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How Can American Journalism Save Itself?

By now Americans should be used to our traditional press dropping critical balls. And "citizen journalism" has neither solved the problem nor served as a reliable backstop.
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Happy July 4th everyone! This weekend, while we're celebrating our Declaration of Independence, we've just witnessed another example of the failure of the American press. The Internet, cable, and network news, and the few print-periodicals-that-have-somehow-survived, have been churning with pieces about Rolling Stone's crack coverage of (now former) Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal's out-of-control attitude and actions, which, thankfully, got him fired. As Frank Rich so pointedly asked, where were the journalists whose beat this was? How did they miss this story that had to be staring them in the face?

My personal feeling is that the good general, having worked and politicked his way to the military top, knew exactly what he was doing spilling his guts to Rolling Stone's freelancer Michael Hastings. The general who "spent five years running the Pentagon's most secretive black ops" doesn't make a hair-brained mistake like this.

What was his point? I don't know, but I suspect it lies under the public's political radar, which is exactly where it will stay.

Of course, by now Americans should be used to our traditional press dropping critical balls. And "citizen journalism" has neither solved the problem nor served as a reliable backstop. There are pros and cons to the concept that someone writing something up and publishing it makes him or her a "journalist," citizen or not.

Labels are one of the new currencies of the Internet. Everyone is an "expert," a "consultant," a "brand," and credentials are not necessarily part of the "expert's" package. I am all for personal reinvention and having the courage to stick your neck out for whatever you want to do, but poor writing, bad information, and mass "expertise" is contributing to the dumbing down of our culture.

But I digress. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi scorched CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan's butt for saying that she thought "the reporter violated an 'unspoken agreement' that journalists are not supposed to "embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter." What is up with her? Gigging another journalist because he was doing his job? Ms. Logan ought to be ashamed of herself. It is nothing but exceptionally refreshing to find a writer and a magazine willing to go against the corporate grain that has infected our traditional newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV news programs and basically neutered them, if not made them tools for disinformation.

No one wants to take responsibility anymore, and Washington D.C. is home to the worst of the lot. Journalists there become cozy in the town's power-crazed environment. They become part of it and eventually become part of the problem. It's the ultimate Insider's Club. New York is another example, with the crash and burning of Wall Street while the investment bankers played on.

We need to understand this point clearly: Power and greed are the root reasons our planet is embroiled in the mental, physical, and spiritual crises that rage seemingly everywhere. Global warming, the Gulf oil spill, the financial meltdown...I could go on and on. The only way to stop these disasters is for every single one of us to take responsibility--including journalists, who are supposed to be society's watch dogs.

Does anyone know when the American press failure began? I'm not sure, though it was painfully obvious during the run-up to George W. Bush's disastrous Iraq war that the press had bailed on reporting the real facts -- the truth -- of the situation. Instead, they heartily passed along the Bush party line.

What did and does this cost our democracy? Is this what our Founding Fathers intended with freedom of the press?

General McChrystal was trained on the highest levels to strategize, and I believe he carried out what he intended with that interview. What strategy does American journalism need in order to save itself?

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. (She wishes she could get some good Southern barbecue on July 4th.) To see more of her work, go to

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