In Media Disgrace

Friday, July 30, 2004

The troubled state of our major institutions is a characteristic feature of our time. The presidency, Congress, corporate America, universities, even organized religion, have been buffeted by scandals, disgraced leaders, and widespread public contempt.

In recent years newspapers and television, institutions which in modern America have an importance second to none, have joined the ranks of the fallen. Leading American newspapers and television news stations built a strong claim to be the nation’s moral watchdogs during the McCarthy–civil rights–Vietnam– Watergate years. Now they have to cope with scandals and revelations that tarnish their basic stock in trade: objectivity and accuracy.

There are two ways of viewing these recent travails. One (adopted often by media people) is to stonewall or, when the problem becomes too conspicuous to be ingnored, offer a mea culpa that blames it all on human frailty rather than systemic lapses in editorial judgment. Another approach is to assume that all this smoke is a sign of fire within the media as an institution.

One obvious source of the media’s troubles is ideology: the passions of commitment and belief that over history have been a dependable spur to one-sidedness and distortion. Another is the demands of the marketplace. Both have combined to produce the situation in which the media finds itself today. There is no more conspicuous example than the series of scandals that have recently rocked the New York Times.


The New York Times: Gray Lady Down

The Times and its supporters deny that the firewall between news and opinion has been breached in any but occasional and accidental ways. Its critics insist that those breaches are far too frequent to be unavoidable lapses by an otherwise high-minded journal. Is there solid evidence for the charges?

American Jewish groups sharply criticized the media’s coverage of the Palestinian Intifada and the Israeli response. Their most vociferous complaints and most fully organized (though short-lived) boycott were aimed at the Times. The paper unquestionably was more responsive to the Palestinians’ account of what they called the “Jenin massacre” than to the much less sweeping Israeli account of what happened (which, it turned out, was closer to reality). And the Times had to eat crow by publicly correcting its treatment of a May 2002 pro-Israel parade in New York, in which it gave a handful of anti-Israel protestors conspicuously more photo attention than hundreds of thousands of pro-Israel paraders and spectators.

Very different in character, but raising again the question of the degree to which the Times’s opinion tail wagged its news dog, was the flap in late 2002 over the non-admission of women to the Augusta National Golf Club. The Times had every right to take editorial affront over the club’s policy, but the number and placement of its articles on the story seemed to many to be out of line with its importance. This perception was compounded by the (short-lived) attempt by managing editor Gerald Boyd to exclude two articles by Times sports journalists challenging the paper’s editorial stance.

The smoke had barely cleared over the Augusta incident when the paper’s evenhandedness again came into question. Its editorial distaste for the populist tone of the surging Fox News Network turned into something more contentious. The Times ran prominently placed stories, distinguished more by outrage than substance, linking Fox to a widespread right-wing, news-spinning conspiracy.

Even more revealing are the Times’s corrections of its own news coverage of the 2000 and 2002 elections. These were admirable confessions of journalistic waywardness. They also revealed a pattern of error that uniformly disfavored Republicans. Some typical instances:

A headline yesterday . . . about Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign said in some copies that he had stressed [his] integrity “Even as Drunken-Driving Arrest Raises Questions of Character.” That phrasing exceeded the facts of the article, and its opinionated tone was unintended. A replacement headline went astray in the production process. [Nov. 5, 2000]

An article . . . about the congressional election in New Mexico’s Second District referred incompletely to the presence of Hispanic candidates in the campaign for governor. . . . The Democratic candidate for governor, Bill Richardson, is not the only Hispanic in the race; the Republican candidate, John Sanchez, is another. [Oct. 16, 2002]

A map on Wednesday showing results of the elections of governors omitted references where Republicans unseated Democrats. They are Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. A map on Thursday updating results of the governors’ races repeated the omissions of Georgia, Maryland, and South Carolina and omitted two states where governorships changed to Republican hands. They are Hawaii and Minnesota. [Nov. 10, 2002]

An article on Thursday about comments on the midterm elections by . . . Karl Rove . . . misstated the question to which he responded, “I’m concerned about the 3,000 who died on 9/11.” The questioner had asked whether he was concerned about 200,000 people who she said marched in Washington against a war with Iraq—not about concerns that 200,000 innocent Iraqis might die in an American-led invasion. [Nov. 16, 2002]

The perception that the Gray Lady was taking on water went from the backroom of political partisanship to a prime position in Macy’s window with the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg affairs. Blair was found to have manufactured dozens of stories without stirring from New York. Adding to the egg on the paper’s face was the impression that Blair had gotten away with so much in part because he is black and was cosseted by black managing editor Gerald Boyd and editor Howell Raines, a liberal white southerner. Blair was fired, but the scandal spiraled out of control. The Times’s attempts at damage control failed miserably, and, in the end, Boyd and Raines also had to go.

