Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Uh-Oh Decade of journalism

There's been some discussion lately of just what we should call this decade that is winding down to its final days. It has been a decade of notable selfishness and lack of introspection, but the "Me Decade" sobriquet is already taken.

Now, one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts, has weighed in on the discussion. His suggestion is that we call it the "Uh-Oh Decade." I think the name is highly appropriate, for our country if not for the world. From the Supreme Court's ill-advised decision to stop the counting of votes in Florida in 2000, through all the lies and obnoxious swagger of the Bush years, the unwarranted war, the betrayal of American principles through the torture and humiliation of prisoners, the trashing of laws protecting the environment and public health - well, the list goes on and on. It has been one long series of uh-ohs.

One of the most troubling aspects of the last ten years for me, though, has been the demise of journalism. Perhaps I exaggerate. There are a few true journalists out there still trying to do the important job of shining a bright light into dark places, but the role and influence of journalism in the larger public life has been co-opted by biased opinion outlets that admit only one side to any given story - Fox News and their ilk. This has been the decade when the talk radio hosts have vied to see who could express the most outrageous opinions and, essentially, who could shout the loudest. Reasoned and sober discussion of the issues is a foreign concept to them. These are the kinds of "journalists" that now shape our public opinion.

I grew up in the era when Walter Cronkite was the most respected man in America and deserved to be. Likewise, CBS News was a brand you could depend on to tell the truth. I came to adulthood as journalists risked their lives to report news from the fronts of two wars - one in Vietnam, the other here at home as the Civil Rights battles raged. And then came the Watergate era, when dogged journalism toppled a corrupt presidency. Yes, journalism was an important part of our national life in those days and journalists were respected. How far the profession has fallen.

Can journalism recover and evolve and once again take its place as a scourge to liars and wrongdoers? We need that if the coming decade is to be an improvement over the last.

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