Thursday, April 03, 2008

Why I like journalism -- mostly

Sometimes it takes a little bit of prestige-journal snarking match to remind you that journalism is actually a pretty remarkable line of work. Commentators are arguing, with some justice, whether the Big Dailies gave enough credit to the less prominent outlets whose work actually put HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson on the slippery slope. There's a good point there, but I hope it doesn't obscure a larger and better one.

To wit, as of this writing at least: There's actually a decent-paying gig* or so in the private sector whose job description is something like "keep an eye out for corrupt sleazebags, and raise hell when they try to line their incompetent friends' pockets with public sheqels." Which is a bit of an exaggeration. Bloggers say stuff like "corrupt sleazebag" and "incompetent friends." Journalists are the ones who track down the records and make the phone calls and match document to document and -- at the editing stage -- tone down "corrupt sleazebag" into something that, ideally, even the sleazebag's friends will acknowledge is a bad thing to do with public money.

Lots of the other things journalism does are silly. Our pals over to the Log have no end of fun with the damage that news routines do when they run across assertions from the scientific domain. As they should. And if the social science side wants to start by administering a serious Milgram-level electric shock to any journalist who uses the phrase "within the margin of error," we'll hold the electrodes and buy the first round. But all that said -- isn't it kind of nice that "find and objectively describe public corruption" is part of somebody's job description?

I'm put in mind of all this, of course, by my local newspaper, which in Its infinite wisdom managed to devote two paragraphs onTuesday to Secretary Jackson's resignation. (I don't have the scorecard at hand, but you'd like to think that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is one of those executive-branch jobs that's, oh, 15 to 18 heartbeats away from the presidency, depending on how you count.)

There was, of course, genuine super-important news to report on Tuesday, which is why two-thirds of the front page is given over to Mitch Albom invoking the zen of baseball:

The day began in drizzled depression, gray misty skies, a shivering wind, scattered puddles of melted snow and "For Sale" signs everywhere you looked.

Mitch? The puddles? They weren't "melted snow." They were "rain." Srsly! I checked.

All right, to be fair, I would have fronted an Opening Day story too.** But that doesn't entirely explain why the resignation of a Cabinet secretary rates two grafs at the end of the briefs column, while the resignation of the Finnish foreign minister is a six-graf separate, with two mugs, in the Wednesday paper.***

Let's recap the relevance of these two stories to Detroit readers, shall we? Corrupt US housing secretary quits, two grafs; formin of some country that a Gannett publisher couldn't find on a map if you gave him/her a head start and waterboarded his/her whole family, six grafs. The major difference seems to be that the US housing official was giving money to his friends, whereas the Finn was, in the delicate language of the AP, sending text messages in which he "discusses women's' clothing." And that seems to settle that.

Whatever evil stuff journalism does sometimes, we're lucky to have it. And if you'd rather your local paper save its breath for real news, that's all right too. But there's some risk that if journalism -- the craft itself, not the silly stuff advocated by the glassholes and the News2Use crowd -- isn't wanted, it might eventually go away. And that wouldn't make for a very good doctor-patient relationship.

* At one point, something one could consider retiring on, as long as one got rid of the K-R matching stock at the right time. Of course, nobody bothers about trivial stuff like that anymore.
** Think we should ask Mitch the call letters of the station he listened to the seventh game of the 1968 Series on?
*** No, little friends at the Freep, you can't say "Finnish leader out." Heds usually avoid articles, so we can't tell whether you mean "a Finnish leader," which is your point, or "the Finnish leader," which is what you have the misfortune of saying.


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