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The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for American Journalism

John Miller, director of the journalism program at Hillsdale College, discusses the transformation of the news media and why the absence of vibrant news reporting can be a threat to our American way of life.

John Miller discusses American journalism

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for American Journalism

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we’ll be discussing a transformation of the news media and why the absence of vibrant news reporting can be a threat to our American way of life. I’m Traci DeVette Griggs, the Communications Director at NC Family, sitting in this week for John Rustin.

Our guest is John J. Miller, director of the journalism program at Hillsdale College. He’s also founder and executive director of the Student Free Press Association; he is the author of several books; and a contributing writer for some prestigious national publications including National Review and The Wall Street Journal.

John Miller, welcome to Family Policy Matters!

JOHN MILLER: Thank you.

TRACI GRIGGS: As a bit of background, would you, very quickly—if that’s possible—explain what has happened to professional journalism in the past decade or two.  

JOHN MILLER: Well, that’s a big question, obviously. We’ve had a revolution in digital media, the rise of the Internet. Everybody knows that, and along with it has come, not the collapse of the mainstream media, but the near-collapse. So, there are so many different sources of news and information now. I like to say, “It’s never been better and it’s never been worse.” Here’s what I mean by that: It’s never been better in the sense that Americans and people anywhere have information at their fingertips like never before. If you want to read President Trump’s last speech, it’s a Google search away. If you want reams and reams of commentary on that speech or news reports about that speech, it’s all so easy to find. When I first got into journalism, it just pales in comparison to what we can do today, all this right at our fingertips. This is tremendous, it’s a great opportunity! It’s really wonderful as a journalist to have this kind of information, but more importantly as citizens, we can all get this kind information to help us think for ourselves. The flipside of course is, with so many different sources of information, it becomes harder to know what to trust. And with people passing around links on social media, sometimes you never quite know what is the origin of that story and their claims that sound fishy, because they are fishy in many cases. And so, while there’s a lot of really great journalism out there and trusted sources that we can go to, we’re seeing the emergence of all kinds of sources of uncertain character, and that creates risk as well.

TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Talk a little bit more about the fewer number of professional journalists and what kind of affect that might have.

JOHN MILLER: There are fewer professional journalists today than there were a generation ago, and we know, because there are organizations that just count numbers. There are fewer jobs in journalism than there used to be and this is because of the downsizing and closure of newspapers around the country. There’s been an increase in web journalism, as you might expect—web journalism, which really didn’t exist a generation ago. There are tens of thousands of jobs that are in journalism that are entirely web-based. They have not completely replaced the print journalism jobs that have gone away, but the gap is less than what you might think. So, there are fewer journalists at work on the one hand; on the other hand with blogging and Twitter, there’s a question about who’s really a journalist anymore. There are a lot of people who do journalism nights and weekends. They can moonlight as journalists when they have day jobs. They can offer their opinions, they can go and cover their city council meetings or the school board meetings. And so, journalism becomes a tool for many people and it’s created really a vibrant environment out there where it’s easier to get information than before, but we don’t always know when to trust it.

TRACI GRIGGS: Last week, I went to Washington D.C. with a group of students. One of our speakers was Chuck Lewis and he was talking about an organization that he has helped begin called the Center for Public Integrity. The aim is to help recreate in communities all over the country, a core of investigative reporters who are doing what investigative reporters are supposed to do. So why is it necessary, do you think, to raise up this independent, nonprofit organization to do what used to be the job of local and national journalists?

