Are We In A New Golden Age of Journalism?

The turn of the twentieth century was a period of profound change on the art of journalism. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explored this era in her book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

Does the explosion of digital information in recent years warrant a similar proclamation? Without a doubt, the rise of the Internet, digital content, and devices such as smartphones and tablets has had an enormous impact on how information is conveyed. What a difference a century makes. Yet journalism is more than just delivery; content, style and impact are its distinctive qualities.

Goodwin wrote about how journalists in the early 1900s were largely responsible for massive public policy reforms which had a direct impact on the large industries of the time period: steel, railroads, and oil, to name just a few.

“There are but a handful of times in the history of our country when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge,” she states.

One of the most notable characteristics of this period was the unique, symbiotic relationship between the national media and the executive branch. Journalists, like Sam McClure who formed McClure’s Magazine, and contributors Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Baker, were not only reporting on the efforts of the Progressive Era, but were an integral part of its formation.

These investigative journalists, known at the time as “muckrakers,” published exposés of political and corporate collusion and corruption. According to Goodwin, McClure’s formula, later to be adopted by rival magazines, was to give his writers “the time and resources they needed to produce extended, intensively researched articles.”

These same individuals also served a key role as sounding boards for the policies of Roosevelt and Taft. A level of trust existed between the media and these presidents which would be laughable to consider today. Direct access to the president to discuss policymaking relied on the strictest confidence, honored by all involved.

Goodwin argues that activism, trust, honor, and accountability all converged during this period to warrant the consideration of this era as a true golden age of journalism.

Some argue that today we are in the midst of a new golden age, yet I cannot help but wonder the appropriateness of such declarations. Granted, print media may be gradually fading away, but this suggests merely a physical transformation. Is it valid to make such a far-reaching pronouncement based on a shift in a delivery mechanism?

Yes, available content itself is shifting due to direct access, and here we can think of individuals such as Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and Edward Snowden and the NSA. We can even go back to Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 with his release of the Pentagon Papers. Do these examples depict a new breed of journalism, or just efforts to bring otherwise unavailable material directly to the public?

Today may represent a golden age of information delivery. But I do not believe that this implies a corresponding new age of journalism itself.

In an interview with author and journalist Glenn Greenwald, former NY Times editor Bill Keller speculated on the future of news and its business model, and the effect of the Internet on journalism.

In that exchange, Greenwald, perhaps best known for breaking the Edward Snowden story, argues against the accepted standard that in good reporting, subjective opinions are never shown. Instead, Greenwald claims, “all journalism is a form of activism.”

“But ultimately, the only real metric of journalism that should matter is accuracy and reliability. I personally think honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism.“ – Glenn Greenwald

Keller counters with his belief that aiming for impartiality is desired, “even if it is not perfectly achieved.”

“I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself,” he adds.

There was no doubt that the journalists in the early 1900s had an agenda. Keller, in his own review of Goodwin’s book, wrote that “the writers of McClure’s became the shock troops of the progressive movement.”

The emergence of a golden age is not something we can simply declare; history decides it for us.
Glenn Davis
For the average news consumer, today may seem like a new age, having access to vast amounts of digital information literally at their fingertips. Readers have become their own editors, culling information from numerous sources available on-demand.

According to writer Tom Engelhardt, we are in “a journalistic universe from hell, a genuine nightmare; and yet, for a reader, it’s also an experimental world.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt used the term “cesspool” to suggest that the Internet was becoming a vast depository of false information. Indeed, in this sense, we have entered a new era.

The impact of technological change on journalism is undeniable. Investigative research that once may have required weeks, months, or even years can be conducted at speeds never imagined a hundred years ago.

But the style of feature and investigative reporting, which was ushered in by the early pioneers, is still seen today. It remains the realm of journalists to give this information context; to condense and explain — even if inevitably some degree of a personal agenda is reflected.

The emergence of a golden age is not something we can simply declare; history decides it for us. Let’s wait a hundred years before being so presumptuous.