This has been a great week for me as a professor and chair of the department of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. It was even a greater week for our students. Many speakers came to campus and interacted with the students on “all things journalism.”
Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, gave the Stuart Bullion Memorial Lecture in Journalism. His speech “The Death of News and the Rise of the Entertainment Culture” touched on the major factors facing journalism in general, and newspapers in particular, today. Here are some excerpts:

The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.

The Internet will not save newspapers. Although all most newspapers have Web sites, and have had for a while, newspaper Web sites make up less than 10 percent of newspaper ad revenue. Advertisers have not gravitated to newspaper sites, either unsure of how to use the Internet or suspicious that it can’t match the viewer attention of older media. And the decline of revenues means an assault on the very heart of the news – the ability to gather and produce news. No internet site will ever bring in the kind of revenue that allows a large newspaper, such as The Los Angeles Times, to field a newsroom staff – a staff which even with all its lay offs — still employs 700 people.

Those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs. The filtering of information through an ideological lens, which is destroying television journalism, defies the purpose of reporting. Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn’t care what you think. Reporting challenges, countermands or destabilizes established beliefs. Reporting, which is time-consuming and often expensive, begins from the premise that there are things we need to know and understand, even if these things make us uncomfortable. If we lose this ethic we are left with pandering, packaging and partisanship. We are left awash in a sea of competing propaganda. Bloggers, unlike most established reporters, rarely admit errors. They cannot get fired. Facts, for many bloggers, are interchangeable with opinions. Take a look at The Drudge Report. This may be the new face of what we call news.

We live in an age of moral nihilism. We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered. And this assault has been a body blow to a free press, which is, like the humanities, designed to promote intellectual and moral questioning. The confusion of bread and circus with news means that social critics, those who do not shout clichés on cable news shows, but who challenge and question the assumptions and structures of the corporate state itself are left without a voice.

We are cleverly entertained during our descent. We have our own version of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses with our ubiquitous and elaborate spectacles, sporting events, celebrity gossip and television reality shows. Societies in decline, as the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, see their emotional and political passions subsumed by the excitement and emotional life of the arena.

Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, who make millions a year give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism. If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike journalists – and they should. Ask Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh, Walter Pincus, Robert Scheer or David Cay Johnston.

You can watch the entire lecture here and I welcome your comments on the future of news, journalism and the rest of the issues raised by Mr. Hedges.

Photo by Robert Jordan

Earlier this morning Fareed Zakaria gave the keynote address at the FedEx Access Forum held at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at The University of Mississippi. Dr. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and host of “Fareed Zakaria GPS” which airs Sundays worldwide on CNN.

My students have prepared some questions to ask Dr. Zakaria prior to the Presidential Debate that is taking place tonight on our campus. The students who are enrolled in the Debate Internship Class submitted the questions to me and I, in turn, sat down with Dr. Zakaria and asked him the questions.

Do you feel that the media has actually been biased in its coverage favoring one candidate over the other?

I think there is no such as thing as the media anymore. I never quite understand what people mean with the disaggregated nature of the media right now. Has Fox News been biased in covering the candidates? I leave it to you to answer that question. I think if you take the media as a totality, no, I don’t think it has been biased, but any individual player in the media that you happen to have a particular gripe with, you will probably always find that true. I will say with some sincerity and honesty that the two organizations that I represent, CNN and Newsweek, I don’t think we are particularly biased. I think there are some ways in which coverage takes place which reflect certain institutional biases of neutral media. When you spring a completely new candidate on the scene like Sarah Palin, there is going to be a feeding frenzy to try to figure out who she is. That would have happened whether she were left wing or right wing. Other than that, no, I think in general that CNN and Newsweek, at least, have been pretty balanced.

How do you try to keep Newsweek from being bias toward one of the candidates?

I don’t try particularly, to be honest. I think what people want more, particularly from places like Newsweek, are interesting analysis and news reporting that there is value in it; that in some way tells them something they don’t know. If you can do interesting research and interesting reporting, have interesting analysis, sometimes it is going to point in one direction and sometimes it is going to point in the other. I don’t lose a lot of sleep if one week there are two articles that seem to aimed at McCain and another day there are two articles aimed at Obama. We don’t consciously try to make life easy for one candidate or the other, but if it turns out one way or the other, so be it. We are not the Pope. We are trying to run an interesting magazine.

Does Newsweek allow its staff to be a part of a political party?

We certainly allow them to identify as republicans or democrats, but as you know, that is a very basic form of identification. But, no, they cannot join a campaign and I think even there, one should distinguish between columnists, who are very clear about their opinions. It would come as no surprise for someone to discover that Bill Crystal would like for McCain to be elected. The crucial issue is if people are reporting on a campaign, they should not, in any way, be part of that campaign or another one. We do not allow people to join campaigns.

