Briefly Noted

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I’ll have more to say about this later, but I wanted to call attention to two recent articles about what’s going on in the news biz. First is an AP story about declining circulation. Second is a talk given by Bo Jones, former publisher and now vice chairman of The Washington Post, my alma mater, about how the Post may approach charging for online news. Personally, I think newspapers missed the boat when they drank the Internet Kool Aid about how “information” should be free on the Internet. Once they all jumped on the bandwagon, they couldn’t get off, and they couldn’t talk to each other about it without running the risk of antitrust violations. Newspapers would have been having problems regardless–they already were–but the Internet made them worse, and bad decisions by newspapers only aggravated the situation.

Sunday’s New York Times brings a book review by Bill Keller of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley. In the process of reviewing the book, Keller refers to the divergence between the old journalism where “a significant population of serious people feel the need for someone with training, experience and standards–reporters and editors–to help them dig up and sort through the news, identify what;’s important and make sense of it” on one side and the new journalism, thanks to the Internet where anyone can write what they want about what they want about anything without having to filter their writing through anyone else.

With the old journalism, Keller says, “the authority of professional journalists is both a valuable convenience for readers without the time or inclination to manage a tsunami of information on their own, and a civic good, in that a democracy needs a shared base of trustworthy information upon which to make its judgments.”

I’ve tried to argue much the same here. A cadre of professional interests, of course, constitute an elite, and in a democracy elitism and elites pose problems. Nevertheless, we can’t all be experts on everything. That’s why we have physicians, dentists, mechanics, tax preparers and, lamentably perhaps, lawyers. For quite some time Americans were content to allow an elite–or a few elites–to run domestic and foreign affairs, trusting (a word to which I will return) them to look out for the public’s interest. Some portion of the population, of course, disagreed with the elites and thought government wasn’t being run to further everyone’s interests. That’s to be expected in a democracy.

One of the elites was the group of people who watched the other elites and reported on what they were doing, not always completely, or accurately or even fairly, but enough of the time that the public usually had a good sense of what was going on. And, for the most part, the public trusted the information that this informing elite–journalists–provided them.

The key word here is trust. People for the most part trusted “the press” or the media as the press came to be called and they trusted their government. When they didn’t trust the government, because it was a democracy, they threw them out of office and chose another bunch to govern.

In those days, the public had a common reservoir of information to draw on. There were differences from one newspaper to another and then from one television network to another, but the basic pool was the same. As time went on, journalists developed standards, ethics and other best practices that became engrained in the profession.

The Internet changes all of that . One no longer needs a printing press, or a television or radio station to communicate with the rest of the world. Anyone can communicate anything to everyone, or at least to those who care to visit the communicator’s blog or website or read an email. There’s no one to ask the communicator “How do you know this?” or “Where did you hear this” or inquire about the reliability of the source. Correspondingly, we don’t know how reliable the information is or what the motive of the communicator might be.

Obviously, the old way wasn’t perfect. Information printed by newspapers or magazines more than once in a blue moon wasn’t accurate, complete or fair. Henry Luce had his own view of the world and when the facts didn’t conform to it, he tried to make the reporting reflect what he believed to be true. People knew that, however. They learned to take what Time magazine reported with a grain of salt because they knew the source and could evaluate the information accordingly. And Time was only one of a number of publications and other news sources. People had choices, but not so many that they were bewildered by them and couldn’t possibly sift through them all or determine what was accurate and what wasn’t.

So, the information elite has been shattered. Keller characterized the amount of news out there as a tsunami. Good word. Now we have the potential for a tsunami of communicators out there bringing us “information.” Are we better off?

When I started out as a young reporter at the Times-Herald Record in Middletown, N.Y., I had the opportunity to cover a city-wide election. The incumbent mayor was a Democrat, unusual in a part of New York State that was decidedly Republican. After a few weeks of the campaign, the Republican candidate, who was doing most of the campaigning, pulled me aside at an event to lecture me about my practice of not only reporting what he said, but also of correcting his misstatements of the facts.

That’s not your job, he told me. Let my opponent take issue with what I say. Your job is just to report it, not to correct.

Well, excuse me, but I thought it was my job. This was 15 years after Joe McCarthy had used random numbers in his charges that the State Department was infiltrated with Communists. Few reporters pressed for documentation at the time, apparently figuring that their job was to report what was said—period.

McCarthy sent America off on a wild goose chase, and it took more than a decade to repair the damage and get back on course.

Now, at a time when the media environment is enormously more complex, we seem to be back in the McCarthy era in terms of news coverage. Part of the problem, of course, is that some media outlets have made themselves extensions of one party or the other. But that’s only part of the problem. Another part of the problem is either laziness or timidity. A lot of mainstream reporters seem to think that their role is merely to report it, not to correct.

