Saving Journalism: Howard Kurtz Is Wrong, Dan Rather Is Right

Kurtz asserts that the journalism crisis is not a political issue, but the result of economic and technological forces alone. If only that were true.
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On Monday, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN criticized veteran newsman Dan Rather for his recent call for a White House commission on the future of journalism and public media.

It was a misguided criticism of Mr. Rather, who has called for the commission as a way to bring attention to the crisis facing American newsrooms (20,000 newspaper jobs lost in the past 18 months alone), and to create the political will necessary to get our elected leaders to address the problem.

If you don't think we have a news crisis, just look at the absurd coverage of the health care town halls by the cable channels, and how they have skewed public opinion against the public interest.

Kurtz's argument can be summed up by the last lines of his article: "Journalists got themselves into this mess by clinging to the past as technology threatened to pass them by. They'll have to get themselves out of it without any assistance from the Oval Office." Kurtz asserts that the journalism crisis is not a political issue, but the result of economic and technological forces alone. If only that were true.

The biggest media companies like General Electric, News Corp., Viacom and Disney spend millions to shape government policies, like allowing consolidation of ownership, eliminating important public interest obligations, and blocking competition, to name a few. Kurtz's call for government to stay out of efforts to save journalism is a denial of policy's central role in creating -- and its ability to fix -- the media's problems. Indeed, the only ones who would benefit from Kurtz's hands-off approach are the media bosses for whom he works.

Investigative, in-depth, adversarial journalism is increasingly rare in commercial radio, television, and even newspapers. And the sort of commission that Dan Rather recommends may be the only way to get a distracted Congress and White House to pay attention - and commit to finding solutions.

Kurtz is also off-base in calling commissions a "classic bureaucratic substitute for doing something." It was a commission, backed by the White House and Congress, that created our public broadcasting system in 1969. The 9/11 Commission's investigation, hearing and report dramatically altered the debate about that tragedy and has helped guide homeland security policy to this day.

Just as our leaders have created national plans to address crises in health care, energy independence and education, it is time to craft a national strategy to renew journalism and public media in America. And that's not going to happen if we ask our nation's leader to sit it out.

While Kurtz's piece reveals a lack of understanding of the role of media policy in shaping and fostering robust journalistic institutions -- and the steps required to protect the fourth estate. I have been to a number of the forums that Kurtz refers to. I was on the panel he moderated along with Rather, and I agree that we need to move from panels toward tangible solutions.

Instead of just another Blue Ribbon panel of elite experts, the commission Rather recommends must focus on concrete policies and business models. And it should be a 21st-century "Citizen's Commission" that fosters a new kind of conversation with the American people. It should be made up of diverse voices and viewpoints and designed to gather input from everyday people and experts alike. It should leverage the on- and offline tools that Obama used so well in his campaign, and be truly inclusive and participatory -- and funded by private foundations. But in the end, it will need leadership and attention from the White House and Congress to make a real impact.

Journalism is in crisis, and we must be proactive in identifying and advancing solutions. We must re-imagine the structures and policies needed for quality journalism and public media to thrive in the digital age, and our leaders must help ensure that our media meet the demands of an informed society. Our democracy simply cannot wait.

I'll return to this space in the coming weeks with more ideas about what this commission might look like -- and how to stay informed.

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