The Post’s Lament

Like many of the Washington Post’s columnists, Robert Samuelson certainly sounds as though he’s in a complete panic over Amazon.com’s founder Jeff Bezos’s purchasing of the venerable DC paper, announced last week. He writes:

For years, The Post enjoyed a quasi-monopoly of largely captive readers and advertisers. Now it faces the Internet’s Darwinian hyper-competition. In text and video come torrents of news, information, analysis, advocacy, comedy and criticism. People do not lack for things to read, but the quality is spotty and often unreliable. Good journalism, though hardly perfect, strives to discredit misinformation and half-truths. Papers such as The Post contribute to a free society by undertaking the expensive reporting that others won’t — and which informs us of who we are.

But it’s not free. It rests on editorial independence — the ability to pursue stories no matter how inconvenient — and commercial success. Someone has to pay the bills. Bezos’s task is to respect editorial independence and restore its economic base. He has defied naysayers before. Maybe he will again. Good luck.

He’s right. Good reporting isn’t free. Even bad reporting isn’t free and, sadly, what we’ve been getting for decades is increasingly bad reporting.

Since UPI started pulling in its horns thirty years ago, the Associated Press, whose syndicated articles contain much of the reporting that’s done by a U. S.-based organization, has become complacent. More press releases from interested organizations are being published as news articles. That’s not reporting. It’s dictation.

The Internet, broadly, is no threat to major newspapers and in giving the back of their hands to it, newspapers have targeted the wrong enemy. Blogs aren’t the enemies of reporting. What blogs have done is demonstrated that good writing is not the exclusive province of major newspapers and that, in turn, is a broadside against syndicated columnists rather than reporters. Just about all you’ve needed to become a syndicated columnist is a bachelors degree from Harvard. Contrary to their apparent beliefs, not all smart people went to Harvard and not all people who went to Harvard are smart.

The real threat to the newspapers is not the Internet or blogs or Facebook. It’s Craigslist. If professional journalism wants to attack something, that’s what they should attack. There is no doubt in my mind that Craigslist is vulnerable to attack and a good reporter would be on it like a tick on a dog’s butt.

But rather than looking for external enemies whether the Internet or blogosphere or Jeff Bezos or Craigslist, why not do a little self-examination? I think there are some questions that people in the field should be asking themselves.

What’s the proper relationship between a reporter and a “highly-placed source”? At what point do papers stop “afflicting the comfortable” and start licking their butts?

Is there really a role for a national daily journal of opinion? I don’t believe there is but all of the major contestants seem to be vying for the title.

Why is U. S. professional journalism so flaccid? That’s obvious to anybody who reads foreign newspapers.

What is the role of leveraged buyouts in the decline of big news dailies? I think it’s major. Local weeklies don’t appear to be in the same state of decline as the big dailies are and one of the major differences between the two is that the big dailies have been bought up by news conglomerates and saddled with the debt incurred in the purchase. That and that local weeklies don’t big salaries to reporters, columnists, editors, or publishers. The weeklies of which I have direct knowledge are largely staffed by what are to some degree volunteers.

Would greater diversity of opinion among the reporters, columnists, editors, and staff of newspapers actually produce better news reporting? Today’s newspapers are notoriously monocultural. Remember that newspapers shape the news not merely by what is reported but by what is not reported and that in turn is influenced by the views of the people who work there from the top on down. I don’t just mean Republicans and Democrats. Why aren’t there open avowed socialists? Libertarians? Islamists? Because it would be indiscreet and make people uncomfortable? What the heck kind of journalism is that?

13 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I happen to watch His Girl Friday a few weeks ago for probably the fifth time. First, what a great script and what terrific performances by Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and that fellow whose name I can never quite recall but who looks like that actor, Ralph Bellamy. (People who haven’t seen it won’t get that last.)

    Walter and Hildy want to scoop the other papers, that’s a given. They want to jam up the mayor both because the mayor is corrupt and because it would be fun. All the reporters all have their own slants and they are at times cynical, bored, lazy, dogged, ruthless and impossible to intimidate. But the scriptwriter (and the original playwright) managed to convey as well the keen desire to first get the truth and then write it as compellingly as possible. And to have fun doing it.

