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Jonathan Rauch on politics, journalism, and mistakes

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2007

This recent interview of journalist Jonathan Rauch is full of good stuff. On bad predictions and making mistakes:

Everybody makes [mistakes]; it’s par for the course. What I have learned is not to be too sure I’m right. The world is much more surprising than we give it credit for. That’s part of my political philosophy, my philosophy of life. That’s really fundamental to it: Trial and error is really the only thing in life that works ultimately over the long term. Journalism is like that, too, so we need to be honest about our mistakes. We often aren’t enough. Everybody makes mistakes. And we need to be a little bit cautious about making predictions.

On real journalism vs. opinion:

There’s a very talented, hard-working press corps and, of course, it represents only a small fraction of the people who are doing [journalism]. I think all the major newspapers are doing it well. Not a single one is doing it badly, the ones that are committing resources to it. The larger fraction are the parasites, the bloggers, commentators, opinionizers — I don’t exempt myself — who are feeding off of the real news that the press is providing. That larger sort of commentariat is not doing a very good job.

The future of real journalism:

What I worry about is what everyone in my business worries about: Who’s going to fund the real reporting? The magazine and newspaper business was a cross-subsidy. You had the advertising, particularly classified, and you had a local market, which subsidized the gathering of news. That model is breaking down because the bundle is breaking into pieces and it’s hard to see in the long run who funds the kind of large-scale news reporting operations that the major papers have run if the advertising is all going online and if people can all get the news for free at Yahoo.

On extremism in American politics:

The [political] system has been rigged by partisan activists to their advantage. They participate in primaries. General elections don’t matter because they’ve gerrymandered the congressional districts. They have the advantages of energy and being single-minded and they use these wedge issues which they’re very good at and which both sides conspire in using in order to marginalize the middle. The result of that is the turnout among moderates and independents is down; turnout on the extremes is up. The parties are increasingly sorted by ideology so that all the liberals are in one party and all the conservatives are in another. That is a new development in American history.

On getting out of the way of a story:

I’m not a fan of the idea that the journalist and the journalist’s attitude should be front and center. I think that a good journalist’s duty is to get out of the way. The hardest thing about journalism — the hardest thing, a much higher art than being clever — is just to get out of the way, to show the leader of the world as the reader would see it if the reader were there. Just to be eyes and ears. Calvin Trillin, another writer I greatly admired who steered me towards journalism, once said that getting himself out of his stories was like taking off a very tight shirt in a very small phone booth. He’s right.

And lots more…I recommend reading the entire thing, especially the exchange between Rauch and the interviewer about personal political identities that was too long/difficult to excerpt here. Much more from Rauch here.

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