The dark 1970s film Taxi Driver depicts an aimless young man distintigrating rapidly as he fixates on a plan to assassinate a political candidate. In an improbable twist of fate, he ends up doing something of a good deed. There will be no such neat wrapup of the real life violence on Saturday, January 8, in Tucson, Arizona, when a distintigrating young man took aim at a Congresswoman and shot six people to death, and wounded 19, including his target.
A big German drug company is betting that women will buy a pill that will make them want to have more sex. The logic is twisted: trying to get people to want to want. The company says it has collected evidence that many women are unhappy with their libido. Whether or not this is true, the safety trials are under way.
Anonymity on the World Wide Web is both a boon to free expression and a bonanza for boors, who abuse their freedom. Personal blogs are easy to set up, and almost all issues-oriented web sites allow readers to post comments freely under phony names. Is all the shouting and name-calling helping to destroy what rational debate we have left?
Is it possible that the teabaggers are something more than a mixed bag of established far-right groups, offered up under a catchy name? Is it possible that they are a spontaneous outcry against big government? Although the national news media is taking them very seriously, I don't think so.
At first, it amusing that Pat Robertson said that the earthquake in Haiti last month was god's wrath for a pact with the devil. But considering that Robertson has a huge following, and that disasters always prompt an outpouring of prophets warning about the price of sin, one has to wonder why naïve beliefs persist despite all evidence to the contrary.
The justices of the nation's top court expanded an election-law case over the financing of a movie pillorying Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign into a sweeping rewrite of the laws that restricted the political activity of corporations large and small.
Judgment Day is coming to the newspaper industry. The New York Times has decided to make online readers pay, according to New York Magazine. The paper, deeply in hock, is trying desperately to find its way in a world that in quick succession was turned upside down by television, and now by the Internet. Will the readers buy it?
Something was bothering me when I read the stories about Harry Reid's faux pas in race relations. Weren't the Republicans just blowing smoke to confuse the public on an issue they are losing: health care?
Was it necessary for Oprah to batter down the walls of individual privacy for Google to charge in and classify and categorize all of us for the sake of more efficient advertising?
A sense of déjà vu surrounds the health care debate. For the 15 years since the Clinton health care reform flopped, the problem has grown worse, but lobbyists and conservatives of both parties are out for blood again
A former insider, now outside, looks at the trouble in the news business with a fresh, unbiased perspective.
A fascinating collection of portraits and interviews with ordinary New Yorkers with extraordinary passions.
Technology consulting, specializing in natural language processing, artificial intelligence, data mining and machine learning.
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Forty years ago, I started in the news business in Jersey City, N.J., at the Jersey Journal, a paper that was supposedly dying on the day I walked in the door. The veterans of the paper explained that the Newhouse family corporation was about to shut down their unprofitable subsidiary at any moment. It was the reason why the Newspaper Guild wasn't going to fight hard for better pay. But as amazing as it sounds, the paper is still there, hanging on, still existing on borrowed time, still gasping for air. In 1969, it was television, and suburban sprawl that was killing the Jersey Journal and all these other papers, both large and small. People often said that newspaper people didn't understand television. Just as they say now that they don't understand the digital media. Looking over this situation, considering my experiences at that little paper, and later at larger and more important papers, The Hartford Courant, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, I have to marvel at the resilience of the news business, especially at its resurgence earlier in this decade. But the crisis is more ominous than ever. The paper profits from a few years ago are all gone. There are bankruptcies, closings and if not for a couple of global billionaires, like Rupert Murdoch and Carlos Slim, my last two papers wouldn't have much of a chance. Maybe the sky is really falling.
