There was an interesting piece in the LA Times today about the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s coverage of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now before you say “Oh my gawd how meta can you get?!?” and scroll down to the next diary, give me a minute.  Because between the lines in the LA Times story may be evidence for the start of a tectonic shift in the worldview of American journalism – one that might be a good thing for progressives.  So let’s take a little closer look.

The story (log-in required) is titled “Newspaper Finds New Attitude After Katrina” with the subtitle “Advocacy reporting is making an auspicious return in New Orleans, some observers say.”

The story talks about how, in the aftermath of Katrina, the newspaper’s reporters and editors brought their personal experiences – and those of their neighbors and fellow citizens – to their reporting.  Stories of horror, tragedy, corruption, ineptitude, but also of hope in the face of overwhelming odds, and the determination to go on.  

Set against the cacophony of bickering local, state and federal officials, the 168-year-old newspaper’s voice has been clearly heard.

The Times-Picayune exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuation center violence, and traveled as far as the Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities have coped with flooding and disaster.

And despite the “some observers say” of the sub-headline (some editor in LA hasn’t yet gotten on board, apparently), the Times finds this to be a good, encouraging thing:

The newspaper’s success in the face of disaster raises a question: Are objectivity and dispassion in journalism overrated?

Some observers of New Orleans’ daily newspaper say they are, and that the Times-Picayune’s work in recent weeks evokes the best advocacy reporting of the Progressive Era a century ago, or even of the American Revolution.

“Objectivity is a fairly new construct in this business that has little to do with the quality of reporting,” said Jay Perkins, a journalism professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. “Sometimes you need to tell people not only what is really going on but how it feels.”

There may be those who are offended by the Times-Picayune’s crusading tone, but they would be hard to find in New Orleans or elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Clancy DuBos, editor of the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit, said the catastrophe demanded a new approach.

“I think the traditional journalistic, arm’s-length … cold view of what’s going on would be taken almost as an abandonment at this point,” DuBos said. “I think the readers want us to be up on the rooftops and to shout. The Picayune has done an excellent job. They have done a real public service.” [snip]

Perkins, the journalism professor, said the Times-Picayune had done a “fabulous job” responding to the disaster. “They are on their A game… The original American papers were certainly crusaders for a cause. And they are too.”

So you begin to see how this might be a good thing for progressives:  Newspapers engaged with their communities, advocating on the behalf of those without a voice, coping with injustice, or facing long odds.  But given how much economic trouble the newspaper industry is in, could this be too little too late?  That is a question on the minds of the Times-Picayune’s staff as well:

Employees at the Times-Picayune worry — in an industry beset by declining circulation and a spate of recent job reductions — how the paper’s New York parent company can afford to keep the paper going with thousands of readers and advertisers in exile.

A valid question.  But consider this:  The paper had a pre-Katrina circulation of 269,000.  Today, despite the depopulation of a large part of the city, circulation is already back up to 200,000.  And their website is booming:

Traffic on the paper’s website — which jumped as much as ninefold immediately after the storm — remained about 50% above normal in October, with 783,000 distinct viewers for the month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Now to you and I this is a vindication that the public values a news medium that dares to speak truth to power.  But to editors and newspaper owners across the country, this means something different.  It means money.  And any possible successful way of turning their fortunes around will be seized like a drowning man grabs a life preserver.

So I suspect that we may be looking at the fading of the “he said / she said” school of journalism.  Yes, investigative journalism takes more time and money, which is how the MSM sunk to their current sorry state of affairs.  But should the new model continue to prove profitable, it will certainly be copied.  Rest assured, students in journalism school are well aware of the Times-Picayne’s reporting, just as a generation of up-and-coming journalists once idolized Woodward and Bernstein and set out to do likewise.  Young people do not become newspaper journalists thinking that it’s going to be a lucrative career path, after all; they go into the field because of their idealism – which is why the press has always had a liberal slant, and possibly always will.  They just need their editors to turn their idealism loose on their cities and the nation.

The gilded age at the end of the 19th century resulted in an era where investigative reporting flourished (see here for a discussion of the “muckraker” journalists), and helped bring about a range of needed social reforms.  The times are ripe for a remake of that song.

So, is everyone on board with storming the Bastille?  Not yet.

Several of the Times-Picayune’s reporters and editors said they knew they had to be cautious that the passion that fired their work not threaten their objectivity. [snip]  

Going forward, journalism expert Perkins said the paper’s greatest challenge would be “sustaining the momentum in the face of overwhelming despair.”

But the events of the year ending – especially Katrina – were a wake-up call to the media, the government, and the American people that the postmodern truism that “there are many viewpoints and all are equally valid and need to be heard” may not always cut it.  That may be OK when discussing rumors of a politician’s bedroom peccadilloes or what to rebuild on the empty lot where a now-demolished building once stood.  But sometimes there is an objective truth that needs to be reported:  The levee collapsed because of shoddy workmanship.  People are starving or dying of disease.  The planet is overheating.  Hate crimes occur.  There IS a bill of rights and its words do mean something.  Evolution isn’t a theory; the facts backing it up have reached the point that it should join the principles of thermodynamics and planetary motion and it should be called a “Law.”  There IS a reality, and a reality-based community that WILL speak truth to power, dammit, even if you don’t want to hear it in your country club, smoke-filled back room, suburban mega-church, or quarterly stockholder meeting.

Presenting half-truths, press releases / propaganda without additional investigation, or merely telling a “he said / she said” story isn’t journalism.  It’s merely a cop-out for not doing the work of investigation that needs to be done.  Perhaps the hard realities are starting to sink in that lazy way out won’t cut it anymore.  People need to know the truth.  People want to know the truth.  People will seek out the truth and support whatever source provides it to them – Why are you here and not on eBay?

For the majority of our fellow citizens that still rely on the traditional media to form their worldview, a rebirth of investigative journalism and the press speaking truth to power cannot come soon enough in the times in which we find ourselves.

Let’s hope the newly resurgent voice of the great tradition of American investigative journalism coming from the Times-Picayune is the first light of a new dawn, and not merely another fading echo on the nation’s road to serfdom.

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