'Beyond the Killing Fields'

This is a story of journalism when it was journalism – and what it has become today.

Among my top 10 favorite films is “The Killing Fields.” Two stories unfold in this true depiction of intertwinging lives. One is the story of Sydney Schanberg and other courageous reporters with boots on the ground in war-torn countries. The other is the story of Dith Pron, who survived the killing fields of Cambodia.

Dith Pron, who became a photojournalist with the New York Times, died from cancer in a New Jersey hospital in March 2008. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won an Academy Award for portraying him in the film, was gunned down outside his Los Angeles home in February 1996. There are killing fields, and there are killing fields.

Anyone who didn’t cry as Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pron were reunited to the strains of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is cold of heart.

Pulitzer Prize winner and former NYT reporter Schanberg, in a interview with Politics Daily (LINK), talks about his new book, “Beyond the Killing Fields: War Writings,” the closing of foreign news bureaus and why journalism today is in a “state of chaos.”

Here are excerpts from the interview:

“ With life on our planet spinning faster and faster on the electronic wings of the digital revolution, I have no simple answers.

“There is no way to turn back the clock. The world has embraced the new technology, and as I see it, the craft of credible, serious journalism is in a state of chaos.

“Money is at the heart of the issue. Papers have lost much of their advertising to the Internet, which so far has produced sparse original reporting considering the volume of websites, choosing instead to cherry-pick from newspapers without compensating them.

“Also, Internet sites have decided that their audiences want shorter, splashier articles, not lengthy, detailed ones that often force governments and corporations to correct errant ways of dealing with the public.”


“Papers are disappearing into bankruptcy on a regular basis. Those that remain are struggling to find a business model that can still support in-depth reporting. The best journalism costs serious money. I'm referring to investigative journalism, which is especially costly because it can take months for a team of reporters to bring forth a solid, major story. In the past, these came almost entirely from a small number of major newspapers and a few magazines.

“As newspapers and their staffs have shrunk, so has that special product, which is crucial for any healthy democracy based on a well-informed public. Those still standing have created their own websites to seek new advertising revenue, but the money gap has not closed. And the decline of credible journalism continues.”


“Good journalism does not have to be printed on paper. But the Internet has also spawned an endless 24/7 trail of garbage, which I call bits-and-pieces journalism – ‘borrowed’ or ‘aggregated’ material from other sources, especially original stories from newspapers. Internet companies say that the material they use is in the public domain and, therefore, free.

“So what can we do to repair this mess? It isn't just a case of a profession in decline but a dumbing down of an entire nation - one that has considerable effect on the rest of the world.

"The public does not hold journalists in high esteem largely because news outlets, including newspapers, have chosen over time to increase fluff stories about gossip, celebrities, sex scandals, etc., and mix them with hard news.
We were dumbing down the coverage before the Internet reared its head. If we want to restore a higher grade of journalism, we professionals will have to address the public and convince them that without serious reporting, they will not have the means to make informed decisions.”


“In the past, we have never explained ourselves well to the public. We resent it when citizens raise questions about our stories. As a profession we have been soft and have not challenged our publishers when they sought more fluff. If we want to rehabilitate professional journalism, restore foreign bureaus, raise newsroom standards, then we're in a fight - on the Internet and at newspapers.
We would have to stand up and speak out. But I don't know a silent, invisible way to get a task like this done.”


Cue John Lennon. This retired journalist is crying.


tnlib said...

I think there is a co-relation between the Internet and newspapers going broke, but papers have always been technologically constipated. If they'd been a little more forward thinking - selling online subscriptions from the get-go, selling advertising from day one, etc. - they wouldn't have been caught with their pants down.

"But the Internet has also spawned an endless 24/7 trail of garbage, which I call bits-and-pieces journalism – ‘borrowed’ or ‘aggregated’ material from other sources, especially original stories from newspapers."

Partly true but not much different from newspapers getting stories off of wire services and from other newspapers.

"The public does not hold journalists in high esteem largely because news outlets, including newspapers, have chosen over time to increase fluff stories about gossip, celebrities, sex scandals, etc., and mix them with hard news.
We were dumbing down the coverage before the Internet reared its head."

Exactly - plus the media has become just another big corporation. I think this and the above graph may explain why so many are turning to the Internet and blogs for news.

Unfortunately blogs have a low threshold of accuracy and facts really have to be checked, and we don't always do that, but this was true when the papers relied on the wire services - or even the clips in their libraries where a mistake could be repeated in article after article because no one bothered to check it in the first place.

I'm going to resent news outlets of today as long as they insist on covering the likes of Palin, the Tea Party rallies and Reality Shows to the exclusion of serious news. But I'm going to support reporters who at least try to do their jobs by covering the Gulf Oil Spill but who get arrested at the request of BP.

As far as war correspondents today, we have none.

Great article - I remember "The Killing Fields" and the stories behind it very well.

Frodo R. Murrow said...

