Bill Densmore's running notes on the April 1, 2009 conversation: "What Would Walter Williams Say?" at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. “WW” means Walter Williams.
RON FARRAR thinks it is a mistake to blame it all on the Internet. Smaller newspapers are doing OK. They have lost only 2% circulation.
Williams would put it in context “and I think he would go beyond blaming it on technology. I think WW would say one of the major problems is that much of the audience, especially the larger papers, no longer trusts what it reads or sees.”
He thinks WW would be appalled by the liberal bias he would see in much of the media. He thinks WW would be amazed how many people “have been pushed into the clutches of Rush Limbaugh.” He says Fox news dominates radio and TV.
He says Williams was extremely liberal in his own time. “Key words, fairness and accuracy. I think those are missing.”
DEAN MILLS: “I’ve given up trying to channel Walter Williams.” But every morning he thinks: “Please don’t screw it up today.”
“I think he would have embraced enthusiastically the new technologies and would have tried to think about how to use them to produce better journalism . . . and about how to support democracies . . .. “
MILLS: “I guess I ma not as convinced as Ron that he would have been all that alarmed by what we call the MSM covers the news.” There have always been biases, even in WW’s time from the right and the left. Main objective “is to try to sort that out as much as possible and get rid of that as much as possible.”
FARRAR: “The people who switch over to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are in many cases just trading one bias for another.”
MILLS: To [some] extend, they have lost connection with who their audiences . . . [he hopes] the new technologies will help us solve that problem.
FANCHER: Students have talked about that lack of connection.
FARRAR: A second point he would bring up: Civility. For all his determination, “nobody was more tenacious, than WW with all he went through to found this school and yet throughout it all he was very much courteous, a gentleman. I think we’ve lost some of that.”
Tells the story about Joan Kroc. “It was a smart ale-y story. What I’m saying is WW would have found a way to get that story in the paper without alienating everybody in the town.” Yet, “not to have that story in the paper would have been inexcusable.”
MILLS: Because of Drudge: “Responsible media now have to react to rumors . . . because it’s in the conversation.”
FARRAR: “First, you gotta like the country. You can’t be condescending in your copy.” “I think WW had great respect for the community in which he lived and the people he was writing to and for.”
MILLS: “To me this is much more important than a liberal or conservative bias – there is kind of a smart alecky bias – a sort of condescension . . . and it is off putting to people.”
FANCHER: Notes that in his conversations with some of the other RJI Fellows that is some evidence that the journalism on the web is more solution oriented than “gotcha” oriented.
FARRAR: WW was a deeply religious man. "This was another example of the way that WW was very much in tune with the community and he shared the values of the community ... he was very much like the people he was writing to ... how often have you heard people say that journalists are out of touch with their audiences?"
FANCHER: What would Williams say about the timeliness of the Creed today?
FARRAR: "I think he might feel it was a little dated."
MILLS: "There is a kind of professional culture among journalists that makes fun of itself. It's part of newsroom culture, as I'm sure you know, a kind of self-deprecatory nature. I think we have sometimes sabotaged ourselves by giving the impression that journalism is a craft, not a profession." Williams fought for that. "It is easy to forget now what a hard fight that was [for him.]" Placing education of it in the university was aimed at fighting that.
Q: Will you recommend changing the creed?
FANCHER: "If I were to change the Journalists Creed in anyway, it would be to add one word: Still . . . because that moves it forward." I think if Walter Williams were here today he would be talking about how do you renew it ... renew the spirit of what does it mean to us and how does it sustain itself."
Q: How would WW react to the stridency in the land? Would he give everyone a voice?
FARRAR: "You can't say who can right and who can't. Anybody can write. You just have to hope that the public is smart enough to separate what is sourced ... and I am not confident that the public is doing that."
MILL: Reporting on ordinary people can be done in a done that does not convey disrespect.
Q: Notes that the new editor of the Wall Street Journal is urging in a memo to his staff to get it first above all else. How would WW view a journalist's need for urgency vs. the need to be accurate?
FARRAR: "Mr. Murdoch's influence is being felt on the WSJ."
MILLS: Journalism has always been a compromise ... between urgency, getting things fast and getting it right ... the false note in that editor's language is if I heard it right, is above all else. Urgency is not above all else, accuracy is not above all else."
Q: WW makes no reference to objectivity in the Creed, but he talks about writing only what you believe is true. Was he giving credence to today's pundits or speaking more to the idea of verifiable truth.