JOHN MILLER: That’s a great question. The Center for Public Integrity does some really interesting “follow the money” kind of investigative reporting. They won a couple of Pulitzers I believe, and a former Hillsdale student is on the staff there doing some work. She edited the campus paper here at Hillsdale College a number of years ago and now she works there. This is a subset of modern day journalism— nonprofit journalism. This is a nonprofit organization that raises money from foundations and individual contributors and possibly corporations, to do a certain kind of journalism. And we’re seeing more and more of this. I run an organization myself called, “The Student Free Press Association.” It’s best known for its higher education website called, “The College Fix.” These are all species of what you call nonprofit journalism. On the one hand we have to remember—I ask my students on the first day of journalism class, I say, “What is the purpose of a newspaper?” I get these earnest answers about: to inform the public; to help us be a self-governing people; this kind of thing. All that’s kind of true, but actually the number one purpose of newspapers is to make money. These are businesses. They need advertisers. They need subscribers. And if they don’t get them, they’re going to go out of business and there’s going to be no journalism at all. This is a commercial enterprise. Now having said that, there’s always been a philanthropic streak in journalism. Now what I mean by that is, oftentimes, you get publishers who will buy a newspaper, not because they expect to make money—They would love to make money. They want to make money, intend to make money—but a lot of times, they just want to own a newspaper. They want the influence that comes along with that and they’re willing to take a loss in order to do that. I spent much of my professional career at National Review, which was founded by William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 1950’s. And he always used to say, “National Review exists to make a point, not a profit.” And it measured its success not by the bottom-line, but by how influential it was. So, I know National Review would not exist but for benefactors willing to write a check at the end of the year to help pay the bills. And, until very recently, National Review was a for-profit company. It recently went into a 501(c) 3 mode, and it now too can raise money the way so many other groups can. So, this is an emerging field in journalism and it’s healthy development. I think it allows for more opportunities for us to do reporting and to tell stories. But I do think we need to be aware of agendas because not everybody wants to—some people do have agendas, let’s just say that—and we need to be wary of them as we turn to these different sources.

TRACI GRIGGS: So the important part that journalists are to play in America was spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. Can you talk just briefly about that and why the loss of a vibrant news media could be threatening to our way of life?

JOHN MILLER: The Founding Fathers knew how important journalism is. They knew it was an essential part of public deliberation. They knew that if we were going to be a self-governing people with citizens who are informed about what’s happening in their town or state or country or world, they’re going to need information and they would get it through newspapers. And this was the reality they dealt with back in their time, certainly a lot different than the ones we have now, but in other ways, they’re quite the same. The technologies, of course, are different and so forth, but newspapers were doing some of the basic functions that they’re performing now. The Founders, when they signed the Declaration of Independence, how did people learn about that? Well, they learned about it because it was published in newspapers around the Colonies, and that’s how Americans got to read the Declaration of Independence. The Federalist Papers we encounter today in books—and that might trick us into thinking that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and John Jay, when they wrote the Federalist Papers got together and divvied up the assignments like these are chapters and they’re going to put it together in a book. What they were really doing is they were writing newspaper op-eds, and if we were to republish the Federalist Papers for something like them today, we would read them in the Wall Street Journal, or maybe the New York Times or somewhere like that there would be newspaper op-eds. So the Founders understood the critical importance of journalism and a free press to the United States and they enshrined this idea in the First Amendment.

TRACI GRIGGS: I think those of us who are old enough to remember, we have always talked about journalism and journalists as—trying at least—to be unbiased. So lately it seems, at least around our office, we talk a lot about that whole concept seems to be just forgotten. So, what are the problems when journalists instead take on the role of judge and advocate for one side of an issue or an ideology? 

JOHN MILLER: That’s a great question and it’s a huge problem today. But I want to begin with cautionary note: Let’s not remember the “good old days” when all the journalists were unbiased. If the ghost of Ronald Reagan could come back and we could ask him, “What do you think of all the unbiased journalists at the Washington Post and the New York Times?” he would laugh at us, right? He would say, “Those people are all Democrats and they’re all liberals and they have it in for me.” And so I think, we need to be careful about saying there was this “Golden Age” of purely objective journalism, because there wasn’t. Although some people might claim that to be true, the newsrooms for decades were dominated by liberals, and the shame of it was they refused to admit their own biases—they either didn’t want to talk about them or they didn’t recognize them. And so we would have things like: Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America—they used to say about him—but if you read his memoir, he talks about how he would have loved to have been George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, which was the most leftwing ticket in American history, maybe, before Barack Obama came along. So that tells us something about who was shaping the news and the objective of recent past. Look at Dan Rather, the successor to Walter Cronkite. You know Dan Rather committed one of the greatest blunders in American journalistic history when on the eve of the 2004 election he ran with a fake news story about how George Bush allegedly shirked his military duties when he was a young man during the Vietnam era. He was called out on that, and who called him out? The bloggers did. That this huge error of the mainstream media was exposed by a bunch of people—not a bunch, a handful of people who were journalist by avocation, not by profession. A particular blogger who is a lawyer in Minnesota, was influential with this whole debate, as were a few other key folks. And it was not the New York Times or The Washington Post who exposed Dan Rather’s lies about George Bush. It was this kind of journalist. And that goes to show you the real power of this journalism now. But there is the problem when anybody can get a platform on Twitter. That means anybody can have a platform on Twitter and not everybody’s as careful as these folks were. But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that journalism once was great and today has fallen. It’s always had problems. The nature and character of the problems shift a bit over time but the fundamental challenges remain pretty similar.