This is a bigger issue than what we can cover here. There is so much more involved than journalism itself, although Frodo agrees that there is a definitive correlation between the demise of print journalism and public "awareness." Frodo, himself, no longer rushes to eyeball the newest issue of TIME or NEWSWEEK. In fact, were it not for a doctors office, it is unlikely that he would devour a single issue in six months time.
Frodo, instead, contends that the real change is in reading, as an act in and of itself.
Imagine anyone with "pants on the ground," reading in public? A newspaper? Not hardly.
There is more afoot here than flaws in the industry. There just doesn't seem to be much interest in who, what, where, why, and when.

bbj said...

BJ, this is strong and, sadly, right on target. What to do?

L.Lofton said...

Thanks for posting this. It is so TRUE and distresses me every day. The 'trail of garbage' quote is right on and can also include television and most movies as far as I'm concerned. What can we do?

B.J. said...

Help me out here, readers. What CAN we do? One thing is to demand better or don’t pay for it.

I am coming up on my first anniversary without TV. Charter dropped C-SPAN from my basic package. I primarily watched cable news. MSNBC became the left’s Fox News, in that it is biased toward liberals and progressives just as Fox News is toward conservatives. The left says CNN is biased toward conservatism, and the right says it’s “the liberal elite media.” Not too mention: too much opinion not enough hard news and investigative reporting.

Haven’t you noticed instead of anchors or reporters stating facts their networks have UNCOVERED, they attribute thusly: “The White House said …” or “BP reports …” Why can’t they state FACTS?

Depending on the Web for news is also a “trail of garbage.” Look at the “Latest News” section on cnn.com or the “Most Popular” stories in the NYT online.

Don’t overdo it on letters-to-the-editor of your newspaper, but why not write and demand a greater effort?

All of your comments are adding to this entry. I think Frodo hit the nail on the head when he said people don’t want to read these days. That makes a bookworm ache! I once heard Tom Brokaw say people on the Internet read no more than two paragraphs, then move on. Why not get offline and read a cereal box (or USA Today)?

I was reading something online a couple of days ago in which the writer or subject of the article said, “The Internet is dead.” Can’t remember where I saw it now, but I don’t think so! tnlib is right that print journalism got caught with its pants down when it did not prepare earlier for the electronic age.

Efforts by online activists have caused 80 businesses to drop their sponsorship of Fox News’ Glenn Beck.

Finally, I’m afraid the problem will be like Wonder Bread – we have a whole new generation coming along who won’t know what good bread tastes like or what real news is.

Any ideas?


tnlib said...

Actually I'm not sure your last comment isn't better than the article.

Brokaw's comment is indicative of someone who never worked in print media where the rule of thumb is who, what when, where and how has to be imparted within the first few paragraphs. Why? Because people don't read beyond that - for the most part.

Frodo, if you're leaving your reading of Time and Newsweek to doctor visits, you're at least two years behind and McCain has just picked Sarah Palin to be Vice President.

Tiny said...

See, BJ, the author of this article is stating the same thing we've been saying for a long, long time: We need more journalists like you. We want NEWS! Not fluff.

Perhaps your readers could get an activist group started that would get people to demand from sponsors that we have facts vs fluff. All of us know every journey starts with the first sttep.

Who knows how to take the first step in the direction of demanding that we have "truth in reporting?" Whoever it is, please step forward. There are plenty of people who will follow the leader.

BJ, again, thank you for bringing much needed information to the forefront on your blog. Hopefully, other bloggers will link to this and start spreading the word.

The front page of the newspaper in Tiny's area is always sex, sex offenders, wrecks or murder. And the rest is chock full of negative cartoons and/or opinions of our president.

On very rare occasions, they might print a positive "speak out" that seems to elicit more negative talking points from the over population of neo-cons in this area. Will they ever open their minds to reason? Who knows? All we can do is plant the seed and give them the opportunity.

Bill Sumrall said...

IMHO, check out "Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy" by Alex S. Jones, published by Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $24.95.
Jones advises local newspapers to cover their local news like its nobody else's business -- mainly because it is nobody else's business -- and tell the community they serve what's really happening in their hometown and why it is important to the readers.
And, in my experience, follow the model displayed by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, MS, by reporting the problems and then doing the next step -- reporters consult experts and those in the know on local issues and report what they suggest as possible solutions (which indirectly challenges public officials to come up with better ones if they don't like what the newspaper proposes).
And reporters and editors keep a deadline guide to follow-up on those suggestions, to report whatever happened (or didn't happen), to hold public officials' feet to the fire, hold them accountable.

B.J. said...

tnlib: You will remember there’s another reason for putting the most important facts first in a story: if the story doesn’t fit the news hole allotted, the bottom will get blue-penciled by an editor in the back shop and cut. At the Anderson paper we adopted our own motto based on the New York Times’ “All the news that’s fit to print.” Ours was “All the news that fits, we print,” LOL.

Bill Sumrall: Excellent comment. DemWit wrote about Alex S. Jones’ book in a post titled ‘Losing the News’ on 25 August 2009. (Not to be confused with radical right rabblerouser Alex Jones.) I began the post thusly:

What follows, in my opinion, is the most informed argument for the preservation of real news – facts, not opinion – made today. It very well might constitute the last stronghold of real news in this country. And, it is as impassioned a plea as John Milton made for a free press in “Aeropagitica.”

Interested readers can read that post HERE


Debra said...

SO SAD, SO TRUE........