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For Real News, Journalists Not Churnalists
By Mort Rosenblum

WASHINGTON – This town is named for a guy who would likely hang himself from his cherry tree if he returned to see how his shining city on a hill now bumbles in the dark.

Early Americans were so eager for fresh facts that reporters rowed out to arriving ships for a scoop. Today, with our infinite word flow, we’ve forgotten what news is.

Nothing has changed. Journalists use their own eyes and ears. They cultivate sources. Pontificators who whip up froth from others’ work need another label: churnalists.

The first are vital. The second push us toward folly that kills millions, costs trillions, and shames us among the other 95 percent of humanity on our small planet.

So here is an unabashed appeal:

Give the world for Christmas. Put Little Bunch of Madmen: Elements of Global Reporting in the sweat sock of every kid on your list.

Read it yourself and pass it on to friends. Spread the word online. It is a handbook for reporters – and for anyone else who cares about the real world.

I wrote Madmen after a lifetime as a foreign correspondent, more frustrated by the year as a gap grew steadily wider between reality abroad and delusion at home.

This is hardly new. Two millennia ago, Cicero’s brother wrote a line that might have come from Roger Ailes: “The people naturally prefer being lied to rather than having their wishes denied.”

But in Washington, conversations with two seasoned colleagues made plain why this now matters so much.

One is a top editor at a big daily I won’t name. (Its initials are The Washington Post.) Slick, sleek and smart, he rose through the ranks covering business in Europe and Asia. If reporters abroad lack seasoning, he said, they are better equipped than ever, able to communicate in new ways. He dismissed my concern as nostalgia for a vanishing past.

The other is an uncommonly good reporter with whom I’ve worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. From a news agency, he joined The New York Times. Now he produces national radio news and masters all forms of multimedia. In the end, he believes, more adds up to less. Much as I’d like to take comfort from that Post editor, he is right.

Clarity comes from reporters with the skill and the resources to dig as deep as they must. True, more fingers now tap away at keyboards. But news that counts is not measured by quantity. If you don’t look out your window in Beirut or Beijing, you might as well be in Billings.

As Jon Stewart said recently on the Mall, too many raised voices mean none gets heard. We need to listen to people who know what they are talking about.

Look at Pulitzer Prize finalists for international news. Any stenographer can transcribe quotes or jot down surface impressions. Reporting is something else entirely.

A fresh snit opposes Ted Koppel and Keith Olbermann, gifted communicators with much to say. Their dueling essays tell us much, but both add up to sideshows. We need to focus on main events.

Reporters who look up close know why climate chaos threatens a multifaceted cataclysm. We have to figure out what to do – and do it fast. Dismissing it for economic or political reasons is a crime against future humanity.

China not only has America in hopeless hock but is also redefining the principles of human rights and open societies that generations have fought to protect. Beijing is already edging Washington aside at G20 summits.

The South Asia is beyond explosive, and we must tread carefully to maintain balances. But we are so clueless that Barack Obama canceled a visit to the Sikhs’ holy temple for fear that Americans would freak at seeing turbans.

Spin the globe. Examples are everywhere. And the situation worsens by the week as cynical, or simply ignorant, politicians manipulate popular sentiment.

News executives bent on profit go for the cheap and cheerful. Guided by website hits rather than public interest, they cut back on real journalists.

In the longer term, schools must teach the true shape of our planet and America’s place amid broad diversity. We need kids who think critically and challenge bullshit.

For now, tune out the churnalists. Instead, support journalists who nail down facts and analyze reality. Of course, this comes at a cost. Most things that matter do.

For your Christmas list, go to www.bunchofmadmen.com. It costs less than an empty Moleskine notebook. If we turn a profit, it will go towards training young correspondents. If they’re not out there, neither are we.


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