My feelings about the news business are mixed. When I finished college, I didn't intend to have a career in the news; I didn't study journalism; I knew that I liked reading papers and that I liked newspaper movies. I had no plan, no ambition other than to find something interesting to do, and I wasn't too sure what I would find interesting. After a false start at a junior executive office job, I started to wonder about becoming a newspaper reporter, and I loved it from the beginning. As abruptly as I started, I left the news business in the 1990s to study computer science. My decision was personal, and was not based on my forecast of the fate of the news business. To some extent, the news business had lost its fascination for me. More important to me were the endless possibilities of computers. I now have a PhD from Columbia University, which means that I understand technology in a big way. News executives, in general, don't grasp technology. But I will argue here that the problem is not about the medium, but in the way they think about the news — to use their terminology, their news judgment. I say that the current crisis exposes a fundamental question of what the news is. Most commentators and professionals assume that the quality of their news is beyond reproach and that the value is so high that it is crucial to our democratic society. I am not so sure about either assumption.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a talk — in a webcast — by John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the defunct Rocky Mountain News. He gave the talk at a University of California "summit" hosted at Google headquarters from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1, and gravely discussed the various failures of news executives, including himself. He confessed that he and his colleagues did not know how to deal with the web, and had merely continued to think in terms of "legacy" products. He chose an interesting word — legacy in this context is a geeky term to connote not quite obsolete technology. The journalism pundits are choosing a new jargon instead of thinking. As he started, I wondered what alternate strategies might have helped the Rocky Mountain News, or might now help surviving news businesses. What he came up with was Youtube and Yelp. His logic just collapses here. If the Rocky Mountain News, or The Times, or Dow Jones were to magically become a successful web business like Youtube, it would offer a very small portion of material that resembles news, and if it became a successful web business like Yelp, it would have zero news. In other words, in order to save its profits, it would have abandoned the reporting and writing of the news in favor of some mixture of entertainment and self-expression (blogging). He suggests that a newspaper company could have morphed into something like those two web ventures and still maintained what is good and true in the news media. But he doesn't say how.
I want to analyze the situation as it is. I see myself as an informed observer, not as an insider with anything to lose or gain. One very important fact to understand was expressed neatly by Allan M. Siegal, once the overseer of the huge New York Times editing operation. He told me in the early 80s in the first of my job interviews there that the Times was then one of few news-gathering operations left in the world. Most newspapers and other news outlets, he pointed out, were merely news-presentation organizations. It was a smart observation. Most of the news published and broadcast in the country was just mashed up versions of the same wire news that all the others had. Only a handful of the biggest papers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the wires, like AP and Reuters, were gathering news 25 years ago. They sold it to smaller papers, television and radio stations. It's hard to be sentimental over a repackaging; and it's very hard to square this activity with the lofty notion of the free press publishers often read in the Bill of Rights. They claimed an essential role in democracy, but the owners of each and every news organization, no matter the size, were not sentimental. This consolidation of news gathering was plain good business — until the day when the handful of news gatherers found they had to put it on the web, for all to see, for free. The web also introduced a level of competition never imagined before. Readers in Nebraska could choose their national news from the LA Times, the New York Times or whatever. This was a disaster for most repackagers. They felt they had to offer their product — with such news of their communities as they were used to collecting — on the web.
I agree with the publishers and broadcasters on one point. It is obvious that the news gatherers cannot keep giving away their work. They cannot and will not continue to finance news gathering without revenue. I have a feeling that many people outside the news business don't understand Siegal's distinction. And they don't understand just how difficult news gathering is. People tell me that if one news site on the web starts charging, they'll simply go to another. This consumer power will last only for a short time. If the handful of news gathering organizations were to start charging for content in unison, then the freeloaders would be out of luck, or rather out of news. Actually, there are several new businesses that are dedicated to becoming some sort of news portal. It's a dynamite idea, but if and only if the news is worth enough money to enough readers. This essential question is neither being asked nor examined: Does a critical mass of news consumers exist? And maybe a better way to pose the question is: Is the news good enough to attract them? I think that publishers, broadcasters, academics, politicians and assorted think-tankers and talking heads assume that news is, first, essential to democracy and, second, valuable enough to a substantial portion of the public so that they might pay for it. It's natural that they think it. After all, their careers, their status in society, their personal fortunes are built on the value of their products. However, I have strong suspicions that the number of people who actually crave serious news may not be enough to support multiple full-fledged news-gathering operations.
