Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

The Blog Wars

I am frequently asked if I think journalism is doomed. I happen to think it’s not. We’ll always need to know more; we just may have to find new ways to learn and alternate platforms from which to tell the story.

In general, I side-step these periodic media debates, mostly because I’m not a professional media critic, but also because such circular arguments seldom lead anywhere.

Still, occasionally, I glance around and discover I am the best person to tell (or refute) a story. That happened last week when a journalism professor from New York University used the pages of The Washington Post to take a baseball bat to the head of one of things I love best – “Washington Week.”

My first instinct was to ignore it. Fighting against blogs is a lot like trying to stop oil escaping from a blowout preventer – it can go on forever. Hitting that “send” key can get you in deep.

But, upon reflection, I realized that I could use the opportunity to make the case for some of the things I hold most dear about the work I do.

The professor, who apparently also functions as a self-appointed media critic, was one of a dozen folks asked to contribute to the Post’s Outlook section for a special “spring cleaning” feature about things they would toss out.

The replies ran the gamut from Bush adviser Karl Rove, who hates exit polls, to my friend Donna Brazile, who hates (but practices) punditry, to actor Ed Begley, who thinks we shouldn’t be wasting so much water keeping our lawns green.

Then, to my alarm, I saw that the media critic had decided to lob a broadside against "Washington Week." The premise of the show, he argued, is exhausted. The panelists and the moderator, he conceded, are good at what we do, but are just too darned cozy with the people we cover.

Our viewers, he said, are “wanna-be insiders” and that we let them down by analyzing, rather than challenging what goes on in Washington. “What if the system is broken, the political elite is failing the country, accountability is a mirage and the game is a farce run by well-educated people who manipulate the symbols of the republic? “ he said.

Well. I wonder how he knows these things if reporters aren’t challenging what goes on in Washington?

Here’s my two cents. There are a lot of things wrong with the news business and with the way we choose and tell stories. But the professor seems to argue that we need more noise, not less; more cacophony and less understanding.

Here’s our deal at "Washington Week" and at the "PBS NewsHour." There are plenty of people who want more light than heat; who do not turn their televisions on to watch yet one more group of pundits race past explanation to battle. (One woman I met this week actually told me "Washington Week" saved her marriage. But I imagine that’s another story.)

People often try to draw me into fights about cable news. They want to know whether my industry is dying because folks yell at each other on TV.

The fact is, I don’t think so. I defend anybody’s right to comment on the news of the day – whether it is Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly or Larry King or Jon Stewart. I even defend the NYU professor, however misguided he might be.

But we don’t all have the same job to do.

I’m not very funny (not intentionally anyway). I’m not very loud. And I hope you never know my opinions. But the reporters I know are very smart. They know why things happen. They know how they happen. And, on a day to day basis, they challenge and question everyone they meet and everyone they cover. Then they, and we, allow viewers to make up their own minds. How’s that for a novel concept?

If what the professor wants is more yelling, there are plenty of places for him to go. But for the folks who approach me everywhere I go to thank me for reasoned, focused, in-depth reporting and analysis – and for saving marriages to boot -- I think we’ll just keep doing what we do best.