04 December, 2015

Dirty River Media: An Argument For Muckraking

You can't buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you. -- Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941)

There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong." - Hunter S. Thompson


 
Julius Chambers, maybe the first muckraker

The first reported use of the term "muckraker"* was by no less than President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. During a speech, he used it in reference to William Randolph Hearst and Hearst's brand of yellow journalism**. Usage of the term grew and came into include Julius Chambers -- maybe the first real muckraker -- Nelly Bly, Upton Sinclair, and Ambrose Bierce, among others.***

Muckraking is part of the grand tradition in journalism that's dying at the hands of corporate owned media. Keep in mind, Dear Friends and Readers, that no less than 6 corporations own most of the large market media in this country... and that's just TV and radio. Newspapers are corporate owned as well, split between Gannett, The McClatchy Co., Hearst, Cox Media, Media News Co., and Village Voice Media (which has eaten up most of what used to be the alternative weeklies.

Part of the problem is people sometimes confuse muckraking -- which sometimes rears its head under the more polite hat of "investigative journalism" -- with yellow journalism^ -- which is alive and well, as well as well funded.

Another problem is people -- including some who claim to be journalists -- buy into the idea, often espoused by anyone who doesn't agree with the particular brand of facts^^ posited by a reporter or talking head^^^, that journalism ought to strive to be "objective."

That, Dear Friends and Readers, is complete rhetorical bollix.

Journalism can't be objective because its first allegiance ought to be to the truth. The role of the 4th Estate is to drag stories out into the light and hold our elected officials' feet to the proverbial fire. It should not ever be Public Relations for any political party or politician, and should look at everything through a critical lens. And regardless of what anyone tells you, being critical means having an agenda. 

My recent split with LEO Weekly (one of the few alt weeklies not owned by Village Voice Media) occurred over a disagreement on how a particular story ought to have been portrayed.  Another aspect -- which I will call coincidental because it's more of a feeling than something I can document -- is that from their perspective, I got greedy. My work was considered exemplary by the managing editor until I had the temerity to ask if I could be more than a freelancer. After that, all of a sudden, I was breaching journalistic standards.

I'm a contrarian. I'll admit that. But having a natural tendency to disagree is not the same thing as a breach of "the basic tenets of journalism"+ On the contrary, it makes me a good muckraker. You have to have a contrary personality and a solid sense of self to be willing to rub academic department chairs, deans, editors, and politicians the wrong way. A good friend of mine once called this my tendency to "poke the bear." 

And that, Dear Friends and Readers, is what I intend to continue doing.

That's why I'm going to be finding my own press credentials and starting my own endeavor, called Dirty River Media. This will include a few projects, including publishing and podcasting, and other enterprises will hopefully add to the already existing push back against monopolized media and milquetoast reporting.  One project, The Kentucky Muck Podcast, will be a weekly show about local, regional, and state issues, as well as arts and culture, that need to see some light. That's what muckraking is, and that's what I do better than most anyone around. 

I promise my reporting will be honest, authentic, and researched; and I hope it will be entertaining. Stay tuned.
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*Defined as - raking through the muck and finding the real story.
**Hearst more or less invented large scale yellow journalism, the tradition of which is carried on by Fox News, HLN, and MSNBC most effectively.
***People like this are my heroes. So are Ida B Wells, Walt Whitman, Utah Phillips, Hunter S. Thompson, and Pete Rose. Not necessarily in that order. Look 'em up.
^ I just felt like using a bold yellow font. That's one kind of editorial decision that even schooled journalists are comfortable making.
^^ Facts are difficult to find and almost always difficult to use in any critical sense... and generally get confused with "opinion" which everyone has according to one smelly metaphor.
^^^ Talking head -- no, not the band. talking heads read you a news script that they may or may not have had any part of putting together. Probably not, more than likely.
 + The same editor who accused me of breaking faith with "the basic tenets of journalism" is the very same one who quoted HST to me by saying "objective journalism is bullshit."  You can't have it both ways. Either you write something honest and authentic and true, or you write shit. 
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