In my newspaper years, I was surrounded by people who seemed to read newspapers every day, but their jobs required it. I often wondered how much reading was done on the outside. It was common for people outside the newspaper business describe their reading habits like this: "I try to read the news, but I don't have time to do it as much as I should." I began to get the notion that newspaper buying was separate from newspaper reading. I could see that many people believed newspapers were important, but not to the extent that they actually read them. I have a theory that newspaper buying lingers partly as a habit, and partly as an obligation. I suspect that many people feel they need to come into their offices with the papers as a way of saying, "I'm well-informed." They got that from buying the paper, but they didn't actually have to read it. Remember, too, that newspapers also offered their buyers a host of unrelated services. Television listings, comics, classified, stock prices, sports scores. Some of this service stuff was delivered better — faster and more conveniently on TV 40 years ago. The rest of it is now on the web. There were other services. At the Hartford Courant when I was there, they offered school lunch menus so that parents knew whether their children should buy or pack that day. They, of course, also offered their buyers the ads, telling them where the food bargains were that week. Think about this for a bit. This prosaic material is useful, but none of this sounds like anything that people regard as a civic duty or something they feel that they should do. And none of this sounds like anything that requires the constitutional protection of a free press. But this is the typical American newspaper: a repackager of some global news and a mixed bag of local news, assorted services, some of them hyperlocal and workaday.
Several times I was confronted with personal and disappointing demonstrations of the shallowness of newspaper reading. For example, in Hartford, I was occasionally given the opportunity to earn extra money by appearing on the state version of the Sunday morning interview shows — Face the This and Meet the That. At that time in my career, I covered the state legislature and was stationed in the State Capitol building, where everyone from the janitors on up to the governor's staff was directly involved in politics (that's how most of them got their jobs). I said quick hellos to dozens of them each day, but there was never any indication that any of them read much of the paper. I wrote critical stories, stories that put one side or the other in a bad light. I wrote stories that wound up on Page 1 with big headlines, but hardly anyone every mentioned these, or those of my colleagues. (The politicians who were named in the articles did read and react, but that's normal.) Things were different on the Monday mornings after a TV appearance, almost everyone I bumped into mentioned how I looked. It was depressing, and I wondered if these political people didn't read my prose or my colleagues' prose, who did?
Inside the newsroom there is a interesting expression of admiration for an especially good piece or writing or reporting that goes like this: "I read the whole thing." I always felt that this was the most gratifying reaction any reporter ever got from colleagues, and it was not spoken very often to anyone. I understood that I wasn't moved to read the entire news of the day, and that I was no different from the other reporters. Even the top editors occasionally put their feet in their mouths by asking if we shouldn't cover something or other, only to be told gently that it was already in the paper. I saw this in Hartford, and in New York, whenever I had a job that took me into the daily news meetings, where the next day's news is mapped out. All the big editors said they read every word, every day, but that's really impossible. . Equally dismaying was the frequent presentation by mid-level editors of stories that had appeared in papers elsewhere as their own ideas. The freshness of these stories were almost never challenged because, by and large, the editors themselves didn't read too much. If we, who earned our living from the press, rarely read the whole thing — our own product or the competition — who did? My suspicions grew over the years.
The Internet is a perfect foil for the nonreaders. People who once bought the papers for appearances — so that they could show they were concerned about current events — now have the ubiquitous Internet, on their desks, in the laptops in their briefcases, in the palms of their hands on their smart phones. And if they show up in the office without their New York Times or their Wall Street Journal — that doesn't show they're not interested. They can say, to themselves and others, that they just read the news on the web. It is certainly convenient. If they honestly want to find out what happened in some country, some court case, some football game, all they have to do is look it up. And they don't have to pay for days and days of papers they don't read. If a large number of people really valued the news, they would pay for it no matter what the medium was, and the producers of news — the news-gathering organizations would have confidence that they will not only survive but prosper. If the news were half as compelling and important as the industry and its analysts seem to think, it should be easy for newspapers to charge for on line content, but they are struggling. It's not that popularity is the final arbiter of real value, but in the long run popularity is important for survival. In my view, the news in a digital format should be more interesting and more effective simply because printed paper analog broadcast are both severely constrained by time — mainly delivery deadlines, TV schedules. The advantages on the web are stunning. The news organizations can cross reference people and events, and offer instant history through access to their morgues.