I hear the same complaint frequently from colleagues but it needs to be repeated, drummed in, because the problem isn’t going away.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, administration officials made a number of assertions that we now know turned out to be inaccurate at best or deliberately false at worst. Rare was the news story that sought to probe the evidence behind the assertions. In some instances reporters were complicit in presenting “evidence,” because they had an agenda that complemented the administration’s. Efforts by news organizations like Knight-Ridder, Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and Walter Pincus in The Washington Post to question the administration’s representations were overwhelmed by the constant drum of the Bush administration’s relentless campaign to promote the war. (The Washington bureau of Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, did dozens of stories questioning whether there were weapons of mass destruction and every other part of the war rationale – but the coverage was almost totally ignored, even by many Knight Ridder papers.)

American reporters like to describe their relationship with government as adversarial, which is to say that the media are there not only to report but to contest and question. Too often, however, the media role is merely stenographic. If Sarah Palin says that the health care bill moving through Congress will establish “death panels,” who challenges her assertion or asks her to point the language in the bill? What we get instead, on television, is a sound bite of her making the charge and then, depending on the political orientation of the news outlet, an approving statement by the commentator or a knowing smirk, as if we’re all too smart and sophisticated to fall for that guff. We’re not, though, at least a lot of us aren’t. If she said it, it must be true, the reasoning goes. And if she says it over and over again, then it definitely must be true.

Barack Obama talks about “clean coal” during the campaign. Is there such a thing, or is clean coal an idea without technology that can make it a reality? It turns out that clean coal is a fiction, a figment of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s imagination.

President Obama’s health care legislation represents the most radical effort at government take-over of health care ever. Obama is a socialist. Really? There’s no government-run health care plan, a la Medicare in it. And if it’s so radical, why does it look so much like a plan presented 17 years ago by moderate Republicans?

If someone says something controversial, by all means report it. Your job, as a reporter, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there. Look beyond the statement. Take a look at what’s being referenced. Has the controversial statement maker represented the subject fairly and accurately? Or has he—or she—misrepresented? Do some reporting; after all, you’re not a stenographer or a mere medium. You’re a reporter. Mistakes deserve to be corrected whenever they occur, every time they occur. Once isn’t enough, because the person making them may well do it over and over again—probably not by accident.

All of the above seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? Sadly, what makes it necessary to raise the point at all, and to keep raising it, is that, obvious as it may seem, these practices are too often being ignored by journalists who are too lazy, or too timid, or too biased to do their job properly. Or, maybe, they just don’t know what they ought to be doing.

Almost nine years ago, Cass Sunstein, then a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the Boston Review arguing that the Internet posed a danger to democracy because of its potential for ghettoizing groups according to their views and interests: The Daily We—Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?.

I confess I had not read the article until this morning when I read David Brooks’s column in the New York Times citing Sunstein’s article. Although I had never read the article, I have written much the same thing here (in a much pithier way if I do say so myself). Brooks takes issue with Sunstein, and I guess by extension, me. He cites a new study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro at the University of Chicago that disputes Sunstein’s argument. Brooks says that the Gentzkow-Shapiro study verifies that conservatives tend to gravitate toward Internet sites that reflect their views, and liberals do the same. But, Brooks says of the study, “the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities.” Brooks says the study shows that they move around, grazing here and there, and not necessarily in places where they agree with what they’re reading. If you want to read the study, by the way, it will cost you $5 to download it and I haven’t decided whether I want to shell out the money or not. At the moment I’m willing to accept Brooks’s reporting of it.

First of all, I’m skeptical about the Gentzkow-Shapiro findings even if I haven’t read them first hand. This is only one study, and I don’t know anything about the methodology.

Even if I did accept their findings, I still have a problem with all of these new sites. Once again, who are the people behind the sites? How thorough are they in gathering information? What is their agenda? Who checks their reports and how careful are they? Newspapers—good ones anyway—have a careful vetting process, endeavoring to insure that what they print is correct, thorough and fair. Obviously they don’t always succeed in that effort, but that’s the professional standard that they measure themselves by.

Back in the day, when I worked for The Washington Post, I used to attend the daily story conference where each section of the paper pitched its offerings for the front page. Questions were raised only occasionally about a particular story in that meeting, but a later meeting—the front-page conference—was a different matter. At the second meeting, the same editors met, but then they were confronted with a layout of the proposed front page for the next day’s paper. The editor from any section with a story being considered for the front page had to be prepared to defend his or her stories, answer questions, often penetrating, from colleagues and explain why that story merited front-page display. The other editors almost always had read the stories proposed for the front page by the time of the second meeting, and it wasn’t unusual for them to find holes in the reporting.

