By Jefferson Flanders

As the legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: nobody asked me, but…

NYU’S MITCHELL STEPHENS HAS RE-IMAGINED THE ROLE OF MAINSTREAM JOURNALISM in his provocative Columbia Journalism Review essay “Beyond News.”

Stephens believes that the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle has made obsolete the traditional next-day reporting of newspapers and the broadcast media. He argues for a new approach to avoid irrelevancy:

But the extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events — insights, not just information. What is required — if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news — is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

Stephens calls for more “analyzing and appraising” by reporters and for “insightful” journalism, where editors and reporters draw conclusions and share them, abandoning their traditional neutral observer role. Stephens at one point in his essay talks about how journalists must “connect the dots” to remain relevant.

There are some intriguing ideas in the Stephens piece. In practice, however, I don’t see how you could keep this aggressive news analysis from sliding into outright opinion or commentary once reporters start drawing conclusions (vide: Lou Dobbs). You can find this sort of journalistic hybrid currently practiced by cable commentators like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly and while it is entertaining, I’d question whether it provides readers and viewers any “wisdom” per se, or simply serves to confirm partisan prejudices.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t room for Dobbs, Olbermann and O’Reilly’s approach—or for the commentary in the Weekly Standard, New Republic, and The Nation. But, despite the erosion of circulation and audience the mainstream media is experiencing, there remains a strong need for objective-means reporting—“mere journalism“—that offers readers and viewers a balanced account of events, places them in context, and explores their significance, without abandoning impartiality. A journalism based on accuracy, balance and independence still has a lot of mileage left.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF HUMAN COMPETITIVENESS, which is why the $25 million “Virgin Challenge” climate prize offered by British entrepreneur Richard Bransonfor anyone who can find a better way to “suck greenhouse gases out of the air” is a very clever idea.

Branson knows it’s not just the money that will encourage prize-seekers to pursue innovation in mitigating greenhouse gases—he is counting on our innate drive to finish first in any contest.

And Branson’s no piker when it comes to environmental issues: he’s pledged some $3 billion in fighting global warming. At the same time he is seeking more environmentally-friendly Virgin airplanes, even as he looks to develop space tourism.

CAN IT BE THAT BASEBALL’S SPRING TRAINING OPENS next week? Already? In Florida and Arizona, pitchers and catchers will report for the start of yet another season. Tempus fugit!

THE POLITICO’S ANDREW GLASS has offered advice to new Capitol Hill reporters, including this tip: “When you go after people, do so in a classy way.” The veteran reporter gives an example of his own “kinder and gentler” approach from his days at the old New York Herald, when Glass observed of a “tipsy” Sen. Russell Long that he had “lunched well, but not necessarily wisely.”

ONE OF AMERICA’S LAST WORLD WAR I VETERANS, Antonio Pierro, has died at the age of 110 in Salem, Massachusetts. Pierro once told the Boston Globe,“It’s all up to you to do what you want in life. There are pleasant things to do, and there are terrible things not to do, and that’s the way I see it.” Pierro was described by his niece as a “real charmer who lived a wonderful life.”

It’s easy to forget that World War I was seen by its participants as the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately human spiritual development has lagged behind our technological advances in building and employing weapons; we remained plagued by the “dogs of war.” Is it too much to hope that by the end of the 21st century that war will have the same status as slavery—universally condemned and geographically isolated?

 WHAT WOULD MY SWEDISH-AMERICAN GRANDMOTHER, who believed cleanliness was next to Godliness, think of the trendy fascination with dirt floors, reported in the New York Times this week (one of the Grey Lady’s most e-mailed stories)? Not much. And she would have made a few tart comments about the foolishness of rich people.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE IS FROM English novelist Jane Austen: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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