Woe is Media

It's time to save journalism from its saviors.


The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, New York: Three Rivers Press, 207 pages, $12

The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pages, $25

Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, edited by Kristina Borjesson, New York: Prometheus Books, $26

The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times From Dullness and Complacency, by Jim Bellows, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 349 pages, $28.95

Profits are robust, even during an advertising recession. Legal protections remain the strongest in the world, even during a time of war. Technology has removed most barriers to entry, ushering in literally hundreds of thousands of new publications, some of which are altering the very way we produce and consume the news. A day's work at the library can now be performed in an hour at your desk, using tools called Google, Nexis, and Findlaw. As a reporter, you can be in instantaneous contact via e-mail, videoconferences, and cell phones.

In short, there have never been better conditions for journalism than in present-day America. Yet there is an influential movement, and an entire publishing mini-genre, dedicated to convincing us that's not so. These scolds may defy common sense, but they're still worthy of attention because they represent the consensus among the profession's elite. At least for now.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel are arguably the two most prominent media critics in America. Kovach, a former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, is often referred to as "the conscience of American journalism"; reporting eminence David Halberstam once described him as "what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they gave us these great freedoms."

Rosenstiel, a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, chairs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a D.C. outfit affiliated with Columbia University's prestigious (though embattled) Graduate School for Journalism. These two are the go-to men if you need a quote lamenting the sensationalism of TV newscasts or a moderator for your National Press Club panel on "how to deal with growing business pressures in news." They are the media establishment's preferred voices of reason and concern.

So just what is that establishment concerned about these days? A clue can be found in the concluding paragraph of the duo's latest book, The Elements of Journalism: "Our best hope is not a future that returns to the past, which was never as sweet as people remember it. But our freedom in a digital century does depend on not forgetting that past, either, or the theory of news it produced, in a surge of faith in technological and corporate rebirth. We fought two conventional world wars and a largely covert Cold War in the last century against such technological utopianism. We may not survive another."

In other words, unless we all remember and adhere to a certain "theory of news"—Kovach and Rosenstiel's theory, it turns out—the United States might be annihilated. Our potential destroyer is "technological utopianism," which is apparently comparable to communism, fascism, and, er, whatever ism we were fighting in World War I. Secret-diplomatic-pactism, presumably…or was it Hapsburgism?

Such factually uncluttered hyperbole does not merely invite a certain awe. It also happens to violate at least one of the book's 10 proposed "elements of journalism." It clearly shatters No. 9, which states in part that "journalists should keep the news in proportion," and quite plausibly breaks No. 1, which says "journalism's first obligation is to the truth." Yet, contradictory as it may seem, such hot-winded "journalism of assertion" (another trend the authors lament) is actually quite typical of a curious movement to reform American reporting.

The Elements of Journalism—and The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, written by top Washington Post editors Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser—are only the latest of many recent books that reassert the media's core "values" in an age of industry uncertainty, vocational self-doubt, and an ever-splintering audience. But as that odd statement about "technological utopianism" reveals, these critics often flout the very principles they profess to protect. They also reinforce the mores of the country's elite newspapers while exuding a hostile ignorance toward the publishing explosion on the World Wide Web and the boom in cable news—that is, toward the freshest sources of modern media expression and competition.

Both The Elements of Journalism and The News About the News take nourishment from something called The Committee of Concerned Journalists, an organization of 1,500 worried people chaired by…Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Elements, in fact, kicks off with the committee's creation myth, which positively oozes with unconscious elitism.

"This book began on a rainy Saturday in June 1997, when twenty-five journalists gathered at the Harvard Faculty Club," the eighth paragraph begins. "Around the long table sat editors of several of the nation's top newspapers, as well as some of the most influential names in television and radio, several of the top journalism educators, and some of the country's most prominent authors. They were there because they thought something was seriously wrong with their profession. They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues."

The Harvard 25 charted a suitably academic course of action: They issued a "Statement of Concern," held forums around the country to "engage the public," and commissioned several studies, including one in which developmental psychologists interviewed scores of journalists about their values. The effort struck a nerve among a key sub-demographic of the news business: those who have safe editorial-related jobs at elite journalistic or academic institutions. (For reasons it might take a developmental psychologist to decipher, these people tend to be far more fatalistic than lowly freelancers, mid-market editors, and one-man Web site operators.) The end result was a cottage industry of media hand wringing, constructed on a foundation of relentless sky-has-already-fallen pessimism.

In Kovach and Rosenstiel's first woe-is-media tract, 1999's Warp Speed, fellow Concerned Journalist David Halberstam set the tone in the introduction: "The past year has been, I think, the worst year for American journalism since I entered the profession forty-four years ago." It's hard to distract men so despondent with news of such salutary post-1955 developments as female editors, 24-hour cable news, alternative weeklies, business journals, and fingertip access to 10,000 faraway newspapers. Still, Elements warns us, the situation decried in Warp Speed will seem like a golden age compared to the nightmare that is sure to follow if we don't pay the authors heed.