Papers like the New York Times say their web logs show they have a tremendous readership on line, but when they tried to charge for their most sophisticated features — Times Select — they were burned. They abruptly canceled it. I find the readership claims hollow. The web, however, does allow a different level of insight into reader habits. For the paper-based news product, the only fact we can establish is the number of people who put their dollar down and buy it. On the Internet, it's simple to track the viewers of web pages. Alexa, which studies the flow of traffic on the web and provides services for sites and users, finds that visitors to the big newspapers' sites, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, spend about an average of 4 minutes a day. That's not very much reading.
I have to guess that advertisers are not impressed. News sites show enough ads to be annoying, but when I look at the ads, I'm not impressed by their quality or quantity. The ads are few and far between, and could in no way be a substitute for those pages and pages of $100,000 department store ads. But the ads are almost irrelevant, because it's easy to view web without annoying ads — you might well know about Firefox and the AdBlockPlus plugin, and if you don't, I assure you that they're easy to set up. And so I read the Times on-line without ads. Actually, I glance at the RSS feed of the top headlines and occasionally I open up a story. I'd miss the Times if it disappeared, but honestly I do not know how much I'd be willing to pay for it. All I can tell you is that I stopped buying the paper version when it was 50 cents, and didn't resume reading it on the web for a few years until I finished my coursework at Columbia. Recently, I've taken an informal poll. I asked people who do read some news if they would be willing to have global accounts covering multiple news sites for which they would be charged something small, like a nickel a story, by some overall billing mechanism — it's my business model plucked out of thin air. I thought they would all say yes, but the dominant response was, "No. It would add up." Of course, it would have to add to a substantial amount to pay for the newsroom I knew well.
Television would seem to have an advantage migrating to the web because technology allows them to embed the ads in video segments, but along with the success of comic news like the Daily Show and shrill, glitzy news networks like Fox and CNN, the broadcasters are not doing much better than their print cousins. The network news audience has been in decline for a long time. The cable news channels have been the winners, though their rapid growth at the expense of the big broadcast networks has leveled off. Still the cable networks are quite profitable. But their type of coverage is quite different from the newspapers, and they have been able to use the papers as a window on the world to keep tabs on events. I doubt the cable channels would make up the difference in the total amount of news gathering if the big papers disappeared.
Television, however, has its own difficulty with content. It offers an immediacy and drama that the papers cannot — by being on the scene, broadcasting in real time. This works marvelously when they are covering events that are spectacles in their own right, like the political conventions or elections. But TV news departments have never needed the resources to do the primary research into stories that are not obvious. We all know the date of the next election. All the biggest announcements are handed out to one and all. But on the harder, less obvious stories, television of all kinds will lose with the downward spiral of newspapers. At present, they can still borrow from the print journalists at any time, and then assign the camera crews. As a reporter in Connecticut, it was clear that the newspapers were huge crib sheets for local TV stations. Then we have to consider what television can do when they don't have pictures. The broadcasts are presented with big holes filled by repetitive conversation of the personalities on camera. The void in between is deadly. Broadcasters treat these as sports, with replays, closeups and all kinds of camera tricks. The overall effect is often boring.
