Goodbye Stranger

reporterI want to scream.

In a world chock full of culprits that are partially responsible for everything from the “dumbing down of America” to the nomination of Mitt Romney and the advent of Twitter, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to stomach the banality associated with blaming “the media.”

While media criticism is important and necessary, a lot of people who blame “the media” have no idea what they are talking about.

Instead, blaming “the media” has become a catch-all phrase and a convenient target for those who want to ignore two very much larger problems: laziness and stupidity.

There is no question that media has changed, but I challenge you to define the word in its present-day context.

Sure, we can turn to the dictionary and find this: media: (noun) 1.) plural form of medium; 2.) the main means of mass communication (esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet) regarded collectively.

Media, whether it’s a daily newspaper, the evening television news, a blog or something that a “friend” posts on his Facebook page, is multi-faceted, multi-layered and increasingly accessible to every person on the planet.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Blaming the media is sort of like blaming your reflection in the mirror for having that fifth margarita or being late to work. Too often, blaming the media is just a convenient form of mental masturbation that serves no good purpose except helping you sleep better at night.

The good ol’ days?

The opening pages of the book Leaving Readers Behind: The Corporate Age of Newspapering contains this stunning contrast of two very different media mission statements:

This is the Journalist’s Creed written by Walter Williams in 1914:  I believe in the professionalism of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.”

And this is the Statement of Strategic Intent issued by Knight Ridder Newspaper Corp. in 1991:  We stand for excellent  service to customers and communities, a fair, respectful and learning environment for all our employees and a strong return for our shareholders. This responsibility is shared by each of us in Knight Ridder, regardless of title or function.”

So it seems easy to be cynical about the so-called “mainstream media” or as Rush Limbaugh describes it: “the drive-by media.”

Oh, how we long for the good days of journalism; the fair and balanced reporting and the loyalty of preserving the public trust. Too bad it’s gone right?

Wrong.

We are surrounded and inundated with loads of good journalism and a diversity of media that is unparalleled and will be surpassed in its diversity in less than 15 minutes.

Before you moan about the demise of media, or the sentimental loss of the warm and fuzzy images of Walter Cronkite and the proverbial grumpy editor such as Ben Bradlee, chew on this: Why haven’t you switched the channel?

Try it, you’ll like it

Better yet, what’s stopping you from being the media? It’s probably the same four things that stop most media endeavors: Money, Time, Resources and Audience.

Sure, go ahead and bitch about advertiser supported media, but how are you going to pay your reporters?  For those of you who will predictably point to examples such as “listener supported” public broadcasting, you may have missed those corporate announcements at the beginning of each segment.

Without corporate and taxpayer subsidies, National Public Radio would be nothing more than a distant memory because the vast and overwhelming majority of its listeners don’t dig very deep into their own pockets.

Yeah, and state-sponsored media is a sure-fire way to ensure credibility and a lack of bias. I mean, really . . . what would could possibly go wrong if we let the government report to us about the government?

I find it annoying that the bulk of those who bitch about the media have spent zero hours in a newsroom nor  ever required to sit through three hours of a planning board meeting while earning slightly more than minimum wage.

Pull back the curtain

Of course, no one loves to talk more about the media than the media. They are a narcissistic lot, full of righteous indignation. I know this because many of my friends and former colleagues still work in the media. God bless them.

These folks are professionals, but they are no different from anyone else and subject to all sorts of the very same pressures you will find in any other profession: gossip, bias, greed, competition and ego.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone with one of the editors at the Portland Press Herald. I was calling on behalf of one of my clients and asking for a favor.

The editor was a bit pissed off about my intrusion, and he didn’t try very hard to mask his annoyance: “Randy, you used to be a journalist, how can you ask me a question like that?”

Surprisingly, he accepted my honest response. “I’m not a journalist anymore, and you know damn well my current occupation requires me to ask the question even though I know you are going to refuse my request.”

That honest exchange led to a compromise we could both live with: he did not budge and I accepted his decision.

Where’s the good media?

As I said before, we are surrounded by some excellent examples of journalism. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the Southern Forecaster newspaper. That free, weekly newspaper was chock-full of solid community-based reporting.

There was an in-depth, comprehensive story about growing tensions between the Scarborough Rod & Gun Club and a group of neighbors who chose to build their homes near the club. It was a universal story about the themes of gentrification and it made me think about the tension in my own community between those who use the Biddeford Airport and their residential neighbors.

Another front-page story examined the plight of the South Portland City Council in light of a recent court decision that would allow municipal employees to serve on municipal boards and committees. Again, the same dynamic is an issue in my own community.

The Forecaster group of newspapers is one of the few remaining Maine-owned media outlets, and its staff seems to understand the importance of digging deep and solid reporting. Mo Mehlsak is the editor of the Forecaster. I remember him from his days as the city editor at the Journal Tribune. He is a newspaperman’s newspaper man: tough, intelligent and insightful. I never had the pleasure of working with him, but I have admired his work for nearly 20 years. He is obviously grooming an exceptional staff of reporters.

Speaking of the Journal Tribune, Tammy Wells has been covering York County issues longer than anyone else. She offers her readers a ton of institutional memory and insight.

When it comes to unbiased reporting and a willingness to cover stories in-depth, check out the work of my former colleague, Kate Irish Collins, a reporter for the Saco-based Sun Chronicle, part of Current Publications, another Maine-owned media outlet. No one person can come close  to matching Kate in producing such a volume of news content with consistent accuracy and lack of bias.

My friend Kelley Bouchard at the Portland Press Herald consistently delivers solid reporting and poignant features. She led off her newspaper’s insightful (and painful) examination of Maine’s aging population. The Challenge of Our Age.

On Election Night, every political junkie in Maine turns to the exceptional coverage provided by the Bangor Daily News.

And if you’re looking for a good compilation of Maine news and opinion, check out Bob Mentzinger’s  Writing Maine feed. Mentzinger is a close friend, but he’s also the editor at the Brunswick Times Record, another afternoon daily that strives every day to produce exceptional journalism on a shoe-string budget.

Yes, there is plenty of room for media criticism, and Al Diamon does an exceptional job of keeping Maine’s media outlets on their toes with his sometimes harsh, yet consistently detailed analysis that can be found in his weekly Media Mutt column published at The Bollard.

These are just a few samples that show it’s not hard to find solid journalism in Maine or anywhere else. You just have to look for it.

The next time you feel like bitching about the media, go take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself this: are you part of the solution or part of the problem?

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