"Unless we can grasp and reclaim the theory of a free press," Kovach and Rosenstiel warn in the newer book, "journalists risk allowing their profession to disappear." It's a handy trick, to diagnose a terminal illness while claiming to corner the market on the cure.

Unsurprisingly, the authors take great pains to make sure we understand just how critical the patient is. The journalism profession "may face its greatest threat yet"; "conglomeration of the news business threatens the survival of the press as an independent institution"; "journalism independent of corporate self-interest will disappear" unless citizens "demand that their democratic interests be recognized not only by journalists but also by the corporate leadership"; "the revolution in technology and the economic organization it has spawned…are also threatening an independent watchdog press."

The humble 10 Elements of Journalism, we are told, "hold the only protection against the force that threatens to destroy journalism and thus weaken democratic society. This is the threat that the press will be subsumed inside the world of commercialized speech." And if we ignore the elements of journalism—well, as Basil Fawlty once put it, that's exactly how Nazi Germany got started. "History has taught us by bloody experience," write Kovach and Rosenstiel, "what happens to a society in which the citizens act on the basis of self-interested information—whether it is the propaganda of a despotic state or the edicts of a sybaritic leisure class substituting bread and circuses for sovereignty."

Although there is much sport to be had in watching well-fed boys not just cry wolf but scream "Hounds of hell!" at the top of their lungs, the journalism elite's self-critique does resonate on a number of points. Consolidation of media ownership is indeed troubling (notwithstanding AOL Time Warner's utter failure to colonize our mind-share). The exchange of knowledgeable international coverage for banal entertainment filler has not noticeably improved civic life. Local TV newscasts deserve their ritual shellacking for false banter, hand-waving on-the-scene nonsense from dull reporters, and the bottomless "new study proves it" well of medical stories. If you regard the United States as 280 million not-very-savvy people who receive their information primarily from the 11 p.m. Action News broadcast, Crossfire, or talk radio, then you might be depressed.

But the glass is not merely half empty. In 1980 there was essentially no desktop publishing. By 2000, a single newsletter-publishing company called Phillips Business Information was pulling down more than $100 million in annual revenue. In July 1992 the World Wide Web was in its demo stage. By July 2002, a single Web publishing company called Pyra Labs could report that new sites were being created using its "Blogger" technology at a rate of 1.5 per minute.

On the rare occasions such numbers are cited in journalism-in-crisis books, they are cast in a negative light. Toward the end of The News About the News, for example, we learn that "in 1988 there were 13,541 magazines published in the United States; by 2000 there were 17,815." A 30 percent jump in new magazine titles should be unabashed good news, right? Not when your larger complaint is the "fragmentation of the American public."

Some cautious optimists might suggest, gently, that the public is better served now that it need not get its news exclusively from Walter Cronkite and the locally dominant daily. Downie and Kaiser are more concerned by the way this audience choice has "intimidated owners and managers of news organizations" into trying to "outpander" one another by using "fashionable gimmicks" to "win the contest for higher circulation or higher ratings, and thus higher profits, with sleazier programs and publications." All of which, the authors contend, has contributed to a "pervasive sleaziness" that has made our era a regrettably "decadent time." Before you know it they're off about pierced noses and "misogynistic rap lyrics."

Much better to be a well-funded newspaper with a local monopoly, and to avoid the debased life of a competitive news organization chasing down audience fragments. Or, as Downie and Kaiser put it in The News About the News: "You have to wonder why more news-media owners and executives hadn't noticed the fact that the country's best news organizations are also enormously successful. America's very best newspapers all have made handsome profits, and have steadily broadened the scope and improved the quality of their news coverage."

That pretty much sums up the recommendations offered in The News About the News, an embarrassment of a book that, if labeled honestly, would have been called Why Aren't You As Good As We Are? Neither Downie nor Kaiser has ever worked in any newsroom other than The Washington Post's. Reading them talk about the disappointing "news values" of local TV stations and small-market dailies carries all the insight and charm of watching Richie Rich deliver a lecture about self-reliance to a roomful of crack orphans.

Most of the book is meaningful largely as a reminder of how poorly some well-regarded journalists can write (Kovach and Rosenstiel's crisp volume sings in comparison), and why sheltered people aren't always the best choice to write about the wider world. For example, Downie and Kaiser are so struck by their self-evident observation that the morning paper has more reporting than the TV news ("any single page in the newspaper contained about 40 percent more words than an entire half-hour newscast," etc.) that they repeat versions of this revelation 13 times. (I counted.)

