Ben Bradlee, a giant in the world of journalism, passed away the other day. He had a title at his old stomping grounds, The Washington Post, but at 93 and suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, his muckraking days were behind him. But, boy, did he have his days – the Pentagon Papers would have been enough for a career but he also had Watergate. And, he took a sleepy newspaper and made it one of the most respected and feared in the world. In his day, he was quite the rogue.
In a way, Mr. Bradlee’s passing is a metaphor for the news business. Its best days too are behind it – because of the Internet and cable television and the passing of a generation of “real newsmen and women” either by death or buyout. Walter Cronkite, David Broder, Mary McGrory – all were well respected, well known and long-term journalists. All now passed away.
But there are others, maybe not as well known, and still alive, who are plying their trades not as journalists but as PR people, university spokesmen, ghost writers and other careers they never planned for, nor expected. Truth is, once printer’s ink gets in your blood, no transfusion can remove it.
Today’s journalists are different, with different needs to fill. Deadlines, at one time just once a day, now are minute by minute thanks to the Internet. TV news now is whatever captures the public’s fancy – be it OJ speeding away from the police at 25 miles per hour, a boy allegedly in a runaway balloon, Justin Bieber’s various run-ins with the law, and on. Happy talk, blonde hair and talking heads have taken over the airwaves, and the sonorous tones of Walter Cronkite’s voice are, sadly, history.
It isn’t that today’s journalists aren’t filling a desire from the consumers of news – but they have helped shift what is news from discussions of policy to political paralysis and the game of who’s up or down or, these days, just sideways.
It’s more a question of legitimacy. Is today’s journalism legitimate? Sometimes it is. Many times it is not. I really don’t care to watch hours of Justin Bieber being an immature, rich-too-soon-for-his-own-good moop. And rather than hear that Republicans and Democrats are gridlocked, I’d like more pressure from the media on why the gridlock rather than the name-calling that seems to make headlines all too often these days.
Broder, Cronkite, McGrory and Bradlee helped push that kind of journalism They are missed.
And, I’m hoping someone picked up the baton from Mr. Bradlee. I have a feeling, though, that the hand-off was bungled.