    Obviously that’s not a documentary, but it seemed to me a I re-watched it that so many of those key emotions have become attenuated or disappeared in media. The willingness to be a declassé, yapping dog. The drive to write well. And any sense of joy.

    I’m not a reporter but as a writer I’ll tell you, if there aren’t times when you’re just giggling to yourself like an idiot from sheer, stupid glee at having turned a phrase or figured out a plot point, you probably should be doing something else. Way too much ponderous seriousness going on at places like WaPo, I think.

    Get the story, write it well, have some damn fun doing it. That would be my motto if I were taking over a paper.

  • Roz Russell does a great job in that version. I actually prefer the 1931 version of The Front Page with Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien as Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson (no romance between the two in the original). It captures the energy, the joy.

    When I complain about the move from journalism as a trade to a profession, it’s same thing as you characterize as the “willingness to be a declassé, yapping dog”. There hasn’t been a columnist who fit that bill since Royko and increasingly reporters affect the same air of weariness as the columnists do.

  • jan

    Would greater diversity of opinion among the reporters, columnists, editors, and staff of newspapers actually produce better news reporting? Today’s newspapers are notoriously monocultural.

    It all goes back to the deliberate exclusion of critical thinking among the human conveyers of news, in their delivery of mainly one-course meals of liberal opinion. After all, diversity in opinion is where you receive a panoramic view of a topic. But, that isn’t the case anymore from most people in journalism, who probably cultivated their tightly knit POV from the very institutions of learning in which initial exploration into thought and extrapolation and interpretation of facts occurred — schools. People have long been stilted, even warped, by an ongoing, growing progressive indoctrination, rather than a broad education of researching and discussing various aspects of cultures/groups, inherent values, traditions, conflicting theories, weaving them all into more coherent, realistic, and tolerant ways of looking at our country and the world at large.

    Just in retelling the history of the U.S., there is so much revision and editing that goes on in text books consumed by young minds. For instance, in the area of civil rights alone, the parts played by republicans and democrats have almost been totally switched, in noting who actually was primarily responsible for the legislative suppression of blacks following the Civil War. This has led to a monolithic misrepresentation of the actual historical events surrounding the evolution of civil rights. The beneficiary of such distortion, ironically, is the very party who fought against civil rights, right up until a bill was finally passed in the 1960’s. But, schools have parlayed a different story, and modern-day journalists carry the fabricated yarns forward in how they color and report on the two political parties, which then effects election outcomes.

    The same goes for other issues like global warming. Schools teach it’s a forgone conclusion that green house gases are creating a dangerous planetary warming pattern. Other opinions, by skeptics, are not only not invited into the discourse, but are excoriated without further discussion. One could go on, topic by topic, showing the presence of a unilateral curriculum in play, under the auspices of a liberal agenda, in probably a majority of education circles, leading, more often than not, to a narrow gauge orientation of ideas, ideologies, events inculcating the mind sets of most journalists and their newspaper outlets.

    …And, I think the public is finally catching on to this defect, which, in turn is generating distrust and/or disgust towards all forms of news media, causing many to go elsewhere for information and assimilation of what’s really happening here and abroad.

  • michael reynolds

    Just in retelling the history of the U.S., there is so much revision and editing that goes on in text books consumed by young minds. For instance, in the area of civil rights alone, the parts played by republicans and democrats have almost been totally switched, in noting who actually was primarily responsible for the legislative suppression of blacks following the Civil War.

    Where do you get this b.s.? Seriously. Show me a textbook in current use in actual schools that misstates the parties and their roles in either the Civil War or Jim Crow era. I smell a Hannity here.

    The same goes for other issues like global warming. Schools teach it’s a forgone conclusion that green house gases are creating a dangerous planetary warming pattern.

    Maybe because pretty much every scientist on earth says that. See, that’s how science education works.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Maybe because pretty much every scientist on earth says that. See, that’s how science education works.

    The wheels fell off the AWG bus in the summer of 2010. You will find few “scientists” hawking the “theory”. Actually, the few left are trying to rework it to fit reality. Even the backers admit that after 12 years of CO2 increasing with no warming, there may be a problem, and at the fifteen year mark, there will be a problem.

    Actually, the planet is starting the same cold cycle that caused the Global Cooling scare of the 1970’s.

