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Journalism or Breitbart: We must choose

A note to the notably angry, sarcastic American, the "snarlygaster" who, in letters to this columnist or in postings on baltimoresun.com talk forums, expresses glee at the troubles of the U.S. newspaper industry and the hope that the nation's dailies disappear:

Be careful what you wish for. You may end up with Andrew Breitbart.

In the age of the Internet, I keep hearing these assertions, often delivered with cynical excitement: The mainstream media, with its leftist agenda, has become irrelevant to the mass of people, who get the "real news" from television, particularly Fox, and the blogosphere. Newspapers are terminally ill, and nobody cares. Good riddance.

I hear this kind of sentiment all the time, either delivered with acidic glee or patronizing resignation.

Of course, if you are reading this, you either subscribe to a print edition of The Baltimore Sun (we thank you very much) or you're reading online (thank you, but if you could leave a little something in the tip jar it would be appreciated).

So maybe you're not among the snarlygasters. You still feel a need, as a curious person or concerned citizen, to read a newspaper every day, or a few times a week. Perhaps, you've come to trust it like an old friend. Perhaps you use it or its Web version for some specific purpose: restaurant reviews, concert listings, Ravens gossip. Whatever the reason, you're not about to wish that we would fold and disappear, either because you never wish such a thing on any industry, or because you still see the value of a daily newspaper produced by professional journalists.

But a good many newspaper readers — most of them taking the paper free, online — not only enjoy trashing the messenger but wish the messenger would die. Over 30 years of writing a newspaper column, expressing opinions that provoke those of others, I would say that sentiment is recent.

People always disagreed; readers always expressed offense at something printed in the pages of this newspaper. But they hardly ever wished it would fold and disappear.

I've only heard the newspaper death wish expressed in the age of the Internet and Fox News — and more pronounced in the last 10 years or so. The right believes it will be just fine with a steady diet of Fox, agenda-driven blogs and Rush Limbaugh. The left seems to gravitate towards NPR, MSNBC and "The Daily Show"; people from that side of the ideological spectrum might talk a good game about being informed, but one can look at the numbers and question how many of them read daily newspapers, in print or online, or even watch straight news shows on cable. More than ever, both the left and the right seem to prefer to get their daily news from the secondary sources, those who merely consume the journalistic work of others, then analyze and debate it on radio and cable.

Which gets me back to Andrew Breitbart and his disgusting treatment of Shirley Sherrod.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Breitbart "did issue a correction to his account, saying the incident 'shows the imperfect nature of journalism,' but said his mistakes had paled in comparison to those of the mainstream media."

Oh, really? Which ones?

Daily newspapers make mistakes. They usually deal with the basic facts of stories — the title someone once held, the name of a suspect in a criminal matter — and corrections appear in print every day. Newspapers have had some reporters and columnists who made stuff up (years ago, a Washington Post reporter won a Pulitzer for a fabricated story) or copied the work of others. Those people were all fired.

Had any producer at a local TV station, network or cable newsroom cobbled together a video like the one Mr. Breitbart posted of Ms. Sherrod, that producer would be among the nation's unemployed today.

That Mr. Breitbart associated his hatchet job on Shirley Sherrod with "the imperfect nature of journalism" suggests that he sees himself as a journalist. He's not. The journalist has to prize above all else the truth, and presenting the truth in the public's interest. Twisting the truth, editing video to make black look like white and up look like down — that's the stuff of hocus-pocus and snake oil; it's not the work of the journalist.

With few exceptions over the years, most of the journalists I've worked with, many of them my friends, have been more left of center or center than they have been to the right. But they have also been among the most diligent, hardworking and intellectually curious people you could want to know. They pride themselves in digging into problems, caring about the public interest, being accurate and making a serious effort to deliver the news as fairly and as completely as possible in the time given to produce it.

They are the ones still doing the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to gathering news.

The so-called mainstream news operations are not perfect, but they still generate most of what informs American society today, and they provide content for all the others — Limbaugh and Fox, MSNBC and Jon Stewart. Only with public support of a news culture grounded in the fundamentals of journalism — solid reporting, fair and informed analysis, respect for the truth and the public good — does this democracy survive. Settling for less means settling for Andrew Breitbart.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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