When publishers focus on understanding the internet — or the new media as they call it in J-school — they are not addressing the issue of what they are delivering and what the consumers need or want. We all see that our culture is changing because of the Internet, but this circumstance is a distraction. It's merely a change in format. However, the old format wrapped up a lot of nonnews in bundles of folded paper, but the news may be all that they have left to sell. It is important that they make sure that the news is compelling. How many news stories are successful? How or why should society pay for them if very few people read it? We must always remember that the sports scores, the stock prices, the television lists, the comics and all of that stuff confused the value of the traditional news product because it was packaged together. Now, people can choose precisely what to read and what not to read.
During all the years I spent in the news business, publishers agonized over how to hold the old readers and attract the young ones. This was when there was no free alternative. I have heard two mantras over and over again. I heard them on Day 1 in the business, way before there was an internet or a personal computer in anyone's home. I hear them today from pundits and publishers. These two prescriptions to maintain the life of news are local news and entertainment. Let me deal with these one at a time.
The best definition I ever heard of local news was relayed by colleagues at the Hartford Courant in the early 70s. It was attributed to a former publisher, the late Col. John R. Reitemeyer, who was quoted as saying that whenever a subscriber hears a siren in the middle of the night, he should be able to pick up the morning paper and find out what it was. We were young then; something called investigative journalism was hot and all ambitious reporters wanted to to investigate someone. They might not get at the White House as Woodward and Bernstein did, but they could sometimes get to the deputy sheriff. This idea about sirens was a waste of time. Of course, it was also entirely impractical. It might have been possible in the quiet of an old Connecticut town where there weren't too many whistles. But the ability to track them was lost with the growth of our population. Nonetheless, the practice survived until the 1970s in the form of a fire log — a listing of all fire department calls during a 24-hour period. And so the guardian of democracy provided its readers with a catalog of false alarms, smoking frying pans and whatnot. I am proud to say that I had a hand in the abolition of the fire log one summer night. We decided to forget to send it to the typesetters, betting that no one would miss it. No one ever did. The fire log was history.
I can hear someone objecting that a fire log does not embody local news. I know too well what they mean by local news. In my newspaper years, whenever I visited another city, I checked out the local papers and read the same thing everywhere — stories about the mayor, the city council, the board of education and that sort of thing. My informal study of local news around the country showed me that anyone who claims local news is what readers lust after, then he or she has never had to sit through a school board meeting in a small town.
I sat through scores of them in the early years, and they're dreadful. I can tell you that there are small but very passionate groups of people who participate in such meetings, but there is really no need to print reports of what they do since all of the people interested usually attend the meetings and know what happened well before the morning paper or the evening news. These people, the "important people" in a small town, are often the people with access to publishers and top editors and they want these reports about themselves, but they buy only a tiny fraction of the daily press runs. The important point here is not my opinion, but the opinions of the regular citizens of small cities and towns across the country. Those people are canceling their subscriptions, and the publishers are cutting back and then cutting back some more.
There is an inherent problem of scale in local news. I live in New York City. The geography is different than in most places in the country, but the principle is the same: A fire on my block would be thoroughly absorbing, but it is years and years between fires, and I really don't care about all of the thousands of other fires that burn beyond my block, but are still well within my local newspapers' circulation areas. Millions of dollars in salaries and newsroom lights and phones are being squandered on stuff I will never read. This is not a business model that works in any medium. Its failures have nothing to do with whether newspaper owners chop down trees for paper or burn coal for electricity to keep their web servers running. I understand that publishers and academics have studies and focus groups that come to different conclusions about people's reading habits. I am dubious. I remember a presentation I heard in the 70s about a readership survey done for a paper in a medium-sized city on the West Coast. It was at a seminar for young city editors and the survey claimed that the Saturday church section was better read than the sports section. On the face of it, such a result is bizarre and not believable. Were people fibbing on the survey? Were the questions posed in a biased way that lead people to respond incorrectly? Our society is dazzled by consultants armed with statistics, and their polls and surveys. People who can't do simple percentages spout off poll statistics as if they were reciting from a holy book. Perhaps publishers who are losing their shirts should look more closely at their marketing consultants. This reverence for statistics can be dangerous — just look at the recent bust on Wall Street and the pall it continues to cast on the economy.