Similarly, they repeatedly express displeasure that newscasts rely on video footage and graphics. They are outraged that TV stations in Los Angeles, a famously spread-out and traffic-clogged city, spend money on helicopters. They make clumsy errors, such as stating that the Gerald Loeb awards for business journalism are administered by the University of Southern California (it's UCLA), or that there were only "six American cities" with competing dailies by the 1980s. (They left out Philadelphia, Honolulu, and San Francisco, for starters.) Their optimistic hook—that news organizations and their audience might have been jolted into a New Seriousness by the September 11 massacres—has already fallen flat.

What's eerie is how Downie and Kaiser's beliefs, judgments, and even peer group mirror those of Kovach and Rosenstiel. There is a seeming consensus in Concerned Journalist circles on an impressively broad range of perfectly debatable editorial issues. Among the truisms, not even open for discussion: Crime coverage, especially on the local TV news, is invariably sensationalistic. Longer stories are better than shorter ones. The high-water marks for American journalism were the civil rights struggle, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. (Vietnam is also remembered fondly as something they bravely opposed, but what's left out is how most every major media organization ridiculed the investigative journalists who contradicted four successive U.S. presidents by reporting that American prisoners of war had been left behind after 1973—a travesty described by Monika Jensen-Stevenson in the anthology Into the Buzzsaw.)

Other givens: Political conventions should be covered "gavel-to-gavel" by network television. Public tastes are dangerously base. The three most negative influences on the profession are "competition," "economic pressure," and "audience fragmentation." Three good measures of a news organization's seriousness are its number of bureaus, its journalism awards, and its staff budget. Journalism schools are crucial. News organizations can indicate their sobriety by hiring an "ombudsman," or "reader's representative."

The books tend to praise and damn the same reporters and editors, with Matt Drudge leading the villain list in both. The man behind The Drudge Report is described in Elements as a "lone hacker rummaging through the databases and chat rooms," while The News About the News calls him "an online chat room gadfly." The latter book further claims that "for every Drudge 'exclusive' that contained a germ of truth, another proved to be wildly wrong." Apparently, extremism in the service of trashing Drudge is no vice.

This uniformity of opinion extends throughout the Concerned Journalists movement. To cite one example: This past April, Kovach delivered a speech to a convention of newspaper ombudsmen in Salt Lake City about the perceived tension between being a journalist and being an American. His conclusion: "We must educate the public. I believe it is vital to the interest of the journalist and the public that we engage in an urgent, forceful, and consistent campaign to educate the public that in a democratic society, the journalist is, in fact, exercising the highest form of citizenship by monitoring events in the community and making the public aware of them and their importance."

Thus Kovach exalted journalism as "the highest form of citizenship" and condescendingly suggested that the public simply needed to be "educated" to understand this. (Both comments are in keeping with a top-down worldview that allowed him once to say, in regard to Harvard, that "the best people really are the best people.") But instead of raising so much as an eyebrow, the gathered "reader's advocates" went back home and wrote about how smart Bill Kovach was in The Washington Post, The Hartford Courant, the Manchester Guardian, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Portland Oregonian, and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

When the feedback loop is set to applause, it's time to worry. Just because there's a consensus doesn't mean it's right. Many daily newspapers, in their Project for Excellence?approved keenness to avoid "sensationalizing" crime, have largely forgotten the art of covering it day to day, preferring instead to parachute in with the occasional series. Downie and Kaiser brag about a five-day Washington Post investigation in 1998 that used a computer-assisted researcher and 10 other reporters to uncover the fact that the D.C. police had the highest rate of "justifiable homicides" per capita of any major metropolitan force in the country, and that the city was quietly shelling out millions in lawsuit settlements. The series may well have been impressive, and it seems to have had a dramatic impact, but how in the hell could a good newspaper not notice that the local cops were busy shooting civilians and settling lawsuits?

The ombudsman, and to a lesser degree his cousin the media critic, are such widely accepted ornamentations on big news organizations that their existence is no longer much debated; nor are their performances given much scrutiny. This is too bad, because one of the things someone might notice is how eager conflicted publishers are to purchase the instant legitimacy of an "independent watchdog"—for instance, when Microsoft's MSNBC earned predictable applause by becoming the first online publication to hire an ombudsman.

The watchdogs themselves, who are frequently plucked from the ranks of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, have a noticeable tendency to lose their teeth. Kovach, for example, was ombudsman for Brill's Content when it formed a major new media venture with a gaggle of companies it was ostensibly supposed to cover. The controversial deal was announced on February 2, 2000. Kovach, who had a monthly column, didn't get around to writing about it until the August issue—his last at the magazine.

