Opinion

John Lloyd

Journalism’s next big problem

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2014 19:01 UTC

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.

McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.

Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.

In her account of the age, The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin showed how writers were regarded as front-line activist-investigators of Tammany Hall and corporate America. Roosevelt opened his mind and the White House to them (not without an element of calculation). The McClure’s writers both venerated and served him, responding to his suggestions to investigate this or that abuse, and even bringing him the results of their research before it reached their editors.

Eventually, the relationship turned sour. Roosevelt got fed up with the more sensationalist material that copycat investigators produced, and he included in his indictment even the serious “muckrakers” (an affectionate nickname that the president had bestowed to journalists). Writers thought him too moderate in his second term and resented his resentment of them. McClure’s staggered on for some years, but its golden age turned leaden.

Journalism of the future should be less concerned with the present

John Lloyd
Jan 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn’t journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn’t they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn’t they warn about Enron’s house of cards? Why didn’t they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up – especially on the Iraqi WMD issue – because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.

Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.

The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.

In India, a press corps searching for its morality

John Lloyd
Oct 2, 2012 19:13 UTC

I was in India last week, where I met three frustrated moralists. One was a journalist, an investigator of some distinction (which, to be fair, can be frustrating anywhere). The other two were regulators of the press and broadcasting, respectively. They have little power and thus little influence over what they see as a scandal: the way the media ignore the “real” India – impoverished, suffering, socially divided – in favor of a glossy India that’s little more than the three “C’s” – cinema, celebrity and cricket.

Justice Markandey Katju is one of these frustrated regulators. Katju, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council of India, which – very loosely – oversees the press. When I told smart Indian journalists that I would see him, they were amused, and many told me he was “mad”. Justice Katju does thunder, but he’s not crazy: He’s an outspoken moralist, and his thundering says something not just about Indian media but also about India.

Calling Katju “outspoken” would fall too short. He hectors and lectures. In fact, Katju does speak with something of the fervor of the Indian governing class of the pre- and post-independence period, when ideals were at least as important as details and mechanisms. “There was a fashion show recently in Mumbai,” he said, “where there were 512 journalists. 512! The models were wearing clothes made of cotton grown by farmers who are committing suicides in their thousands every year! And is that reported? Maybe one reporter will be sent sometimes.

Julian Assange’s fall from the heavens

John Lloyd
Jun 25, 2012 19:54 UTC

Julian Assange, a fallen angel, remains, as of this writing, a guest of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. There he has sought asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces rape charges that he denies, and, he believes, possible extradition to the U.S., where he fears he may be tried and found guilty of espionage and sedition, for which death is still the extreme penalty.

When we talk of fallen angels, we invoke the original fallen angel, Satan or Lucifer, once beloved of God, the highest in his closest council, whose pride impelled him to challenge for heaven’s rule – and came before his fall to Hell. Assange was an angel of a sort, at least to many. They saw his role as founder of WikiLeaks and leaker of thousands of pages of cables on Iraq and Afghanistan, and then from U.S. embassies all over the world, as the act of a liberator, a rebel with a cause, one who could poke the U.S. in the eye in a new way, with only a laptop at his disposal.

He did set himself up very high. He challenged the deities and sacred texts of journalism, contemptuous of a trade that he saw as largely a handmaiden to power. In one comment, he said that the problem with the late News of the World’s hacking into people’s phones was largely non-existent. They had actually done original investigative work about people in this society that its readers were genuinely interested in.” In another, according to Guardian journalists who worked with him on the WikiLeaks material it published, he observed that if any of the informants who provided U.S. diplomats with the material in the leaked cables were to suffer retribution, they have “got it coming.” Now, he fears he does.

After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

John Lloyd
Mar 27, 2012 18:43 UTC

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

Freedom isn’t ruining lives

John Lloyd
Dec 6, 2011 18:07 UTC

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer wrote a powerful piece, giving two cheers for the tabloids. He took his text, as I did in a quite contrary piece, from the current Leveson Inquiry into British tabloid journalism, which has its roots in the uncovering of the massive interception of phone messages – “phone hacking” – at the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch’s British stable, now closed.

Columnists working on the same patch usually pass by on the other side of an argument with each other. But this argument is important to the profession of journalism, now in several sorts of trouble, and it is important to the public which journalism claims to inform. So I want to take public issue.

Jack quotes the legal writer Stephen Bates in the Journal of Media Law & Ethics as arguing that the “freedom of the press in Britain has been constricted” by judgments made in the past few years in favor of observing the privacy of those about whom journalists have written. Shafer and Bates agree that such judgments will deprive the British working class of its favored reading material, and will delight the elite, whose sins, of whatever kind, will be safe from the public scrutiny they should have. These assertions need examples, which Jack doesn’t give. Here are two:

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