By JOHN MARTIN
Changes in technology, rampant commercialism and the hawking of news as entertainment have revolutionized journalism and threaten its survival as a profession, warned Richard Reeves in a speech titled "Journalism: New, Old or Dead," delivered at the Library on April 10. Mr. Reeves, an award- winning author, syndicated columnist and filmmaker, was the speaker for the fifth annual Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government.
Dr. Billington introduced Mr. Reeves by recalling Oscar Wilde's observation that "in America, the president reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever." The controversy surrounding the role of the media in shaping public opinion, "especially when it comes to television," Dr. Billington added, presented an apt topic for the Goldman lecture series, a program created to explore significant contemporary issues confronting American society.
A former chief political correspondent of The New York Times, Richard Reeves has been an editor and columnist for New York magazine and Esquire. His best-known work, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, received the PEN/Faulkner nonfiction book award in 1993. Mr. Reeves resides in New York, and is working currently on books about the Oregon Trail and the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Mr. Reeves admitted that the subject of the press and politics, or the media vs. politics, has been addressed in hundreds of lectures and studies. "But I'd like to discuss the press vs. the media," he said. "'Media' is a nasty little word imposed on us by the advertising industry in the 1920s." 'Media,' especially today's high-tech fusion of cable television, electronic information services and pop culture, has removed the filtering process of reporting, editing and writing that separates journalism from the raw act of communication, he said. "Journalists used to be like blacksmiths. We took hot stuff and pounded it into useful forms."
Mr. Reeves became a journalist by accident. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he entered the working world in the early 1960s. "Within a couple of years of my graduation, Texas Instruments began selling everything I ever knew for 10 bucks," he joked, "So I needed to find a job that would take just about anybody." The same technology that forced him to abandon his slide rule, the microcomputer chip, eventually transformed the "daily search for truth" that he says once defined journalism.
The relentless commercial pressure to sell "news product" based on consumer tastes and the isolating effects of computer-based reporting, Mr. Reeves explained, have resulted in a dramatic down-scaling of news-gathering operations.
"When we were rookies at The New York Times, if my colleagues and I were within sight of each other by noon, my editor would get on our case, 'What's wrong, why aren't you working?' He meant 'Why aren't you out getting stories?' Today, a young reporter who strays from her cubicle too long to conduct an interview invites the opposite rebuke, 'Why aren't you at your terminal?'" The faulty assumption here, according to Mr. Reeves, is that the Internet is the font of all news.
"Much of the so-called information explosion is smoke and mirrors." This is especially true of visual images, which are digitally manipulated, "re-purposed," and endlessly regurgitated. But news organizations cannot afford to ignore the new technology, which is popular because of its sheer force to entertain, he said.
The problem with what Mr. Reeves described as "newspapers pulling down the shade on their window to the world and holding up a mirror to their audiences" is that the press becomes trapped in the central dilemma of democracy itself: Given the freedom to choose, people often make the wrong choice. Although information is not knowledge, the press and its audience are living in a state of perpetual "data siege." Mr. Reeves worries that polls and focus groups are being used to create what Alexis de Tocqueville considered the greatest threat to American society -- a new kind of tyranny of the majority.
According to Mr. Reeves, the pressures of instant communication and continuous coverage have had less impact on newspapers than on television news organizations, which occupy an uncomfortable middle ground between printed news and cable news channels such as CNN. "The engine of democracy is what people know and when they know it," claimed Mr. Reeves, noting that today it would be impossible to hide for years the true extent of the damage inflicted by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, as did FDR, or to delay news of the discovery of gold in California, as did President James K. Polk.
By far the worst of television's sins, however, is the blurring of fact and fiction "that has made news a subset of entertainment," Mr. Reeves said. The parody news programs and confessional shows are based on the market ploy that "if it looks like news, walks like news and quacks like news, viewers will believe it must be news." These tabloid broadcasts survive by attaching themselves to the credibility of old-fashioned journalism.
Mr. Reeves concluded with a grim assessment of journalism's future. Technology is a fact of life. Journalists must learn to cope with the new media, as politicians and corporations have done, while trying to recognize its strengths and weaknesses. The pressures of commercialization are bound to increase, especially as converging communications technology brings financial giants into direct competition with the traditional press.
If journalism is to survive, it will do so only by rededicating itself to the daily search for the truth, and by focusing on what is real, not mock. People will pay for the truth, says Mr. Reeves. "The truth may or may not set us free, but it might keep us working."
Mr. Martin is a copyright examiner in the Copyright Office.