How different is when you make a decision what will go in Newsweek International as opposed to the Newsweek?

About 70 percent of Newsweek International is unique content. It is not in Newsweek USA. The difference is we are a smaller magazine but we are more up market, for lack of a better term. Our readers tend to be more educated, more affluent, more traveled. What we try to provide in Newsweek International is a kind of bulls-eye view of global trends, of global events, global analysis, so that it will be of equal interest to businessmen from Singapore, a journalist in Munich and head of an NGO in Brazil. The trends have to be the ones that link us together in some way, that those ones are in some way or another effect all of us as citizens of the globe. It has very global aspirations. Newsweek USA is different. It is a larger magazine which very much occupies an important place in American culture and politics and tries to fulfill that responsibility.

If you were moderating the panel here, the first debate between Obama and McCain at The University of Mississippi, what would be the first question you would ask them?

I think the first question to really ask the candidates is how would you rebuild American power, because they can have a debate about foreign policy all you want, but the reality is that the United States is in a position where its power has just been hollowed out. We are financially in bad shape. We are economically going into a recession. We are not going to have the money to pay for all the elaborate schemes that people will want. We are challenged rebuilding our influence around the world. That would be the real question. How do you rebuild American power and influence before you can start having various grand designs around the world.

Ole Miss and Oxford will be in the eye of the hurricane because the debate is here. Do you think the location of the debate is going to be of any importance or do you think the history of Ole Miss and Mississippi will be a factor in this debate?

There is no question that there is some meaning to the location, whether it was intended or not. When the rest of the world suddenly looks at the United States, this is the great central drama of American history—the drama of race. To have it happen in one of the most important cities and to have the first African-American nominated, I think it is a very big issue, but I think one of the ways we have moved forward as a country is that I very much doubt it will be mentioned by either candidate. That is how is should be, because Barack Obama is a candidate for the American presidency who happens to be an African-American, not an African-American candidate for the American presidency. That itself is a sign of huge progress.

The following article appeared on page one of The Oxford Eagle newspaper on Monday Sept. 15:

UM Students Interview TIME Editor About Debate

By Samir A. Husni
Special to The Eagle

On Thursday Richard Stengel, TIME managing editor, was one of two moderators at the Forum on Service and Civic Engagement at Columbia University in New York that featured Barack Obama and John McCain.
On Friday students from Ole Miss turned the tables on Stengel by asking him some questions about the media’s coverage of the presidential campaigns and his thoughts on next week’s debate at The University of Mississippi.
The UM students are enrolled in the Journalism 495 Internship class that is preparing the students to work with the media expected to be in Oxford next week for the Sept. 26 debate. The students submitted the questions to their professor, Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department, and he, in turn, asked Stegnel for his answers.

Do you feel that the media has actually been biased in its’ coverage favoring one candidate over the other?

I think the media is very biased, extremely biased, biased in favor of stories that people want to read, biased in favor of getting those stories on the front page, biased in favor of getting those stories talked about. I think, yes, there are classic studies that show that people in the media tend to be more liberal than people at large, but the main media bias that people have is for stories that are interesting, for facts that people don’t know. I think, as far as what you had during the primaries, was a really interesting and historically unprecedented race on the democratic side and two candidates in the case of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were enormous draws for people. That did consume a lot of the air in the room and much of the focus, and I think that seems to be where much of the criticism and the bias comes from. I don’t know if that answers the question for students. They probably wouldn’t have follow-ups, but that is my feelings about it.

How come we have not seen or heard anything about Joe Biden? They said that all of the coverage has been shifted to Sarah Palin, but the other Vice President is not receiving as much publicity?

I am stepping off the last question. My criticism of the media is not bias, it is confidence. I think what we have seen with Joe Biden vs. Sarah Palin, and part of this is that people alas from the media, and this is part of our problem is that we don’t think about our readers and our viewers so much. We are thinking about ourselves and our own media eco chamber and a lot of people feel that Joe Biden is a known quantity. He ran this time for the presidency, so he was in so far as people are vetted and their biography are done, that was done in primary process, which is not to say that people don’t do it again. Sarah Palin is the new girl in town, the flavor of the month. She is a complete unknown and people get excited about that. Journalists get excited about that, and certainly in terms of people following the Sarah Palin story, whether it is her biography or her views on the issues. People have been fascinated by it. That goes back to my original point about bias people are biased in favor of stories that people want to read. Sarah Palin is the story that people want to read these days.

