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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Press Loves Itself




Three decades ago, a couple dozen journalists gathered at a hotel in Washington to organize against threats real and imagined, from without and within. They were apprehensive about calculated, mean-spirited attacks on the press that then-President Richard Nixon's administration had begun to orchestrate, and they were animated by the anti-establishmentarian fervor of the day.


They ended up forming the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. I was there, but didn't sign up because I'm not a reporter - much though I wish I possessed the skills of one - or a joiner, and because some of the rhetoric struck me as more than a little overheated. But there was no doubt that this was a serious, high-minded undertaking. In the same spirit, some of those who established the committee subsequently founded a journal of press criticism, called More, which attempted in its lamentably brief existence to be more lively, outspoken and independent than its establishmentarian competitors, the Columbia Journalism Review and Nieman Reports.


That was only yesterday, but it might as well have been a couple of centuries ago. As these words were being written, I was returning from one of my irregular visits to a place on the Internet called Jim Romenesko's MediaNews. Until recently, it was the irreverent Mediagossip.com, but now it has fallen under the wing of the Poynter Institute, the "school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders," which "stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse."


No doubt, all of that is true - but doesn't it strike anyone as odd that an educational organization dedicated to "excellence and integrity" in journalism is now retailing a gossip column? The name may have been changed from mediagossip to MediaNews (the web address is now www.poynter.org/medianews), but the business at hand is the same as it's been all along.


This isn't to be self-righteous about gossip or to single out Romenesko for criticism. I enjoy gossip as much as anyone else, and Romenesko should be given full credit for a heroic job not merely of assembling juicy tidbits each day, but of providing links to every imaginable source of dirt about the press. Inasmuch as Romenesko says he spends "the most time" at The Washington Post's web site, I'm certainly not about to pick a fight with him.


My quarrel instead is with journalism itself, the business in which I've spent every day of my working life. The good intentions that led to the Reporters Committee and to More magazine have gone seriously awry.


The laudable idea that the press should police itself in the best way it knows how - by covering itself with the same objectivity and thoroughness it tries to bring to all other subjects - has been twisted, and diminished into just another variation on the culture of narcissism, celebrity and gossip.


Can people who do not work in media find us as fascinating as we find ourselves? It is impossible to believe they do, yet we devote almost as much space in general-circulation publications, web sites and broadcast media to the personalities of journalism as we do to the personalities of show business. Three decades ago, there was not a single reporter in the country, outside the journalistic trade magazines, who covered the press full time; now Romenesko provides links to 21 general media covering the press, 17 media columnists, 10 television/radio columnists, eight television/radio media and two dozen alternative weeklies in which media gossip is prominently featured.


Drive a couple of kilometers west from the center of Washington and you'll find yourself in dreary, characterless Rosslyn, Virginia, at the center of which is the coyly named Newseum, where media and those who labor therein are accorded a veneration comparable to what Babe Ruth and Willie Mays enjoy in Cooperstown, New York.


If there's a more visible monument to journalistic self-importance than this one, it's hard to imagine, though old-timers might point fondly to the Tribune Tower in Chicago.


In the long distant days of my apprenticeship, it was drilled into me that journalists should be as invisible as possible, that it is the story that matters, not the storyteller.


Maybe that was foolish self-deception or wishful thinking, but it made sense at the time and it still does. Yes, journalists bring egos to the office, but it used to be part of the culture of the business that they checked them at the door, or at least pretended to.


Now, the name of the business is gossip and self-promotion. The op-ed page of The New York Times, previously a forum for solemn thumb-sucking, now gives pride of place to specialists in the art of gossip. The great ambition of every print journalist is a seat at a televised Gong Show, to be followed as soon as possible by a book underwritten by a seven-figure advance and featuring a color photo of the author on the front of the dust jacket.


It's the way we live now. People take political appointments in Washington not to serve the public, but to carve out careers as lobbyists and/or spin-meisters, so why can't journalists use their jobs as springboards to celebrity and wealth? There's no getting around it: Deep down we're just as shallow as everybody else.


Jonathan Yardley writes for The Washington Post, where this comment initially appeared.