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Great journalism barely exists anymore

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By Rick Howell

On Nov. 22, 1963, the New York Times had assigned only one reporter to what it thought would be a routine presidential motorcade through Dallas, Texas.

    Little-known staff writer Tom Wicker got the assignment, and it turned him into a household name. Upon hearing the gun shots and seeing the Kennedy motorcade slow down and then speed off, Wicker went into action. He jotted down notes of what was happening on some White House stationary he had with him.
    His “New York Times” story was the first to roll across the wires that fateful day. His profile boosted at his newspaper – which has always been considered the “paper of record” in national journalism – Wicker went on to a long and notable career.
    One of the first books of true journalism I ever read was his 1975 effort, “A Time to Die,” his account of the 1971 Attica, N.Y. prison uprising. Wicker wrote 19 other books, and spent years as one of the top syndicated political columnists in the nation. He died last week at 85.
    If we use the occasion of his passing to reflect upon the state of journalism today, we encounter a grim landscape. All the great journalists have either died or been silenced by old age and illness. The digital age and the rise of the Internet have left us with a lot more information, but very little in the way of great journalism.
    Indeed, if you were asked to name the top print journalist today, who would it be? Most people who could think of anyone would say Bob Woodward, but would most likely be stumped after that.
    What Woodward does is certainly journalism, but he’s also an establishment figure, hardly an “investigative” reporter. Everyone in Washington answers his phone calls because of his reputation and his pedigree. But he’s not exactly breaking current news.
    He’ll always deserve credit for the last big journalistic coup in this country, his and colleague Carl Bernstein’s tracking down of the truth in the Watergate scandal, which was about the only time The Washington Post (another national journalistic treasure) beat the New York Times at anything.
    Lesser known than Woodward is Seymour Hersh, whose books are always newsworthy, especially the one that broke the truth about how Israel acquired nuclear weapons. Two other New York Times writers, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, worked their whole lives as day-to-day reporters and managed to produce great books, too.
    What about broadcast journalists? Well, again, the greats of the past are all gone: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley….clearly, there’s no one on national television today who can light a candle to those men.
    Even some syndicated columnists used to be actual journalists. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak regularly broke news in their columns, as Drew Pearson had done decades earlier. But every national columnist now is in the opinion business, not the business of reporting.
    The intelligent citizen of today who demands to be informed has to search hard to find what journalistic pearls that do exist. I like Richard Engle of NBC News, whose reporting of the “Arab Spring” – especially his reports from Egypt – has been unmatched.
    There’s also the PBS journalistic/documentary show “Frontline,” a broadcast that should not be missed for those who want an in-depth exploration of contemporary news events.
    Some newspapers, especially the Washington Post, did some public soul-searching after they realized they’d swallowed whole the Bush-Cheney rationale for war in Iraq. Very simply, they forgot a cardinal journalistic rule: Check out the facts for yourself; don’t rely only on “official” information.
    Nobody ever had to remind Tom Wicker of that. He and his kind are sorely missed today.

* * * *

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com

household name. Upon hearing the gun shots and seeing the Kennedy motorcade slow down and then speed off, Wicker went into action. He jotted down notes of what was happening on some White House stationary he had with him.
    His “New York Times” story was the first to roll across the wires that fateful day. His profile boosted at his newspaper – which has always been considered the “paper of record” in national journalism – Wicker went on to a long and notable career.
    One of the first books of true journalism I ever read was his 1975 effort, “A Time to Die,” his account of the 1971 Attica, N.Y. prison uprising. Wicker wrote 19 other books, and spent years as one of the top syndicated political columnists in the nation. He died last week at 85.
    If we use the occasion of his passing to reflect upon the state of journalism today, we encounter a grim landscape. All the great journalists have either died or been silenced by old age and illness. The digital age and the rise of the Internet have left us with a lot more information, but very little in the way of great journalism.
    Indeed, if you were asked to name the top print journalist today, who would it be? Most people who could think of anyone would say Bob Woodward, but would most likely be stumped after that.
    What Woodward does is certainly journalism, but he’s also an establishment figure, hardly an “investigative” reporter. Everyone in Washington answers his phone calls because of his reputation and his pedigree. But he’s not exactly breaking current news.
    He’ll always deserve credit for the last big journalistic coup in this country, his and colleague Carl Bernstein’s tracking down of the truth in the Watergate scandal, which was about the only time The Washington Post (another national journalistic treasure) beat the New York Times at anything.
    Lesser known than Woodward is Seymour Hersh, whose books are always newsworthy, especially the one that broke the truth about how Israel acquired nuclear weapons. Two other New York Times writers, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, worked their whole lives as day-to-day reporters and managed to produce great books, too.
    What about broadcast journalists? Well, again, the greats of the past are all gone: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley….clearly, there’s no one on national television today who can light a candle to those men.
    Even some syndicated columnists used to be actual journalists. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak regularly broke news in their columns, as Drew Pearson had done decades earlier. But every national columnist now is in the opinion business, not the business of reporting.
    The intelligent citizen of today who demands to be informed has to search hard to find what journalistic pearls that do exist. I like Richard Engle of NBC News, whose reporting of the “Arab Spring” – especially his reports from Egypt – has been unmatched.
    There’s also the PBS journalistic/documentary show “Frontline,” a broadcast that should not be missed for those who want an in-depth exploration of contemporary news events.
    Some newspapers, especially the Washington Post, did some public soul-searching after they realized they’d swallowed whole the Bush-Cheney rationale for war in Iraq. Very simply, they forgot a cardinal journalistic rule: Check out the facts for yourself; don’t rely only on “official” information.
    Nobody ever had to remind Tom Wicker of that. He and his kind are sorely missed today.

* * * *

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com