Friday, July 23, 2010

RIP Daniel Schorr

They don't make 'em like Daniel Schorr, the veteran CBS journalist, anymore. Schorr, whom I knew from his acerbic but incisive commentaries on NPR, died today after a long life well-lived.

It's especially poignant to hear that Schorr is gone this week, when the whole nation is learning about the scandal in the City of Bell.

I don't know much about South Los Angeles communities and doubt I've ever set foot in Bell, despite being a lifelong SoCal resident. But I have to wonder: Where were the reporters?

How can city and elected officials get away with this disgusting behavior if there is a bona fide news outlet somewhere in town or in the region keeping an eye on them? Back in the day, when I was a reporter for a small (and then a medium-sized) community newspaper, our main task was to keep tabs on elected officials. Rooting out corruption was the journalist's highest calling, and anyone who could pull back the screen to expose pigs feeding at the trough got high praise and monumental street cred.

Just having a reporter hanging around city hall, attending every city council meeting, requesting planning agendas and writing endless stories about budget wrangling kept would-be crooks in line. I'm not saying there was no corruption, but dull and dreary as it might have been, I have to believe that public service reporting discouraged a lot of hanky-panky.

But what about now? I confess I don't know about the state of local media in Bell. But frankly, the small newspapers in my area stink. They reprint Chamber of Commerce press releases and feature local pablum instead of real news stories. No one sits into the wee hours at the council meetings unless there's a brouhaha brewing. The Los Angeles Times, where my old friend Jeff Gottlieb broke the Bell story, used to have staff writers covering all the local cities. Then they hired stringers (my first job as a freelancer) to do it. Then they stopped altogether, deciding it was "no longer their mission" to cover local news.

Never fear, say the detractors of old-school journalism. Those dinosaurs aren't necessary. Our "citizen journalists" and community bloggers will step in to do the job even better than local papers did. My questions: Who's going to train these community journalists to investigate and cover public agencies? Where will they get the clout to stand up to surly, arrogant officials like those in Bell?

And most importantly, who's going to pay them for the considerable time and energy it takes to keep our public servants honest? This is not something one does as a hobby, no matter how much we'd like to believe it can be.

As we lose local journalism, we're all losing something precious. What will fill the gap is anybody's guess.

7 comments:

  1. Good rant, although I'm sorry to see your sunflower cheeriness fade.

    I worry about the state of journalism, too. It's next to impossible to find impartial sources, and television news is loaded with hatespeak and sensationalism (Lehrer is the only thing worth watching).

    Journalism isn't something you just do. It's a trade. It requires training and it's hard work. And like you said, once a person goes through that, they ought to be paid for it--and blogging isn't the avenue to big bucks (or so I'm told).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Petrea, you're right on. But you'd be surprised (or maybe not) at how many very smart, very well-respected bloggers insist they can do the job that used to be a profession.

    This online newspaper agrees with us at least.

    h/t to Paula for the link.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was at The Times when they added and subtracted, then re-added and re-subtracted the local sections. It depended on whether the current publisher believed journalism was a mission or a business. Once the LA Times got Willes, it never looked back.

    I was doing communications at the time, and remember sending out "Isn't it great -- the locals are open again!" and "Isn't it great -- we're bringing the locals back in-house!" kind of thing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh yes, I remember that back-and-forth on the regional sections well, AH.

    I didn't know you were at the Times!

    ReplyDelete
  5. The one bright spot in the Bell scandal is how it's mobilized people across the country to ask city hall a whole lot of questions. City officials are scrambling to post salaries and other information on their websites.

    I just hope at least some of these citizens stay interested and keep asking questions.

    ReplyDelete