TRACI GRIGGS: What a great perspective! Thank you very much. That’s very refreshing to hear a little bit of history on that whole perspective. So also, a lot of people are talking about how uncivil our public discourse has become. Do you consider this to be as potentially destructive as many people say it is? Why or why not?

JOHN MILLER: Do civility’s important. I think we need to behave with decorum and with honor and with propriety and not engage in name-calling. But you know, if you don’t mind another history lesson, if you think Twitter is mean today, just go look at what the Founding Fathers were dealing with 200 years ago—200 plus years ago in the 1790s. Newspapers were highly partisan; they would gleefully lie about public figures and mock them in the most creative and worst ways that you can imagine. The journalism in the early public was robust and cantankerous and sometimes great, sometimes dreadful. When we hear rumors about, “Did Thomas Jefferson make a slave his mistress with Sally Hemings?” We’ve all heard these stories and there’ve been DNA tests in recent years, and the truth is still a little bit mysterious. Although, we’re learning more and more all the time thanks to modern science. Well, the reason these rumors existed at all was because a particular journalist reported them. And he did it because he wanted to harm President Jefferson at the time. So he took some local rumors and started splashing them in the newspaper and suddenly all of America was talking about this. Was he merely rumormongering? Yes, that’s what he was doing and journalism should not be about rumormongering. He may have stumbled upon the truth. We really don’t exactly know, although science is getting us closer and closer to the truth or falsity of that particular claim. At any rate, journalism was dirty back then in some really fundamental ways, and it’s still that way now. So, I think we should behave with civility. I think it’s important for journalists to be as objective as possible, but also willing to admit their own biases when they have them and know that they have them. We shouldn’t let the worst journalist define the rest of them.

TRACI GRIGGS: Speaking of the worst journalists, you mentioned a couple of times fake news, and of course a year, two years ago, a lot of people weren’t even aware of such a thing, or maybe weren’t quite as aware of it back then as we are now. Why do you think it has been so easy for people to fake news and why are we also ready to believe whatever we read on the Internet, do you think?

JOHN MILLER: A certain amount of it is, a lot of people are gullible, a lot of people are willing to be gullible. They’re willing to believe a thing they hope is true. If you believe something bad about a political foe, you want to believe it, you almost believe it gleefully without maybe investigating it in a completely fair-minded kind of way. With the rise of social media and the way people pass around articles and recommend them to each other, and op-eds and blog posts and Twitter feeds and all this kind of stuff, it’s sometimes difficult for us to assess the reliability of the source. And so, if someone shares with you a column by George Will, no matter what you think of George Will, you can probably be sure that any facts in it are going to be accurate, the interpretations are going to be smart, though they might be debatable in certain cases. You’re going to get a pretty piece of opinion journalism that’s reliable in some fundamental ways. If another person, though, shares an article with you by someone you’ve never heard of before, from a website that does not sound the least bit familiar, are you going to trust that one as much? And you probably shouldn’t. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, shouldn’t consider it, but you would go with a little bit of skepticism. Maybe over time, as you encounter a particular writer more and more, come to like a certain website and recognize its reliability, maybe you can change your mind about that. We shouldn’t believe everything the first time we hear it because we know there’s a lot of untruth out there.

