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Outside Voices: Bertrand Pecquerie Looks At American Journalism From A European Perspective

(Bertrand Pecquerie)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the World Editors Forum, which publishes Editors Weblog, to contribute. Here, he contends that from a European perspective, American journalism is "in a profound crisis." As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Bertrand:

Is American Journalism Self-Destructing?

What difficult times American journalism has been having since 2003!

That year, Jayson Blair rocked the foundations of The New York Times and a collective hallucination caused the American press to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

In 2005, Dan Rather resigned as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" after an offensive from conservative bloggers. They were correct in exposing a controversial document as fake but did not serve the public by shelving questions about the questionable military service of the president.

Also in 2005, there was yet another attack on a journalist -- this time, the head of news at CNN, Eason Jordan. He dared to denounce the American army in Iraq for its "muscled approach" in relations with the American and foreign press.

And how can we forget the latest assault on American press credibility with the imprisonment and ensuing scandal around Judith Miller?

So far, 2006 has been free of a scandal of equal proportions. But American media in Iraq have still invented "Green Zone Journalism," a form of bunkered and blind journalism that ex-hostages Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor and Florence Aubenas of Libération refused to partake in.

Excuse me if this summary seems exaggerated, but seen from Europe, American journalism, once a model, now seems to be in a profound crisis.

What was this model? First, it included heavily populated newsrooms, often twice as large as European newsrooms, which permitted real investigative journalism defined by weeks or months of intense digging and questioning. Second, there was a clear concept of a Fourth Estate -- the role of journalists was to question the power of the three others and big business. Finally, the education of journalists was very different -- real journalists were experts in their fields, capable of anticipating technological and economic evolutions.

Why does this model seem to be dying today? First, I cannot help but emphasize the collateral victim of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: American "mainstream" journalism. Everything that was positive – prosperity, diversity, credibility, the struggle for power – quickly turned negative simply because American media, and not just Fox News, transformed itself into a war machine alongside the Bush administration. From one day to the next, a "media nationalism" made them lose their critical spirit. In comparable circumstances, the European press had succeeded in maintaining its role as platform of debate, for example, in France during the Algerian War in the 60s and in Germany and Italy with the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Brigate Rosse in the 70s. In these countries, the press clearly questioned the strategies of their governments and denounced certain methods of repression.

In the U.S., nothing comparable has emerged in "mainstream" television or print and only a few organizations, Project Censored or Media Channel for instance, have dared to criticize the nationalist steamroller. In facing this failure of the critical spirit, progressively realized in 2004 and 2005, the American media will take numerous years to reset itself and question its actions. There is no doubt that it will be a fruitful self-examination.

What worries me most is the process of self-destruction into which American journalism seems to be falling since the wave of grassroots or "citizen journalism." It is very difficult to understand how theories such as "news is no longer a lecture but a conversation" and "breaking news is the beginning, not the end of the news process" have imposed themselves on the media scene.

News becoming a conversation is a positive step if it means commencing a dialogue with readers, a dialogue incredibly simplified thanks to the Internet. But in the context of the present crisis, this also acts as a way of minimizing the role of journalists. It seems to have been forgotten that breaking news and investigation into scandals and corruption performed by professionals is necessary before this conversation can start.

Take the case of Eason Jordan -- most of the pressure in the blogosphere was placed on Jordan to resign, completely overshadowing the real issue -- whether journalists were being targeted in Iraq. A small number of bloggers were able to turn the attention of the public and the media from major issues to secondary details.

At first glance, the intuitions of citizen journalists such as Dan Gillmor were full of good intentions, but in the end they could be threatening the basic principal of journalism: investigation.

Another consequence is that journalists are perceived as more conservative in the face of these new theorists who see a journalist hidden behind every citizen. And this is happening without the slightest foundation: currently, citizen journalism is but a small minority. There are very, very few that participate in something resembling journalism. The confusing mixture of information/entertainment/communication is causing an incurable harm to the notion of information as a pillar of democracy.

What surprises me the most is the ease with which the American journalistic community has accepted this process of self-weakening and, in the long term, self-destruction. Why doesn't anybody dispute Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis? Who will contest these theories, which could very well be just another "Internet bubble?" Who doesn't see that under the new cover of "virtual democracy," real democracy is being weakened?

In the U.S., people blog but they don't vote. Virtual democracy doesn't seem to have any affect on real democracy. In Europe, we vote (last week's elections in Italy, for instance, had an 83% voter turnout), but we blog in the political sense very little. Which democracy is the most vibrant?