If you have some time, like a long international flight or a long weekend, here are two very different, intelligent, and insightful movies to watch back to back: Page One and Too Big to Fail.
Each recent film is both entertaining and somewhat frightening. Page One describes in documentary form, the continuing importance of professional journalism through the lens (sorry, no cinematic pun intended) of the New York Times. Despite the fundamental restructuring of modern professional journalism, there is no doubt that there will be an ongoing role for journalism, with standards and ethics, to tell the stories that cannot otherwise be told. Too Big to Fail distills Andrew Ross Sorkin‘s book of the same name into a tense docudrama that shows how close the financial system came to collapse. The Front Page isn’t about the financial crisis at all. And Too Big to Fail hardly mentions journalism, focusing instead on a debatably heroic portrait of government officials in the financial crisis. But taken together, they make the evolution and necessity of journalism very clear.
Both movies lead to the question of journalism’s future. For example, how could anyone outside of the top echelons of high finance have understood what happened in the financial crisis without professional journalists to explain it as it unfolded. The book version of Too Big to Fail is massive (almost Too Big to Read), and based on extensive reporting, some of which first informed news stories. In the next financial crisis, will we prefer to just read the tweets and blogs of market professionals and individual investors heading for the exits? Or unnamed sources flinging messages at the public, hoping for a suspension of disbelief? Who other than professional journalists would have had the immediate role, the access, the capacity, and the platform to explain what was happening, and eventually, why.
Yes, the media also fanned the flames, and failed to identify the weaknesses before the crisis. Many institutions and individuals share that blame. And professional journalists miss many stories every day. Sometimes it takes online posts from individuals to stimulate professional journalists to look into an event or issue. So there is symbiosis in the evolution of journalism and society.
But, without an unbiased, broad cross-section of professional media digging at the truth of the financial crisis, would the picture be as clear? Yes, we could have waited for the Wikipedia community to build and edit the “financial crisis page.” Would it be as clear, as soon, as the conclusion a reader can form from looking at three or four well-researched stories in one day from top professional news outlets? Would the reader’s future risk be lower without those stories? I have nothing against online, voluntary, crowd-sourced, first-person, grass-roots information gathering. Professional news may not ever capture its immediacy and authenticity. But what does amateur journalism really tell you—the meaning beyond the tweet or post or youtube upload? You’re just never are going to know for sure.
There are many other examples of professional journalism’s role. But back to these two movies. It’s interesting—perhaps no coincidence— that there is a common element between these them—the NY Times own story, and the role of the NY Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin as the author of one of the financial crisis’ most comprehensive books, which the Too Big to Fail movie was based on. While it is only one professional news outlet, the Times and its staff are a highly symbolic and a good example.
At its heart, the process of objective, professional journalism is the creation of timely understanding. Finding, digesting, analyzing, and presenting information that society needs to make sense of the world. It’s the source for personal risk management, which is not a need that is receding. The opposite is true. We have more to understand and need more help understanding it. Journalism is our machine for understanding.
Some people like to fantasize that the professional journalist is a dying breed, and that those of us who work with them are just dinosaur tenders. I don’t think so.
There is always going to be a profession of journalism. It may take a different form, not be housed in for-profit entities, or not be free. But most of the world needs what journalists do. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise. It’s not just wrong, it’s a dangerous fantasy. Less objective, timely understanding of the world’s complexity means more risk. We don’t need fewer journalists. Actually, we need more.