How do you try to keep TIME from being bias toward one of the candidates?

We try very hard. I want stories that have a strong point of view and that are reported analysis and I don’t want journalists to camouflage the fact that they feel one point of view is better than another or one critique is smarter than another. I try to have the wings of the plane be leveled and devote as much attention to the republican candidate as the democratic candidate and try to be equally tough on both and equally fair to both. For example, we have the candidates writing pieces for the magazine every other week on topics that we give them and this week is on national service. They each have the same number of words and they each have the same number of topics and we publish it. That in itself is a kind of print forum that we do every week and again, in so far as the Democratic primary process was more interesting, lasted longer than the Republican side, we did devote more time and space to that, but I think that we were just covering the story.

Does TIME Magazine allow its’ staff to be a part of a political party?

We do not allow people to actively campaign or participate in campaigns. They are obviously not allowed to be on staff or consult for campaigns. For example, Samantha Powers, a contributing writer for us and contributing columnist, and when she decided at one point to go full-time staff for Barack Obama, we suspended her column and we just don’t go for that. I haven’t gotten any requests from people that say they are going to work for Senator McCain or Senator Obama. One of the things we don’t do, and I know some journalists say that journalists shouldn’t even vote, I certainly don’t believe that should be the case and I certainly encourage people to vote and I believe that no matter who people vote for, that they can be objective and unbiased in their reporting, writing and their coverage too.

I remember you writing an editorial one time questioning whether journalists should endorse candidates.

It was actually more towards newspapers. I felt that, particularly young readers of newspapers, if even such a species exist, don’t get the classic Chinese Wall between the editorial page and the news pages and that the editorial pages are kind of a distantial limb of when newspapers were once tied to political parties and I think that younger readers don’t get that. If a newspaper endorses Senator McCain, why would there be fair to Barack Obama or if a newspaper endorses Barack Obama, why would they be fair to Senator McCain? I think that people who grew up in the newspaper culture and know about that divide and how carefully it was protected, can understand that. I think it is real disservice to younger readers and they don’t get it.

How influential do you feel the younger generation is on American politics?

I think that the younger generation is incredibly influential, not only in politics, but in business and commerce because they are the sort of bell weather of where things are going. You have to think in this particular election, in some ways they are a wild card, because I think the polling this year, and we will see when the results are finally in, has been much more difficult than any time in history, not just because more and more people, particularly young people, use cell phones and you can’t call them at home the way traditional pollsters do, but that there are people who are coming out of the woodwork, young people in particular, that pollsters don’t know about. We have seen how that has affected some of the democratic parties and it will be interesting to see how it affects the general election.

If you were moderating the panel here, the first debate between Obama and McCain at The University of Mississippi, what would be the first question you would ask them?

What I would ask them is that we really want the American people to get a glimpse of both of you, of who you really are, what you really believe government could do and should do, how you view the country and I would want them both to be kind of stripped away of so much of the preparation that they are doing and speak from the heart. It is a little like Joe Klein’s recent book where he says politicians should be unleashed from their consultants, and it wouldn’t so much be the first question but the ground rules that they have to sort of abandon all of their crutches that they have carefully built up over the months and speak directly and candidly from the heart.

Ole Miss and Oxford will be in the eye of the hurricane because the debate is here. Do you think the location of the debate is going to be of any importance or do you think the history of Ole Miss and Mississippi will be a factor in this debate?

Yes. I think the candidates would be very smart and it would be in their interests to play up the special history of Ole Miss and the historic role that James Meredith played in integrating the campus and what a symbol that was for America. I think it shows how far we’ve come in such short time, particularly with the first African American presidential nominee from a major party, I think both candidates need to address that and I think it would be to their benefit and to the benefit of the American public.

Hosted by the Department of Journalism, and sponsored by Justine magazine, 13 teenager-panelists from across Tennessee and Mississippi engaged in a lively debate on the role of teens and politics. The event took place on Tuesday Sept. 9 at 4:00 pm at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Jana Kerr Pettey, editorial director and publisher of Justine magazine moderated the panel. The panelist were selected as a result of a Justine magazine competition. Look for the entire panel discussion airing soon on our mcast internet video broadcast. (photo by Noah Bunn).

The Future of Magazines on Fox Business

Posted: August 20, 2008 in News

Yesterday I was interviewed on the Fox Business News’ morning show Money for Breakfast. Read what the show’s host Alexis Glick wrote about the show on her blog and watch the interview with me, Matt Kinsman, Managing Editor of Folio magazine and Dave Kansas, President of
Click here to read and watch The Glick Report.