FARRAR: "I'm a little uncomfortable with that line in the Creed." He raises a question about that. Particularly when you cover politicians, and the politician says one thing, "I’m not sure it is up to the reporter to call the politician a liar. I don't think I would agree completely with that. I think it is unconscionable for a reporter to print a lie."
What about the metaphor "volunteer journalist?"
Q: (didn't get it)
A: "Many if not the great majority of so-called citizen journalists don't really want to be journalists. They want to be citizen opinionators. I think the answer to that is that's fine ... but those who genuinely want to take part in the journalistic process as journalists, getting facts out, those have to start ascribing to some of the same principles that journalists do." He talked to Jackie and the metaphor of volunteer firemen. "I think the metaphor of volunteer journalists" is better.
Q: How do you revamp the Creed's expectations to today's technology?
MILLS: "I don't think it affects at all the basic principles ... of being fair and honest ... I think where it becomes importance is how that plays out ... you have to expect the public journal as a metaphor for all news media."
FARRAR: “I think a Creed that is enforceable has to be voluntary.”
MILLS: Williams probably saw professional journalism education as a proxy for certification.
Q: How would WW view entertainment news?
FARRAR: He would be generally OK with it. “I think he might question the priorities, too much soft news and so forth.”
MILLS: “Good newspapers always ran entertain as a part of news.”
Q: With multimedia technology and speed, how can a journalist follow clear statement?
FARRAR: “I think they have to have support from the top.”
MILLS: “I see an AP reporter out there. I think The AP is a great training ground for clear thinking.”
Q: When should people have to start following the Creed? How do you separate the teen-age blogger from the journalist?
FARRAR: Says some of that is inevitable.
MILLS: “Some of this stuff is going to sort itself out. The public will sort it out … much of the public smart enough to figure out the difference between a teen-age blogger … and it doesn’t even require that the teen-age blog to come from an unknown source.”
Q: What about crowd sourcing?
MILLS: “I think it is great.” He talks about Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism.
Q: is it enough to hope for public to discern quality journalism? Does it need to be taught in schools, or elsewhere?
FARRAR: “There’s an awful lot of misperception. You see stories gathered now and people judge reporters’ behavior. It’s always been like that, we just haven’t been able to see it … I think the public is becoming increasingly more sophisticated. I hope they can do some sorting.
MILL: I hope people will sort it out. But I don’t think that is enough. New literacy is trying to teach citizens to be good judges. I think that is important.
FANCHER: Observes that increasingly journalists will work outside newsrooms and so they have to be responsible for their own accountability.
Q: Do we do too much scare news?
FARRAR: "News itself is scary."
MILLS: "We have a tendency, all of us to think there was some golden age of journalism." He remembers reading a biography of H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He tells in his biography how in Baltimore he and his friends concocted the monster of North Baltimore, just to create good news copy. "Sensationalism has always been with us and probably always will be.
Q: Some journalists didn't go to J-school. What would WW say about this?
FARRAR: "Some of the brightest people in our field never darkened the door of a journalism school ... to say this is the only path to success is wrong."
MILLS: "My guess would be that he probably would be disappointed with that ... the reality is that there are many great journalists who don't have journalism degrees, they learned it newsrooms or they have great minds ... that lead them to be great journalists ... statistics do show that many of the journalists practicing" have degrees -- it is a leg up.
FARRAR: WW never went to college himself. He was on the Board of Curators at the University of Missouri. But WW "had the perhaps naive idea that a university could do anything [for a person.] I think he may have been blinded a little bit by that idealism."
MILLS: He cites a biography of Walter Williams. "He tracked down what had always been a great mystery up." WW highest degree was an honorary high school diploma awarded him from the Booneville High School by the city fathers.
Q: What would WW say about The Daily Show?
FARRAR: "I know that in certain families the one unforgivable sin was to take yourself too seriously. I think a certain amount of that is good. When it comes to the point of putting down your own profession I think that is too bad." AT Indiana University, where he teaches, there is an old piano in the annual gridiron-dinner room. They song goes, "There is no ism like journalism." There is a fierce price.
MILLS: There used to be a journalism follies in Missouri.
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: He was about 5-foot-6 with elevated shoes and held himself upright. "He thought the Bible was one of the greatest tools of journalists and Moses was one of the greatest editors of all times.
A closing thought
FANCHER: Gregory Favre made a statement that every person who ever worked in a newsroom is connected to everyone who has ever worked in a newsroom. He cites four people in tonight's video who are no longer with us (will insert names later).