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Journalists and their Critics

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You cannot hope to bribe or twist
thank God! The British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe (1886 - 1940) in The Uncelestial City.

Criticism of journalists is certainly no new thing. Rather, as far as criticising journalists goes, Humbert Wolfe is a relative newcomer.

The Early Days

Jonathan Swift and his 18th Century colleagues were branded 'virulent writers' by the contemporary historian Mr Rapin de Thoyras, who said their 'scurrilous papers' were so offensive that they 'gave indignation to all, who had a sense of gratitude, or a regard to justice1.' However, despite similar condemnation throughout its existence, the press soldiers on relatively unscathed, and gives as good as it gets. If you believe the old adage 'there's no smoke without fire', then you might wonder at the popular stereotype of the heartless hack who will do anything for a good story. You might even suspect just the merest element of truth in it.

Journalistic Integrity - Oxymoron?

Introduce your friend to a journalist at a party, and inevitably they will make a comment similar to, 'I shall have to watch what I say from now on.' This sort of joke stems from a popular concern about the press - perhaps the same reason people hate to be video-taped at parties. Of course, the truth behind the mistrust depends on the integrity of the journalist in question (or possibly the gullibility of their friend) but the danger, as it were, is real. A word said to a journalist, once captured in print, becomes news. And while news, like a butterfly, has an extremely short life span, the memories, ideas and reputations it creates stick, to be displayed over and over again, in public. Even, occasionally, in a glass case.

For the general public, the advice is simple. It is safest to believe that here is no such thing as 'off the record'. Some unscrupulous newspaper editors - despite the industry's code of ethics - will pressure a reporter to use 'off-the-record' information to help beef up a story. Others won't. If you don't want to see information that can be tracked back to you appearing in the Daily Blurb, say nothing.

Deconstructive Criticism

While journalists have always taken a certain amount of verbal abuse from the public, and, as with Wolfe's poem, it can be extremely personal, no one sets out to get a degree in media studies so they can be come an easy target for abuse. These media students have loftier aims.

Media studies incorporates or at least integrates with a number of other academic disciplines - cultural studies, cultural criticism, journalism studies, media theory, among others - which all share one key desire; to yank out the foundations of popular culture and then sift through the rubble to make sense of it all. Media, and journalists, in this context, become instruments of oppression/fabrication/mystification depending on the political or sociological leanings of the commentator in question. Unflattering, at best. Embarrassing at worst. Stripped of their autonomy, the usually arrogant journalist seems a slightly pathetic figure. Problem is, if you're just an instrument of cultural oppression, against even your own will, it's difficult to give an entire academic discipline the finger.

This is not to suggest that media studies degrees are simply a forum for insulting journalists. Far from it. What they deconstruct is journalism itself, calling into question the very nature of the profession and its effects on society. The journalist, trying to pin people and events to the page like a lepidopterist's2 collection, naturally attracts a certain amount of mistrust on a personal level. However, the impersonal but devastating suggestions by that amorphous mass that, for want of a better phrase, our Researcher calls 'media studies', is something completely different.

Pressing On

The most salient point about newspaper journalism, leaving aside 'tabloids'- somewhat snottily looked-down-upon by 'broadsheet' editorial staff - when it comes to criticism, is that they can give as good as they get. Look at Will Self (journalist and agent provocateur of the UK literary establishment) if you must. Society's biggest, or at least, most outspoken critics are the journalists themselves. Don't they deserve all they get? You decide.

1The History of England, written in French by Mr Rapin de Thoyras. Translated into English with Additional Notes by N Tindal. (London: Printed for James, John and Paul Knapton, 1732).2A person who collects moths and butterflies.

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