they take the criticisms of journalistic practices just as confirmation of their cynicism. And while the efforts of citizen journalists and bloggers are interesting, in all the sniping between the “gang of 500” inside the Washington beltway and the other gang of 500 bloggers who are so active on the web, both sides seem too often oblivious to the many wonderful examples of insightful journalism appearing in odd corners of the traditional media.

So the following short, merely suggestive, and still in-progress list is intended as a way to let my students, and perhaps others who are interested, take a look at some journalism that’s actually quite illuminating. If we could build a world in which the following examples of journalism were routinely celebrated and imitated by reporters throughout the profession, we’d be on to something. (Last updated on 8/29/10. Suggestions for appropriate additions are welcome.)

  • Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long, about the American media’s massive failure in the lead up to the war in Iraq, also has a chapter about those courageous journalists who got it right (most of whom have still not received the acclaim they deserve). An excerpt can be found here: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174907. Unsung journalist heroes include Chris Hedges, Mark Benjamin, Lee Pitts, the six McClatchy Bagdhad reporters — all women — Shatha al Awsy, Zaineb Obeid, Huda Ahmed, Ban Adil Sarhan, Alaa Majeed, and Sahar Issa, and of course Seymour Hersh and the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) reporters Warren Stroebel and Jonathan Landy.
  • Katherine Ellison, “Venezuela Steers a New Course,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2006. This modest essay, listed as a travel piece in a magazine produced by a museum, is actually a wonderfully accessible and insightful overview of the Hugo Chavez phenomenon in Venezuela; while not an apology for Chavez, it provides a very useful corrective to all the excited blather about the Venezuelan leader that we typically hear in this country, focusing on the specifics of his popularity. It should be required reading for all cable news journalists.
  • This American Life: This public radio show is typically thought of as a place for quirky human interest stories. But it also has done a number of impressive hard news pieces that put The New York Times to shame, and should be considered a model of a certain type of first-rate serious journalism. (Its stylistic differences from most journalism are significant, but probably the most important difference is that TAL admits to itself that it is engaged in highly crafted storytelling.) Perfect Evidence (4/19/2002), for example, is a gut-wrenching overview of what DNA evidence has revealed about the flaws in our criminal justice system. And Ira Glass and his staff deserve a place in the very small hall of journalist-heroes who did the right thing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the runup to the Iraq war: Rashomon (10/05/2001), produced while the twin towers were still smoldering, offered some much-needed alternative perspectives on events. Why We Fight (12/20/2002) started from the premise that most discussions about the coming war in Iraq at the time were astonishingly limited, and did a remarkable job of capturing what the real arguments for and against invading were. Come Back to Afghanistan, the first half of which was broadcast on 1/31/2003, is both an astonishing piece of journalism in its own right, and in the second episode provided the first report of an Afghani prisoner dying while under American custody — broadcast before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Habeas Schmabeas (03/10/2006) winner of a 2006 Peabody award, is a careful and devastating account of what has really been going on at Guantanomo. More recently, “The Giant Pool of Money,” first broadcast on 05/09/2008, is generally known as the first and most accessible explanation of how the U.S. housing bubble — the one at ground zero of the ongoing 2009 global economic crisis — happened. And, as is routinely the case with TAL, it was way ahead of the pack in reporting the depth of the problem and is still well worth listening to.
  • Peter Maas, “The Race to Bagdhad” originally in Outside Magazine July 2003; this is an important account of an unembedded reporter’s experience covering the initial invasion of Iraq, which raises some troubling questions about the practice of embedding itself. It’s interesting that it was published in a magazine about trekking and mountain climbing. (Peter Mass’ “Good Kills” in the Sunday NYT Magazine is a useful example of how narrative journalism can be so much more successful at communicating complex realities than traditional inverted pyramid style.)

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