The best, and perhaps only, way to maintain a press that is both free of government and corporate control, and yet responsible to the demand that it function to propagate a democratic society and its attendant culture, is to encourage the growth and flourishing of a robust, public, and intellectually probing body of criticism around it.
In 1974, Lee Brown wrote (in the same book cited in my previous post on intellectuals’ complaints about journalism) that
With the growing movement for a national press council, these have become the principal forms of contemporary press criticism: the resurgent journalist-critic; the journal, particularly the local journal, for criticism of the press; the establishment of local press councils, by individual publishers and under the auspices of the Mellett Fund; the establishment of in-house ombudsmen, on only a few newspapers, to respond to reader complaints; and the reports of presidential and other commissions. (Lee Brown, ‘The Reluctant Reformation: on Criticizing the Press in America.’ New York: David McKay, 1974)
Brown’s overview of the landscape of press criticism isn’t bad, though it probably suffers from an over-broad interpretation of what defines “press criticism,” and he leaves out a category or two that existed in 1974 just as surely as they do today (academic criticism, for instance; and if we’re to use Brown’s broad brush, we should also include criticism of the press by courts). But much has changed in the last 36 years too, so I offer (for debate and, of course, criticism) an updated taxonomy of press criticism.
- Regularly published commentary in the popular press. These are columnists and press critics who critique the performance of the press for the benefit of the practice of journalism; and who demystify the press for a general audience. This is what I think of first when I hear “press critic.” The archetypal press critic, of course, would be A.J. Liebling. But today, this would include people with the title of press critic such as Slate’s Jack Shafer, as well as reporter-columnists such as David Carr for the New York Times. I posit that this is the most important type of press criticism, since it is published at least semi-regularly, and is written for the general public, and therefore bridges the important divide between the members of the press and those reader/viewer/consumers who are not actively engaged in the production of journalism. You know, perpetuation of representative democracy and all that. But this is also press criticism as film or literary or art or even restaurant criticism, really top-flight criticism that connects the creative act (insofar as journalism is a creative act) to cultural currents.
- Ombudsmen and public editors. These are similar to the press critics, except that their role is more limited in two ways: One, their charge is to monitor the performance of a single outlet, their employer. Two, they are reader representatives, and therefore not independent critics guided by their own critical instincts. They tend to respond mostly to reader complaints, or at least to perceived reader complaints.
- Journalism reviews and professional organizations. Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, and a few scattered other publications are all that really survive of the local journalism review movement of the late 60s and early 70s that Brown cites. A minuscule few journalism reviews even pretend to a general audience—[More] probably had the broadest ambitions. Professional organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists fall into this category too, since they share an audience and an aim: speak to professional journalists about the practice of journalism. They monitor standards and set codes of ethical conduct.
- Academic critics. There is a huge output of academic research about the press, much of it rather useless, but some of it quite brilliant. (See this recent post by Matt Thompson on improving the quality and reach of academic research about journalism). There are a few members of academia working to actively influence the practice of journalism for the better, such as NYU’s Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Journalism School. But academic critics of journalism don’t have to be only journalism professors. Why not public policy professors, sociologists, historians, philosophers, mass comm researchers, literature profs, legal scholars and economists, to name a few? Include the Nieman Foundation here, too, I’d say. And throw in Poynter somewhere between category 3 (professional organizations and journalism reviews) and this one.
- Books. Occasional books aimed at a popular audience, summarize the state of the practice of journalism, opine about its shortcomings, and offer advice for its future. There has been a glut of these recently, aiming at divining the “future of journalism,” but it’s a genre that can be traced back at least to Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Brass Check,’ and having in its lineage George Seldes, Will Irwin and a steady stream of others.
I see these five as the core, but there are arguments to be made for a few other types of press criticism. Brown sees politicians complaining about the press as press criticism, but I think there’s a significant qualitative difference between criticism and self-serving complaint, so Spiro Agnew does not count, in my book, as a press critic (but what about FAIR and AIM, the partisan press watchdogs?). Quite a few of the capsule histories of press criticism bring up the Hutchins Commission report too, and occasionally other lesser government commission reports on the activities of the press. If you’re going to include these, I would argue that you have to include Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. as press critics too, for their masterful defense of freedom of expression in their Supreme Court decisions.
And what of Jon Stewart? I’ve seen him called the best and most important critic of the press working today. He’s certainly good at it when he does it, but does he fit into the taxonomy anywhere? Should he? Or is he just a very funny, very pointed anomaly?
I’d love to answer that question definitively, but I’m afraid I’m out of time, so I’ll just have to leave it there.