Beam and Kennedy, together at last

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam and I both have book reviews in the new issue of Columbia Magazine. Me first. I wrote about “Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century,” edited by Anya Schiffrin, director of the International Media, Advocacy, and Communications program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The book is a collection of essays and articles that examine whether the media could have done a better job of reporting the disintegration of the American (and world) financial system in advance of the 2008 collapse. My conclusion, based on the evidence Schiffrin presents: yes, but it’s naive to think it would have made all that much difference in the age of “Squawk Box.” We believed what we wanted to believe.

Beam has the fun assignment: “An Accidental Sportswriter,” by Robert Lipsyte, who made his bones at the New York Times yet somehow found himself fending off both Rupert Murdoch and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz in a later incarnation at the New York Post.

The highlight, at least for me, is Beam’s recounting of Lipsyte’s gently worded but devastating observation of how the sainted A.J. Liebling was so skilled at getting good quotes. I’ll be thinking about that all day.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.