We don’t get a lot of e-mail from Pulitzer Prize winners, so we were pleased and intrigued when David Cay Johnston sent a lengthy response to our recent comments on the shortcomings of American journalism schools. Johnston is a reporter’s reporter in the classic mold of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
In his career, Johnston has certainly done plenty of afflicting. Starting with a staff writer job at the San Jose Mercury in 1968, he progressed through reporting positions at the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer before landing at The New York Times, where he reported on economics and tax issues until his retirement in 2008. He was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting “for his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the US tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms,” according to his Wikipedia bio. He was also a finalist for the prize in 2000 and 2003. Today, he writes, teachers and consults.
You can read much more about his accomplishments in the biography accompanying his book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill). It’s one of three bestsellers he has authored, a list that also includes Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else and Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business.
Although Johnston considers himself to be an optimist, he’s anything but cheerful about the state of American journalism and its culture of celebrity-mongering, lightweight lifestyle pieces and regurgitation of factoids spoon-fed to junior reporters by executives and government officials.
“Young journalists need to learn techniques for getting people to open up and especially to check, cross-check and re-cross-check facts; they need to learn how to mine documents which J schools do a lousy job of teaching; they need to become adept at numbers, which goes virtually untaught; they need to learn the underlying principles of whatever issue they cover,” he commented in his e-mail to us. “Use your independent judgment and you stop letting sources tell you what is news.”
This 24-minute audio interview covers the decline of investigative reporting, hopeful signs from early philanthropy-backed experiments and the passive culture of many American newsrooms that has contributed to a dumbing-down of content. “I’ve discouraged a lot of young people from going into journalism,” he told us. But he also noted that if you can make a living in the field, “It’s fun, there’s a lot of freedom and a cachet to it.”
Right-click and save to download.(24:43)
This entry was posted on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at 12:13 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Local news, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.