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Henningsen: New Journalism

06/02/10 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  Long a trusted source of  information and opinion, Newsweek  is for sale.  As teacher and historian Vic Henningsen notes, this is a sign of the times.

(HENNINGSEN) For a long time, I knew where to go for information about the world around me.  The New York Times appeared on the doorstep every morning; three major networks kept me up to date every evening; and once a week Time, Newsweek, and Life Magazine came through the mailslot.  

I didn't realize that I was living through a temporary moment of broad consensus in American journalism: a moment when the vast majority of Americans relied on a few trustworthy sources of information to guide their thinking about public affairs.  

It's stunning to recall the influence once exercised by such a small group of publishers and journalists. In  1941 for example, publisher Henry Luce wrote an essay in Life entitled "The American Century", urging the United States to assume world leadership at a time when isolationism hindered American efforts to aid Britain in World War II.   His argument helped lay the groundwork for America's approach to world affairs for the next sixty years.  In 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a downbeat report on American progress in Vietnam, public opinion rapidly soured on the war.  President Lyndon Johnson lamented, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."  Several weeks later, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.

Cronkite was famously known as "the most trusted man in America."  It's hard to imagine any journalist today commanding such universal respect, or such influence.  Over the last twenty years, the concept of journalism as shared knowledge produced by a few trusted sources has given way to a fragmented universe of news providers: talk radio, cable news, and - above all - the Internet.  Everyone can be a journalist, it seems; everyone has multiple sources of information a mouse click away.  
 
There's much to be said for this. The democratization of journalism hands to individuals the opportunity-and the responsibility--to shape their own understandings of the news unfiltered by some higher authority.  I remember a neighbor in my youth who despised the notion that we required someone else to decide what was newsworthy. She was particularly down on the Luce publications. "Time," she said, "is for people who can't think.  Life is for people who can't read."

On the other hand, today's fragmented journalism deprives us of a set of sources commonly acknowledged as trustworthy.  It also allows consumers to pick and choose the information they wish to access; to depend only upon news providers whose thinking coincides with their own.  The irony here is that, in journalism, democracy, which should require us to confront, consider, and deal with views we may hate, actually permits us to avoid views that deviate even slightly from our own.

Thomas Jefferson once observed that "error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is free to combat it."  I wonder what happens when error of opinion is perpetuated because reason chooses to ignore it?
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