Press criticism should be personal, not institutional

In one of his many masterful essays of clear thinking and lucid prose, the late journalism and media scholar Jim Carey wrote:

It is a remarkable fact that each year most of us read more words by a reporter such as Homer Bigart of the New York Times than we do of Plato and yet today 2500 years after Plato wrote there is more critical work published on Plato every year than there is on Bigart. In fact, there is nothing published on Bigart, here used as an archetypal reporter, yet what he writes provides the critical diet for a major segment of the national “elite” community.

The late James Carey

Carey published this (institutional subscription required) in 1974, and unfortunately Homer Bigart is no longer with us. What is still with us though is the fact that American journalism remains under-criticized. This might sound like a naive and shocking claim if you were to take “criticized” to mean “attacked.” But as Carey argues, real criticism isn’t about picking on the perceived faults of your subject. It is about clarifying the culture’s relationship to that work. And even 37 years after Carey wrote, there is very little of that sort of criticism going on.

There is much to be said on this topic, and that’s why I’m writing my dissertation about a journal of press criticism. But I do want to make one suggestion that occurred to me as I was rereading that Carey essay on press criticism today, the one encapsulated in this post’s title. Press criticism would be improved—and I think the press’s respons to criticism would be as well—if press criticism were less about institutions and more about individuals.

This is an outgrowth of the century-long move toward transparency and accountability as replacements for a mistaken interpretation of “objectivity” as a professional norm for the press. First, reporters started writing below bylines, so the public knew who wrote what. Now, we’re moving toward increased transparency and responsiveness, with reporters acknowledging their backgrounds and associations and answering questions from readers on social media. This is all to the good.

But most press criticism still looks at news organizations as monoliths, not as collections of individual voices. So we should start to look at criticism of the press more like movie criticism (a slightly more populist analogy than Plato, methinks). Quick: name the movie studio that released your favorite movie. Yeah, I can’t do it either. I’m not sure I could, off the top of my head, associate a single movie with the studio that produced it (maybe some high period Miramax, and of course Pixar and Disney). But what about Paramount or Universal? Do they have a style? An agenda? Maybe. But I don’t know what it is. I do, however, recognize the work of my favorite directors or authors, and I think it’s more productive to criticize the Coen Brothers than it is to criticize—wait, let me look up who released Fargo—PolyGram.

Individual journalists would no longer be able to hide behind a publication’s masthead, and those who don’t already take enormous pride in their work might start to do so, knowing that they would be judged as artists or craftspeople. Besides, I know quite a few journalists who got into the field because they like to write (or broadcast or shoot video or design graphics or whatever), and a culture that looked at them as semi-autonomous actors (because, let’s face it, journalists working for news organizations are more like architects or film directors than they are like entirely independent authors or artists) might reinvigorate their initial love for what they do, and de-emphasize the corporate cog feeling that many large-organization journalists feel.

Obviously, this won’t work for everything. If a news organization (or the U.S. press in general) ignores an important story for whatever reason, that is obviously an institutional or systemic problem, and press critics shouldn’t feel that they need to limit themselves to reviews of works. Journalism has a broader social and cultural charge than movies, and it’s hard to pick on a movie that doesn’t get made. Movie criticism (like most journalism) is reactive. Criticism can be active and probing, but for the most part, press criticism is doing better with its social function than with its cultural one.

But this mode of criticism can be more positive. Which isn’t to say that it would be all of the time, or even most of the time, but press criticism as it exists now mostly is negative criticism. I think that recommendation engines like longform.org are actually practicing a valuable sort of criticism in the selection and canonization of works of journalism that are doing something right.

And I suspect most journalists would welcome this kind of criticism. After all, as Carey wrote in that same 1974 essay, “Criticism is not the mark of failure and irrelevance; it is the sign of vigor and importance.”

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