The other prescription for the news has been entertainment. Before the Internet, as circulation was dropping and newspapers were folding, and television was the villain, there was much discussion of how to compete, by which publishers meant how could the printed page be made to attract television watchers. Television by definition was more attractive, with pictures, sounds, and immediacy. Every paper I ever worked on went on kicks about better writing to answer the TV challenge. Feature writers were much valued, and there was much talk that ominously sounded like literary criticism. Readers had to be drawn into colorful stories filled with quotes. Prize winners were superstars. But there's a big problem. News is supposed to be constrained by reality, and reality is messy. Fiction writers can smooth over the difficult elements of a story, they can change a story that gets too tangled and make everything hang together. Fiction is invention. News is reporting not. Several publishers were burned by this rush to be entertaining — at the highest levels, Pulitzer Prize winners at the biggest papers made up facts for a better story, and all the best editing talent in the country had no clue. But fundamentally the situation is even worse. Newspaper writing is not an art, and it's not supposed to be. Newspapers are not filled with wit and charm. They borrow their emotional power by being true. We read the news because it really happened, not because it was cleverly told. There's an inherent tension between wit and accuracy. There isn't much news writing that is so witty that everyone would forgive falsehood. In between feature writing and news reporting lies news analysis. There's a similar tension here. Good reporters focus on what is. Columnists trying to nail down what should be or predict what might be drift over into some other territory not grounded in observable facts. Columnists push opinions, and that's not inherently bad, but it is different from the news stories. If the opinions are strong, they are advocates for some party or position. That's an entirely different thing. It isn't news gathering. In the extreme, entertainment that poses as news — like Page Six and other gossipy venues, including many glossy magazines — have commercial value and reader appeal. There's nothing wrong with entertainment. It's just not news.
I don't think that either local news or bright feature writing or clever polemics will save anything. I think the future of news comes down to the question of its value, and I think it's common for the industry (like any other industry) to exaggerate its role in society, and to try to cover up its steady loss of clientèle.
The problem with the news business lies in the very way the search for news is conducted. The business is hampered by its tradition of competition and the constraints of deadline. Too often these factors result in the publication or broadcast of nonsense, and a subsequent loss of credibility. The Dewey-Truman syndrome is far from an historical anomaly. It's alive and well. The pressure is on when deadline is at hand and the story of the day hasn't quite happened yet. I remember well a long night of hurricane watching in Connecticut. When the storm failed to make landfall by deadline, the editors decided to guess and went with a headline that said "Hurricane Slams State." It was a big mistake. The storm petered out over Long Island, and at best the waves were a little more turbulent than usual on the Connecticut beaches. A more subtle attack on credibility is obvious now in the form of memory lapses. For a year after Obama's election, there have been no end of analyses and columns about the death of the Republican Party. But lo and behold, the GOP won two big gubernatorial races in the off year, and all those obituaries are conveniently forgotten and the prevailing view is about the threatened Democrats. To be sure, if you read all the verbiage, you will find a fair number of qualifiers (like this sentences), but those cautionary lines stuck somewhere in the middle of stories are simply outnumbered. They are much like corrections. Terrible things can be said about real human beings on Page 1, and then taken back the next day in the fine print as a correction deep inside the paper.
Deadlines and competition produce a herd mentality. News becomes what a critical mass of editors say it is. I recall well the media flood over the Menendez brothers. They were the two young men accused of murdering their parents to speed their inheritance. That was a story worth a movie, and it was covered as if it were the Second Coming. The blonde defense lawyer was often the center of all this attention. The first trial failed to produce a verdict, and a second was underway quickly. Mysteriously, the fascination wore off, and the reports about the second trial were left to chopped down wire snippets, and the brothers were quietly convicted and sent to prison for life. Ask an editor about this kind of thing, and he or she will answer something about news judgment, not recognizing that the thought is erratic and inconsistent. Little wonder that in the opinion surveys the news business loves so much, people consistently express a lack of trust in journalism.