That kind of peer review made the paper better. It also served as yet another filter that stories had to pass through on their way into the paper. All stories were typically read by at least two, sometimes three or four editors before making it into print.

What’s the vetting process for online news and opinion sites where anyone—yes, including me—can say or write anything without a reader knowing whether it’s true, false or a total fabrication?

So maybe the Internet won’t cause the ghettoization of news and opinion even though the diversity of choices will mean that we’ll have in common fewer experiences and sources of information (another point where Sunstein and I agree); but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to know the source the news and opinions we can get from the Internet.

And that can’t be a good thing.

Since I started writing this, Apple has released the iPad. I’m not going to get into whether it’s revolutionary or not, but iPad does begin to address the issue of portability. It is lighter than a laptop, apparently has better resolution, and the availability of WiFi and 3G means that a user can access the Internet from almost anywhere. That’s all to the good.

The idea of the iPad isn’t entirely new. Back in the ’90s Apple released something called the Newton, which was a clunklier, less powerful version of the iPad. The Newton was a bust

It’s great to have something with the capability of the iPad. The issue isn’t whether or not the iPad replaces newspapers, because the method of delivery isn’t as important as what is delivered and who is delivering it. News on paper isn’t the issue. The critical question is what and who are behind the presentation of the information. What are the professional standards of the people sending out the information? What kind of vetting process do they use in editing what they present? Who are they? What kind of ethics do they adhere to?

Whether or not the iPad is the last word in electronic delivery of the news is less important than the answers to those questions despite the nostalgia that some readers–primarily older readers–have for the feel of paper between their fingers as they read the news.

In fact, electronic delivery solves a lot of the problems dogging the news industry by cutting overhead. If newspapers hadn’t been so naive and gullible about the Internet–especially the idea that everything should be free–they might have been able to make the transition from paper to digital presentation without hemorrhaging as many subscribers as they have. That’s all water over the dam at this point. What’s important is to find a way to preserve the institution of the news organization with all of its values, standards, practices and ethics regardless of how the news is delivered.

And, at the risk of saying the emperor has no clothes, it probably will mean that people will have to pay for it. Otherwise you will be getting what you pay for. And, as King Lear said, nothing will come of nothing

Once upon a time in America, every city had a newspaper. Newspapers were part of a city’s identity—especially in smaller towns, but also in big cities: The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Courier Journal in Louisville. It helped that these papers often were owned by a local family—the Otises and Chandlers in L.A., the McCormicks in Chicago and the Binghams in Louisville. The owners were active in their communities, participating in its life, often for the better, but sometimes not.

All of that is changing. The LA Times is owned by the Chicago Tribune, now a bankrupt corporation. The Courier Journal is owned by Gannett. The Louisville Times, which the Binghams also owned, folded years ago. Outside of New York and Washington, DC, few large papers are locally owned, much less by a family.

Corporations, of course, don’t owe their loyalty to a local community but to the stockholders who own them. Now, on top of the disappearance of locally owned newspapers and in some places of any newspaper, we have the growth of information of questionable quality with no idea of where it’s coming from.

The word community is related to the word common, something that individuals together hold as one. It’s hard to see how an Internet site can bind a geographic community together. In the early days of the Internet there was a lot of talk about “community,” and that may be the case in an abstract way. Chances are, however, that we don’t live next door to many people who may participate in an Internet community to which we belong.

Democracy depends, among other things, on a sense of community—values, goals and obligations held in common—a sense of real identity that we share. And in what sense do we belong to any Internet community? Our participation is evanescent. We can come and go as we please, unseen and unheard, totally unnoticed and anonymous. We identify ourselves by using avatars, a representation of ourselves rather than the concrete reality. We can form “relationships” which, with rare exceptions, are just as virtual as the Internet itself because we usually neither hear nor see the other party. True, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously communicated with each other for years over a distance of hundreds of miles and never laid eyes on each other. But they had known each other personally before they began their correspondence.

“Belonging” to an Internet “community” based on a particular interest may put us in touch with others who live tens or hundreds or even thousands of miles away, but Internet communities are really a series of ghettoes where like-minded people congregate. Ghettoes foster parochialism rather than cosmopolitanism. What’s needed is an integration of our physical and intellectual lives; rather than facilitating that integration, the Internet threatens to inhibit it.

How will we communicate with the people around us if we lose the one institution that has been a common source of information regardless of what our individual interests and passions may be?

The danger is that instead of nurturing community, the Internet may abet the already alarming growth of anomie. We may discover that the Internet’s offering of diversity and a wealthy of choices is a double-edged sword.