The Bragg episode, following close on the heels of the Blair scandal, also involved dissimulation, though of a lesser sort. Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize–winning feature writer, turned in an elegant mood piece on the culture of oystermen in Apalachicola, Florida. But it emerged that he had only spent a couple of hours in the town and relied heavily (as he frequently did) on the work of a stringer. Bragg received a two-week suspension for this and resigned shortly thereafter.

It was during the reign of Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, its publisher from 1961 to 1992, that the Times most fully lived up to its newspaper-of-record creed. But that approach to journalism came under increasing pressure from changes in American culture, media technology, and market realities. Arthur Ochs (Pinch) Sulzberger Jr., who succeeded his father at the helm of the paper in 1992, was well suited to respond to these new realities. A self-styled critic of the establishment (he had been arrested in college while participating in demonstrations against the Vietnam War), Pinch was also an exceptionally tough-minded businessman.

Ideological liberalism and cutthroat business tactics went hand in hand with a slackened commitment to the traditional journalistic shibboleths of objectivity and accuracy in reporting. Yet other papers managed to march to different drummers. The Wall Street Journal, whose publisher and editor are as committed to conservatism as their Times counterparts are to liberalism, maintained a markedly greater separation of news and opinion. When Peter Kann of Dow Jones, which owns the Journal, listed the besetting sins of modern journalism, he might have had the Times in mind: “the anonymous negative quote, questioning someone’s character; . . . the closed mind to an inconvenient new fact that doesn’t fit a story line; the loaded adjective where no adjective is needed [as in that recent Times standby, ‘hard-line conservative’]; the analysis that edges across the line to personal opinion.” The luck of the draw—in this case the inclination of the publisher—played an important role in the recent problems of the Times.


The Larger View

But over the past decade or two, similar embarrassments have cropped up in both print and television journalism, on both sides of the Atlantic. More than contingency is behind the media’s recent travails.

Janet Cooke, a reporter on the Washington Post, had to return a Pulitzer won by her invented story of an eight-year-old heroin addict. Columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle had to leave the Boston Globe after accusations of, respectively, faked stories and plagiarism. More recently it emerged that Stephen Glass, a prolific and well-regarded writer for the New Republic, indefatigably invented stories. The Glass menagerie included such esoterica as an account of a bond trading company with a shrine to Alan Greenspan, and a First Church of George Herbert Walker Bush Christ whose members were said to believe that the former president was in fact the reincarnation of Jesus. The coming together of readers ready to believe, and writers and editors ready to cater to those beliefs, fed a failure of journalistic standards.

Television news has been a conspicuous participant in this descent. The most fecund source of malfeasance has been that popular and highly profitable creation: the television news magazine. The resulting mix of ideology and market pressure for sensationalism came to wide public notice in NBC News’s 1992 General Motors truck scandal. Dateline NBC aired a documentary looking into the charge that because of the placement of their fuel tanks, GM trucks had a tendency to burst into flame when involved in a crash. When attempts to re-create and film such an event failed, tests were rigged to provide the desired footage. GM came up with definitive proof of what had been done, and NBC (spurred in part by its desire not to lose so affluent an advertiser) abjectly apologized. But the fiercely competitive world of network news magazine shows—and the always tempting target of commercial malpractice—ensured the survival of ambush journalism.

The recent troubles of the BBC suggest that the corrosive interplay of ideology and the market working on the media is not a uniquely American phenomenon. During the 1930s and especially following World War II, “the Beeb” attained a place in the formation of British public opinion, and in the estimation of that nation’s chattering classes, comparable to that of the New York Times. The BBC’s recent ideological trajectory has been very much like that of the Times: from the voice of the Establishment to a strong hostility to conservatism in its own country, and a melting credulity when confronting the Third World. Many think that the BBC scuppered its traditional nonpartisanship in covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraq war: a declension that in character, substance, and timing echoes the Times’s fall from objectivity grace. The most conspicuous instance of this evolution was BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan’s treatment of the charge that Tony Blair’s Labour government “sexed up” a report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: a scandal that led to management turnover even greater than that of the Times after the Blair affair.

As with the Times, a new competitive order set the stage for the BBC’s slide into gonzo journalism. The network finds it increasingly difficult to justify its multi-billion pound subvention derived from license fees on every television set in Britain. To keep the mass audience that justifies its subsidy, the BBC (like America’s PBS) must respond ever more to popular taste—which further weakens its claim to uniqueness. And like PBS, the BBC faces a strong competitive challenge from successful private networks. According to Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP who chaired Parliament’s committee on culture and the media, the BBC has “gone from being an institution to just another broadcaster, and a shoddy one at that.” Greg Dyke, who recently resigned as director of the BBC, has been called “a market-driven ratings enthusiast who favors aggressive journalism”: not unlike Pinch Sulzberger. It was appropriate that his successor is Michael Grade, fresh from running the decidedly downscale—and commercially successful—Channel Four.