  • Red Barchetta

    “Actually, the planet is starting the same cold cycle that caused the Global Cooling scare of the 1970′s.”

    You asshole, don’t get in the way of a perfectly good Reynolds Rant.

    He’s arguing Hannity, you – science. Its all he’s got.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    If the scientific consensus changes so will the science education. Because, once again: that’s how science works. Science is not faith. Science is, you know, science. And unlike faith, science is actually advanced by error.

    There was a time when science education had the sun going around the earth. Then it changed. Can you guess why? Because the consensus was disproven. And then we knew more, because we’d been wrong, and then discovered the error. It’s a process. In fact, it’s the process we call science.

    So, I can predict with 100% certainty that if>/em> you end up being correct about the wheels falling off, science education will adjust. I’m psychic that way.

  • steve

    Diversity of opinion probably wont help. The “journalists” on the right are just as bad or worse. Journalism has become all about access. You need to be first you can act as a stenographer for whatever someone is going to tell you. Never ask confrontational questions. Never follow up. Just report whatever they say.

    Steve

    As an aside, my wife watches CNBC. I watch with her sometimes. I miss Mark Haynes (sp?) from their morning show. He knew his stuff and used to call BS on anyone from anywhere if they started laying it on.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Thank you for the lesson, but I think I am a little ahead of you about science.

    Science is NOT consensus.

    The consensus of the scientific community pre-Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler was a geocentric universe. Science was mostly philosophy, and as such, it did not sully itself with the physical world. Aristotle and Ptolemy defined how the universe operated, and everybody agreed that the Earth was the center of the universe, among other things. The science was settled, and any disagreement was not recommended.

    Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and many others transformed science to remove consensus. Modern science uses the scientific method. It builds upon the reality that is known, but there is still a philosophical basis – metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. These form what is understood to be reality, but the scientific method incorporates what is learned about reality into the “known” body of knowledge.

    This body of knowledge is known because it has been proven using the existing methods and instruments to test through experimentation. The experiments must be repeatable by anybody, and therefore, the experimentation process must be published. The results are accepted by others repeating the experiment and getting the same results. NO consensus is sufficient to confirm a theory or a part of it.

    The problem with AGW is that reality is beginning to overtake the hype. The date it began falling apart is debatable, but it is falling apart within the scientific community.

    The Catholic Church learned its lesson, and it stays out of scientific debates. Some “scientists” need to study history.

  • Andy

    Hate to say it, but Glen Greenwald is probably the future of journalism.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    Right. See how I said “science education?” Science education is necessarily about consensus. Because if it wasn’t we’d be teaching flat earth theory.

    Jan:

    You do know who dominates the writing of school textbooks, right? Hint: not liberals. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/21/how-texas-inflicts-bad-textbooks-on-us/?pagination=false

  • jan

    Michael,

    In that same article posted there is also a reference to the pressure groups in CA focusing on different topics and POVs than the Texas groups.

    However, beyond the influence of written texts, there is the power of teachers who are in the front of classrooms, daily leading and charting the course of how and what is discussed — encouraging or discouraging certain ideological leanings, inviting guest speakers with PC political orientations, or going on ‘field trips’ offering perspectives that meld with their own perspectives.

    For instance, when my son was in high school his English teacher took the class to see Gore’s film, ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ It was represented as incontrovertible evidence of global warming, with no alternative opinion even offered in the mix. I think this kind of one-sided presentation stifles the process of critical, independent thinking, which I consider so important in the development of a child or adolescent, allowing them options and choices in arriving at their own conclusions. Another film field trip was Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11, replicating the same unilateral teaching method, where there was no openness or encouragement to weigh both sides of the Bush administration and Iraq War in the discussions following the film.’

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    You keep referring to “scientific consensus” in relation to “science education”, and you proceeded to school me about science. Your “scientific consensus” is faith based.

    What the educators agree should be taught in science class is not “scientific consensus”. It is “educational consensus”, and it should attempt to include science in the science education.

    Most science taught is out-of-date. The textbooks and curriculum cannot keep up with the changes. In many cases, the new science does not completely supplant the old. Newtonian mechanics is taught in physics because it is good enough.

    The ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round, and their calculation of the circumference was fairly accurate. The problem with Columbus’ voyage was his calculations. Nobody wanted to go on a voyage with only half the supplies.

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