Modern mainstream media faces a challenge in the public sphere, said Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Dean Starkman at a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea Monday.
Starkman, the Los Angeles Times’ Wall Street correspondent, spoke to an intimate group about the challenges facing modern journalism. His 2014 book, “The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark,” is a critique of mainstream media’s approach to the 2008 financial crisis. In his talk, organized by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, Starkman addressed the origins of mainstream journalism before discussing modern problems it faces, including the rise of online media and the increasing prevalence of opinions over factual information.
“[Starkman] brings together the standards that journalism always tries to uphold, and he contrasts that with the profit motive that sometimes drives journalism towards sensationalism,” said political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69, who introduced Starkman. “He’s trying to explore that tension between journalism as a civic craft and journalism as a business.”
Starkman began by framing media in the context of the public sphere. He defined “the public sphere” in the terms of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who suggests that it is an area in social life where individuals could come together for free discourse on social issues. This notion, which Starkman labeled “highly idealized,” emerged as a result of early capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries and remains relevant today, he said.
Investigative journalism grew out of social movements in the 1960s, Starkman said. During this time, mass media produced what Starkman called an “ambitious” set of stories that contributed to political and social change. In spite of such triumphs, however, Starkman pointed out substantial critiques about the failings of media. In spite of these concerns, Starkman emphasized the crucial role journalism still plays in the public sphere.
“My argument is that it is a serious mistake to dismiss contributions of the mainstream media,” he said. “One irrefutable, valid claim or dispute one can make — that I don’t have an answer for, frankly — is that institutional media does better with narrower, smaller stories than they do with the big ones.”
Starkman concluded the talk by focusing on the modern dilemmas of media, noting that despite the apparent overabundance of information in the digital world, substantial reduction of reporters and operating margins has cut the capacity for fact-gathering by nearly a third.
In light of the collapse of traditional, investigative journalism, Starkman said, opinion emerged to fill the void, renewing historic journalistic tensions about the nature of fact versus opinion, the latter of which, Starkman noted, is more economical to produce. He added that he thinks it would be difficult for Buzzfeed-style startups to replace journalists trained to gather facts.
“Starkman’s points about the shrinkage of the newspaper industry were disheartening,” said Cameron Hill ’19, who attended the talk. “I question whether Buzzfeed and HuffPost will ever be able to fill its place.”
Scott Remer ’16, another attendee, said that he was interested to hear Starkman discuss his thoughts on both the transition to digital media as well as the effects of the modern, political landscape on mainstream journalism.
Bob Bloch, a New Haven resident who also attended the talk, emphasized the importance of the media in facilitating a productive dialogue between the public and members of Congress.
“The field of journalism is actually surprisingly dynamic in the sense that the frames of the field change,” Starkman said. “It’s not a static thing, there is no one thing that’s called institutional media, it’s something that’s changed dramatically over time.”
The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism continues with a talk on Dec. 9 by Polish journalist Pawel Pieniazek.