TRACI GRIGGS: Those are some good pointers, thank you. So I understand you teach communication and you teach journalism, but you don’t, at Hillsdale, offer a journalism major, in part, because you believe students need to learn by doing hands on. For students who might be considering a career in journalism or a related field, what kind of advice do you have for them?

JOHN MILLER: That’s a great question. I run the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, which is a liberal arts school in rural Michigan. Journalism here is a strong program but it’s a minor, it’s not a major. And this surprises a lot of people because there are a lot of schools that have strong journalism programs and journalism is a major. Well, it’s a minor here for two reasons: The first is that we have great teachers in traditional academic disciplines like economics and biology and English. We believe that our students should major in a traditional academic discipline. We want our excellent teachers in these areas to fill their heads with real knowledge about real subjects. And frankly, if you want a career in journalism, you’re much better off majoring in something like economics so that you can understand a few principles of market economics and so forth. You’re much better doing that than majoring in journalism where you’re just going to sit in a classroom and hear professors babble at you about this and that and so on. Now we believe we can teach a few things in a classroom, but really, the way you learn journalism is by doing journalism. And that means, going out and doing the reporting, doing the interviews, writing up the stories, editing them with veteran editors, laying them out on newspaper page and going through that whole process. The experience of doing that is the teacher. And so, that’s how we handle the print side of our program. We also have a radio station, and how do you become a great talker on radio? We have a 24/7 news talk station here at our little campus and we run syndicated shows. We also run a bunch of student content. And how do you teach a student to become good on the radio? Well, the best thing you can do is to sit them down, put them in front of a mike, and say, “You have the floor for 20 minutes.” What are you gonna do, right? You’ve got to learn the art of rhetoric and how to apply it in that situation. Whether you’re going to monologue for that long, whether you’re going to have a guest and conduct an interview, which is a kind of performance, all these sorts of things. The best way to learn is to just do it. And so we have our campus newspaper, we have our campus radio station, and these are teaching tools for us. These are like sandboxes where our student amateurs can make their mistakes. They can learn from them and by the time they leave this place, they’re good and they’re ready to take on roles in the professional media. Meanwhile, they’ve gotten a great core curriculum from our college; they understand Western heritage; they’ve taken a course on the U.S Constitution, which is required here at Hillsdale College; they’ve read Shakespeare; they’ve taken a class in religion theology; they’ve done a bunch of science; they’ve done a lot of stuff; they’re well educated and they’re ready for careers in journalism.

TRACI GRIGGS: John, thank you so much. Tell us where our listeners can go to learn more about your work at Hillsdale and also find helpful resources related to good journalism in general. 

JOHN MILLER: I would say, to learn about journalism at Hillsdale College, just come to the colleges’ website, look up the Dow Journalism Program, it’ll pop right up. We’ve got a video; you can read about some of my colleagues; articles of some of our students, our alumni, where they’re working right now; and so on. That’s a pretty good resource. I also invite you to go to The College Fix, which is an example of this nonprofit journalism we were talking about. The College Fix is a website of higher education news reported by students. The editors are professionals but they’re working with students. They’re trying to train them to tell the untold stories about what’s really happening on American campuses with the crisis of political correctness, and the crisis of free speech, the economic crisis of the cost of higher education. These students are tacking these tough subjects and doing some really great original reporting. So go check out The College Fix to learn about, maybe, what your alma mater’s doing and you wish it weren’t. Finally, good reliable sources of information: I think, the best newspaper in America is The Wall Street Journal, but there are lots of good newspapers and lots of them have their strengths, and I think the best thing to do is find some in your area that cover local and state news, as well. You might find out that it’s a blogger or some website in North Carolina that’s doing this kind of work. There’s the Carolina Journal in North Carolina that’s very good at covering state government. But find that kind of thing in your state and start reading it and start being a loyal reader. And don’t expect everything for free. If you like something, pay a little bit for it. If you want access to The Wall Street Journal, they’re going to charge you. Other places are going to ask for donations. And think about that too, if you care about the quality of journalism.

TRACI GRIGGS: John Miller, what a pleasure! Thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters. 

JOHN MILLER: Thank for having me on. It was fun!

TRACI GRIGGS: And thanks for your work, not only to produce good journalism, but also to educate the future generations of American journalists.

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