Much is made of the role of the news in a democracy, but it's not clear what that is. It's worth a look at history. The news industry has sought to strike an impartial pose only in the last half of the 20th century. At the time of the American revolution, the free press was about political parties. Every party had its printing press, and the founding fathers took care to protect the party or parties that were out of power by making sure they could publish their speeches and tracts. News as a business came 100 years later, with the yellow press à la Citizen Kane. In its heyday before radio, newspaper companies were an important source of daily entertainment for the masses, and they fought out a lively competition in all the big cities. Some historians argue that the gravity of World War II gave journalism its serious mission of providing accurate and impartial news. When I started working in the business, hippie left wingers wondered if an impartial media was even possible. But the predominantly left-of-center reporting professionals espoused impartiality and objectivity, though most of them had a strong bias against the Vietnam War and both Presidents Johnson and Nixon (as I did). In my years in journalism, an establishment press at its best mediated between the two major parties. Watergate built up the notion of reporters with secret sources, ferreting out deeply hidden truths. This is a dramatic notion, indeed. But does anyone know just how much buried knowledge is unearthed? It happens, but in truth, reporters liked the idea of attributing statements to unnamed parties because it gave them a central role in the process. The reality of reporting is that most of the news is released by the entities being written about: Congressional offices, federal and state department, political parties, the White House, corporations.
The press releases, also known as handouts, are delivered to reporters for rewriting and publication. There are thousands and thousands of them every day. It was a sight at The New York Times to see the fax machine spewing out releases 24 hours a day. Not all releases are equal, though. A successful release is one given to a beat reporter by a flak. When it suits the purposes of the officials who make the news, they ask for and are granted anonymity with delight. Many papers have standards for anonymity, but these are widely ignored. Officials and flaks ask for it when they want to be insulated from repercussions in case their proposals or maneuvers are badly received. Some may say this is a cynical view, but there has long been discussion of whether unattributed statements — often trial balloons — of any kind are detrimental to journalism. (Again, I realize that there are exceptions, diligent and intelligent reporters, especially at the big papers, but I emphasize that they are exceptions.)
It occurs to me that the news business does not protect democracy, but that it's the other way around: democracy enables journalism. Consider a totalitarian regime. Officials who for one reason or another would like to rat out their opponents in government face severe penalties if they're caught. The dictator can have you shot or exiled for revealing an embarrassing detail about the government. In a democracy, with a free press, officials can on occasion advance their careers, and shoot down their opponents, by careful manipulation of the media. This is easy to see by comparing business reporting and government reporting. Corporations are closed systems that can and do punish whistle-blowers. The amount of adversarial leaks that come from inside corporations is minuscule. The notion of secret sources in business reporting has a hollow ring. I was amused once by the sight of a furious argument between two reporters over whose sources were correct. The story was a corporate takeover and a perusal of the business wire (pure press releases) showed that sources of both competitors were none other than the handouts from each of the battling companies. It was a hostile takeover and the flaks disagreed with each other.
The theory that reporters spend hours and hours combing through official records, interviewing all sorts of people, following up on leads that are likely to be dead ends is the ideal. It happens, but very, very rarely. And when it's done, is there an audience for it? A sufficient paying audience?
I strongly suspect that the audience is small. There are news readers, to be sure. In fact, I'm one of them. Thanks to the web, I now check headlines from six major news outlets several times a day and I usually read two or three stories a day. I like news stories. Occasionally they amuse me; occasionally they provide facts that make me sound smart; sometimes they are depressing but other times they feed my natural optimism about the world (yes, despite this essay), that I can go to sleep with some confidence that disaster will not come with the dawn. I don't feel my news reading is terribly important to me or to the country. But I do think it's worthwhile. I also believe that I read more news and know more about current events than most people I come in contact with.