In theory, it might seem fine to appoint an individual as a quasi-independent advocate for reader concerns. In practice, four ombudspeople out of five spend more column-inches defending their newspaper's entrenched values to critics than they do highlighting its errors and weaknesses. Reporters and editors could obviate much of the perceived need for ombudsmen by taking the radical step of answering e-mail. And while the going theory asserts that the hiring of an ombudsman demonstrates concern for readers, a skeptic might suggest that it also flaunts flab. How many news organizations, after all, can afford to pay a full-time editorial employee who doesn't cover any news?

Monopoly newspapering in the U.S. is an idiosyncratic—and extremely lucrative—business, conducted largely by a small handful of companies. It is entirely possible that many accepted industry practices, such as maintaining massive staffs (the hardly top-notch San Francisco Chronicle has more than 500 editorial employees, for instance), are more accidental artifacts of evolution than logical organizations of resources.

Four out of five new newspaper hires have journalism degrees, but maybe one in 5,000 have been plucked from the fertile minor leagues of online journalism, at a time when Internet punditry has exploded in popularity while newspaper op-ed sections continue to disappoint. The stock newspaper columnist caricature of the nonconformist, passionate, politically incorrect populist is found almost exclusively on the Web nowadays.

The question the Harvard 25 and other journalistic solons should be asking themselves is: If "everyone agrees" on something, isn't that a great place to begin asking whether it's wrong? This is the terrifying subtext of Into the Buzzsaw, an uneven but fascinating collection of horror stories and occasional tales of triumph told by more than a dozen high-profile investigative reporters. The book, which mines the fertile borderline between investigative obsession and paranoia, is chock full of shameful instances where the keepers of the journalism flame have closed ranks to shout down the work of mavericks.

Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter who wrote a controversial 1996 series connecting the CIA with Los Angeles' crack trade, recounts how the media critic (and former State Department spokesman) Bernard Kalb of CNN's Reliable Sources reacted to his work by complaining, "Where is the media knocking it down?"

Kalb soon got his wish, in the form of hit pieces on Webb in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, when two internal government investigations confirmed many of the key elements of the crack series—that CIA agents involved with the contras had direct dealings with key U.S. drug traffickers, for example, or that their superiors knew—the elite papers barely noted it.

At the core of Into the Buzzsaw are two long accounts, totaling 72 pages, by Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter David Hendrix and former CBS producer Kristina Borjesson, who unwittingly smacked against the establishment's brick wall after uncovering lurid details about the botched investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800.

Both recount how a colleague of theirs, Kelly O'Meara, was trashed in a column by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz mere days after conducting a skeptical interview with National Transportation Safety Board Managing Director Peter Goelz (who told Kurtz that O'Meara was "extraordinarily antagonistic").

Among other things, Hendrix and Borjesson were able to plausibly contradict government claims that there were no military exercises near the crash site that day; that there were only two military vessels in the area; that there was no evidence of explosive material in the debris; and that the suspicious residue found in the wreckage was a kind of glue. Both quoted investigators who questioned the official version of events. Yet Downie and Kaiser, whose paper hewed closer to the government line, bring up the investigation into TWA 800 only as a cautionary tale of reporting gone awry. "Ultimately all the investigators agreed that the crash was caused by a spontaneous explosion in a fuel tank on board," they state, falsely.

But the main complaint against the Concerned Journalists is not their conformity, not their elitism, and certainly not their abilities. (Downie and Kaiser may have written a bad book, but they clearly put out one hell of a newspaper.) And Elements has many interesting moments, especially if you have an appetite for journalism theory. Kovach and Rosenstiel make some good points about the need for ideological and intellectual diversity in newsrooms, for example, even if they seem unconcerned by their own movement's tendency toward groupthink.

The problem with these successful old men sitting atop the profession that now gives them the shingles is that they make a grown journalist want to take up a new career, such as self-mutilation. Lord only knows what kind of prophylactic effects they might have on the young. Journalism may be a flawed industry, imperfectly realized, with many trends pointing in the wrong direction. But gosh, it's pretty darn fun sometimes, even if you don't get invited to sit at long tables in Cambridge.

Jim Bellows, the octogenarian former editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the Washington Star, Entertainment Tonight, and more, communicates more joy on every single page of his breezy memoir, The Last Editor, than Kovach, Rosenstiel, Downie, and Kaiser manage to muster in 501 combined. Read Bellows, and you'll want to stomp out into the world, launch new publications, and, in his simple motto, "do your best."

For that considerable number of American journalists who've had the pleasure of being involved with start-up media outlets in the last decade, his forward-looking enthusiasm may resonate stronger than the Ivy League gloom of the careerists. Last I heard, Bellows was heading out to New York to help start a new magazine, while still shooting the bull about creating a newspaper in Los Angeles.

Journalism may need some long-faced fellows to look backward and tell us how things have gone badly, but that species is in more than adequate supply. What we need are more Jim Bellowses, and the good news is that the current scene—including but not limited to the wide-open World Wide Web—looks promising on that score. The academic scolds can sort it all out later.