Dan Thomasson - Journalism's old order is passing


It has been a tough couple of years for journalism, particularly for us old guys. Aside from the continuing travails of the nation's newspapers, the "business," as we liked to call it, has lost some of its leading lights, and the struggle for the people's right to know is worse off because of it.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, in relating the death of Arthur, said, "The old order changeth." In this case, it hasn't been for the better. It is hard to imagine how reporting on public affairs has been enhanced by the art of blogging or tweeting without the benefit of measured thought or the vetting of facts. But that is the future, God help us, of a profession once proudly dedicated to the proposition that the best defense of liberty is an informed populace. All the news that's fit to tweet -- you have to be kidding.

If that seems a bit melodramatic, so be it. Most of us believed in the mission, and that inspired us to keep working even with the enormous gap between what we made and what we might have earned exerting the same energy in other endeavors.

It wasn't for the money. It was for the love of the game and the conviction we were part of something really important.

Few epitomized that dedication more than four of our best who left us after years of service to the First Amendment.

David Broder, the king of Washington punditry, slipped away in March of 2011, leaving a major hole in coverage of the national political scene. First for the old Washington Star and then for The Washington Post, Broder chronicled and analyzed the electorate's twists and turns and its choices for public office perhaps better than anyone in the history of journalism. He translated the most byzantine scenarios for us and did so in simple, straightforward Midwestern English. And he was disconcertingly right in his predictions.

Then there was Jim McCartney, whose unabashed liberality and toughness in decades of accurate and inspired Washington reporting was a daily must for readers of the Chicago Daily News and then Knight Ridder newspapers. He was a bon vivant with an Irish charm hard to match even when he knew he was dying of cancer and he always could be counted on to tell the truth. He died in May of 2011.

Last month, Bill Raspberry also moved on. He was a philosopher, teacher and voice of reason in civil rights, and his Washington Post columns were journalistic gems couched in the literate but plain speak of his Southern and Midwestern roots.

After his retirement, Duke University students benefited from his knowledge -- as we all had through his friendship and camaraderie.

Then last Saturday came news of the passing of Jim Naughton, the brilliant clown prince of our often-irreverent trade.

He was the guy who never took himself too seriously, and his gentle pranks kept us grinning through the explosive 1970s as nothing else could. Examples abound: The sheep he put in the room of a fellow reporter, the chicken head he wore at a presidential press conference, the cheap lighter he "stole" from me but claimed for years and years that he hadn't.

How can one not love a guy who tells his editors one morning that he is on the trail of a story about the planet Uranus and then sends them a telegram late that afternoon saying, "Scratch Uranus, have gone to Philadelphia." That was on his final day at The New York Times, which he left for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But don't be fooled. From his days at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the Times and the Inquirer, Naughton was one of the best pure reporters and editors who ever struck a typewriter key or put a pencil to copy, a perceptive witness to the passing parade who never lost sight of what his job was. He passed along the insights and enthusiasm in his last gig as president of the respected Poynter Institute.

Yeah, it's been a tough couple of years for journalism. The melancholy one normally feels in these dog days of summer has intensified with the sad realization that the "old order" may never be sufficiently replaced.

(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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