That's just me. What about the average citizen? What is he or she interested in. The news industry likes polls. They continually spend time trying to handicap votes in Congress, elections, whatever. So I searched for some statistics. I found an academic research paper on the web that tried to assess how closely people care about the details of government. In 2005, researchers from Harvard and MIT wrote a paper about attitudes toward Congress. In it they report that only 52% of the people in their survey knew their Representative's name, and if they knew the name, a far smaller percentage knew the Representatives' positions on issues. The researchers asked about gay marriage, prescription drug imports, partial-birth abortion and financing Iraq reconstruction. The largest portion of respondents answered, ‚ÄúDon't know‚Äù, on three or four of the questions. On abortion, 50% knew their Representative's position correctly. On Iraq, 57% wouldn't guess, and those who thought they knew were split at 21% right and 21% wrong.
Think about these numbers for a while. The situation is worse than the numbers indicate because of the way surveys are conducted. The pollsters try to obtain a sample of subjects who reflect the demographics of the population, and I assume they achieve this balance perfectly. But there is another sampling problem. If a person does not want to participate, he or she is out of the survey, so the sample at the outset is biased by favoring absolutely people who either want to participate or cannot say no. If they could force everyone they called into answering, how would the numbers change? Still, on the face of it, the numbers suggest some kind of failure on the part of the news industry.
Polling itself is a good place to start. Are polls valuable? Do people trust them? Should people trust them? There's a well-known contradiction in political poll results that raises serious questions about their value: While people in polls overwhelmingly hate Congress and say they want to replace nearly everybody in it, people in voting booths re-elect their representatives — something like 95% of the time.
People are on to this kind of polling scam, and it is but one reason they don't pay much attention to the news. And a scary insight into why they probably won't pay for it. The trouble with polls is an indication of the sickness of the news industry. The news business is a hermetic world. They all use polls because they all use polls. I've heard people in the news business express some skepticism, but all objections are brushed aside. I've mentioned my RSS feeds. As I move across the mainstream news sites, from CNN, to Times, to AP, Reuters, the BBC, I see largely the same headlines, all day long. They're slightly different, of course. The BBC has stuff about Britain; Reuters about Europe; the Times is particularly good on things in the city that are cultural or campy. But they all start out in the morning with the same stuff, they're slow to update, and they wind up in the same place. The reporters, and producers in TV, who are assigned particular stories are largely concerned with the immediate competition on the story on the table. Maybe that's the genius of capitalism at work, but some thing's missing. They've lost sight of what ordinary people might want to know or need to know. Another way to say this is that the news industry's failure is painfully obvious when the health care debate was allowed in August to turn on the loud shouting about death panels and such by a lunatic fringe. The headlines I saw day after day suggested that these confrontations were threatening health-care reform. Did the giant news-gathering companies dig below the surface and find out who the angry crowds were, and whether the insurers or other businesses financed them? If most people don't know who their congressmen are, do we really believe a substantial number of just folks magically found out Congress's vacation schedule?
Maybe we have too much news. Too many people covering the surface, too many reporters looking at what other reporters are doing.
Reporters might be expected to look outward to the world at large, but they're often very insular. First of all, where the best-known editors and publishers in journalism make a lot of money, and and the legion of reporters and editors earn quite respectable salaries, these are not ordinary people. Success is lucrative enough to turn a person's head. It does not encourage the kind of introspection that might lead to the conclusion that the business has been largely doing it wrong for years.
I'm not sure what will be left from the wreckage of the news business. The news magazines, including those on the web, and the news-like
television shows in many ways depend on the news-gathering abilities of the Times, the Journal and the AP. They use the information they read in the mainstream press to prepare polemics, features, jokes, to obtain background, and often ideas. The Times reporter may never read any of the 1,000-page health-care bills being discussed, but they do gather information from the Congressional committee staffs. That is no small task. It's certainly not one that's going to be undertaken by some random, unpaid citizen journalists or bloggers, who go to work every day at a job that pays far less than the big-time reporters get and then add to their blogs at night.
Posted 24 November 2009
© 2010 Barry Schiffman