The Context

Journalism is by nature contentious and opinionated. Gossip, sensationalism, and exposure are inescapable tools in the business of inducing readers to read (or viewers to view) media output. Sensationalism was the mother’s milk of mass journalism from the first. The most successful American newspaper publishers of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, understood that. They understood, too, that in the public realm sensationalism of necessity took the form of exposés—of the condition of the poor, of political and business corruption. But as the new journalism matured, many wealthy publishers became themselves part of the Establishment. Tension between publisher-owners and reporter-workers grew. Crusading newspaperman versus reactionary publisher was a stock trope of the first half of the twentieth century.

All this has changed in recent decades. Corporate chain ownership is now overwhelmingly the norm for newspapers and television stations. That has lessened the inclination of owner-publishers to dictate the tone of their media outlets. In part this reflects the mentality of the corporate “money-man,” for whom a newspaper or a television station is to be judged not by quality or substance but by the bottom line. As long as editors and reporters keep circulation or viewership up, their political agenda and modus operandi are of little consequence. A relationship once adversarial has become symbiotic.

The character of reporters and reporting has been no less transformed. Journalists were once a motley crew, poorly educated, rebellious in spirit if short on ideology. But the civil rights revolution, Vietnam, and Watergate have fostered a journalistic ideal of skepticism toward authority, and a personal moral and political commitment on the part of the reporter, that is highly attractive to able graduates of elite schools. Facts and objectivity remain important, but decreasingly so; in postmodern journalism, subjectivity is admired. Journalism has evolved from a grungy vocation into a delicious mix of Woodward and Bernstein glamour, the chance to “make a difference,” and the hope of earning some (big) money.

It is not surprising that middlebrow postmodernism and old-fashioned ambition should lure young reporters into large-scale fabrication of the news. One may ask why the nation’s publisher-owners—members in good standing of the American plutocracy—stood still for this. Hand in hand with the social and intellectual transformation of journalism came changes in the technology and ownership of the media that encouraged publisher bosses, no less than journalist workers, to look favorably on reportage with a subjective, partisan edge.

FM radio, cable TV, and the technological capacity to print and distribute national daily newspapers have made niche marketing possible, while keeping the economies (and the profits) of the mass market. Radio talk shows, cable news stations, and magazines and newspapers aimed at particular demographic markets are on the way up. Less-precisely targeted outlets—the major network television news programs, big-city newspapers, magazines aimed at the general public—are on the way down.

For all their differences the Times and the Wall Street Journal have come up with the same solution to the problem of continuing to make a buck in American journalism: cultivate a niche, but do so nationally. Times readers are a liberal, upscale slice (more than a million of them: not outsized, but culturally choice) of America: Democrats, overwhelmingly; well-educated professionals, academics, and liberal-minded businesspeople; health care professionals and social workers. The Journal’s readership is no less particular: usually Republican business managers and wannabe executives. Some may be drawn to the paper’s business news, others to its conservative opinions. But the readers of both papers, like everyone else, are more comfortable with a worldview that fits their prejudices and preconceptions.

Television news is shaped today by strikingly similar technological and market forces. FM radio and cable television broke the stranglehold of the “big three” networks. National Public Radio and the conservative/populist radio talk shows aim at distinctively different audiences, ideologically polar ones that the old national networks tended to ignore. CNN, the first of the cable news stations, initially reached out to a relatively broad audience. But the rise of Fox News as an outspokenly conservative, Republican-leaning network has led CNN to a more explicitly liberal and Democratic bent. Stylistically these news networks may be two peas in a pod, but like the Times and the Journal, they play to distinctively different niche audiences.

Lip service continues to be paid to the old ideal of journalistic objectivity. The Times masthead still announces daily its commitment to “all the news that’s fit to print.” But one wonders to what degree this is becoming a public relations ploy not unlike Fox News’s “fair and balanced” mantra. The take-no-prisoners style of attack commentary evident everywhere (Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd in the Times; Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox; Rush Limbaugh on radio; Michael Moore, Al Franken, and Ann Coulter in publishing) is often linked to the widening red/blue cultural division in American politics. It also may be ascribed to the pull of niche media marketing. For all their differences of style and content, these shriller voices have the shared journalistic purpose of reaching out to their followers by catering to their strongest fears and beliefs.

Even if journalistic objectivity and balance were to undergo a rebirth of intellectual respectability, it is difficult to see how that could overcome the demands of niche-defined media journalism, print or television. There is nothing sinister (although there is much that is disturbing) about this. It’s a rational market response made profitable by new technology and a changing culture. No one is to blame—except perhaps an audience that prefers its news and opinion (like its coffee and its cars) craftily packaged to its taste.