When Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University’s journalism department, posed the question “What are journalists really for?” he opened a floodgate.

A panel of journalists and politicians discussed topics, ranging from the media’s role in today’s society to the current state of journalism, at a Law School panel Wednesday. The panel, titled “Is the Press Part of the Public? Local Media and Local Democracy,” was the fourth in a series sponsored by Democratic Vistas, a Tercentennial program.

Although the panel featured several different viewpoints, perhaps the one common theme was a mourning of journalism’s current state, both in terms of the industry and the role it plays in society.

Panel moderator Lincoln Caplan, a Knight journalism fellow at the Law School, said he felt there is great dissatisfaction within the industry as journalists realize what he called the failures of their craft. Because of the commercialization of media, journalism is now experiencing a cut back in resources, which inevitably leads to lower quality news, Caplan said.

Morton Tenzer, a retired University of Connecticut political science professor who attended the panel, said he remembers the age when newspapers had more of a presence in society.

“Fifty years ago, New Haven had two major newspapers and there were just a much larger number of reporters covering New Haven. There was richness of coverage,” Tenzer said. “Now I deplore what’s happened to the newspapers and the media.”

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 spoke about the expanding business side of journalism, citing the web of financial relationships between the Hartford Courant, ctnow.com, SFX Entertainment, the Oakdale Theater and the New Haven Advocate.

Duby McDowell, a political analyst for NBC 30, said she was concerned that hometown media outlets tended to be overly positive.

“That type of boosterism in the media has always disturbed me,” McDowell said.

Paul Bass, a reporter for the New Haven Advocate, said journalists should not try to become a part of the elite, warning that doing so would only compromise the newspaper’s independence.

“We can’t start thinking we have power,” he said. “We’re journalists and we’re just doing what other people don’t have time to do. We need to get rid of the self-important notion that we’re community leaders.”

Recounting his reporting experience with the crash of TWA flight 800 in 1996, New York Times reporter Dan Barry agreed with Bass.

“I’m a storyteller,” Barry said. “I’m just here to tell people what happened so people have an understanding of the emotion and the misery. My job is to tell you as best as I can, as I see it.”

Yale Daily News Managing Editor Michael Horn and New Haven Register City Editor Mary O’Leary also spoke on the panel.

Although Tenzer said the panel was excellent, with a very knowledgeable group of people, he said he is not optimistic about the future of the journalism industry.

“I think these people are really powerless to repeal the massive social and economic currents that have changed journalism into a media production,” he said. “I’m not very hopeful about the future.”

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