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BOOK REVIEW

Misreading between the lines

American Carnival Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media Neil Henry University of California Press: 304 pp., $24.95

April 11, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

JOURNALISM is hardly the first American institution to suffer a kind of collective nervous breakdown when confronted with radical and, mainly, unforeseen changes in technology and economics.

It is, however, the first to do so having elevated communal self-absorption to an exquisitely neurasthenic pitch. You can't spit these days without hitting a media critic or columnist or some review or chat show that purports to take the pulse of the anxious news media. We Americans may never have solved the old riddle of who spies on the spies, but there's very little doubt these days who reports on the reporters -- everybody and their second cousins.

Not a sparrow falls that we are not provided with multiple instant replays of the wretched beast's descent and then endless, agonized and agonizing dissections of whether any of those accounts reflected bird-watching bias. (Then, of course, there also are the now-requisite first-person accounts of what it's like to watch a sparrow fall.)

Yuck!

That said, we still lack a cogent and convincing book-length account of newspaper and broadcast journalism's current crisis of confidence and of what its consequences might ultimately be. Despite its ambitious subtitle, Neil Henry's "American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media" will not fill that void.

Henry was for many years a reporter and foreign correspondent -- notably in Nairobi -- for the Washington Post and, later, for Newsweek. For more than a decade, he has taught journalism at UC Berkeley's graduate school.

This book blends memoir with a wandering and not particularly edifying account of the problems entailed in educating prospective journalists to be of service through what clearly is a transitional period for their field. Henry makes the inarguable point that good journalism is an indispensable helpmate of responsible citizenship and then offers multiple examples of how hard it is to do good journalism.

Frankly, it was ever so, and this book is a striking example of new wine in old skins. There are lots of anecdotes of the sort old reporters called upon to teach their students. Some of them, particularly Henry's glancing involvement with the notorious fraud merchant Janet Cooke, are telling. Most fall into the "war story" category. There's a great deal of boiler-plate history that seems borrowed from lecture notes and mistakes that should have been avoided. (The Los Angeles Times' so-called Staples Center scandal, for example, did not involve "the paper's owners" allowing "advertisers to control editorial content in a Sunday magazine featuring the city's new sports arena.")

Then, what is one to make of a statement like this: "Such moral ambiguities surrounding professional journalism are as deeply complex as they are troubling. And within this uncertain climate and its ever-accelerating change, I find the task of comprehensively educating a new generation of reporters vexing."

Really?

Look, here's the basic problem that newspaper and broadcast journalism faces today: After World War II, unparalleled economic growth and the development of an increasingly sophisticated consumer economy made advertising ubiquitous. Because newspapers, particularly in the big cities, and television networks aggregated very large audiences of consumers, advertisers paid premiums to the papers and broadcasters for the space and time to reach audiences. Newspapers and television networks became profitable beyond anybody's wildest dreams. A portion of those profits went to fund an unprecedented expansion in journalism's ambition, reach and depth.

Newspapers became so profitable that formerly family-owned papers across the country morphed into publicly traded companies that were themselves aggregated into larger communication/entertainment conglomerates and, as long as the advertising boom continued, there was enough money to cover both their stockholders' economic aspirations and the cost of doing good journalism.

Along came the Internet, other "new media" and a generation weaned on their rapid pace and, essentially, free content; the whole model began to fray at the seams. That's what all the fuss is about. At some point, somebody will find a way to make a decent return on journalism on the Web. There is a striking recent example of a formerly "free" medium converting to a pay model. Not that many years ago, if you wanted to watch television, you went to a store and bought a set and that was the last money you paid. You came home, plugged it in, adjusted the rabbit ears and watched television -- with all its ads -- for nothing. Now a majority of Americans watch cable or satellite TV for which they pay a monthly fee. They were lured there not just by better reception but also by things they could not get from the broadcast networks -- initially, commercial-free films, local live sports and cable news.

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