Friday, September 24, 2010

Only Connect

New York University professor and news-future pundit Jay Rosen, as noted before, once said of something I had posted, in essence: WTF? You got it all wrong. And I had indeed gotten a good bit of it wrong. I always associated Jay with the early days of civic journalism, which seemed like sort of a Goo-Goo exercise, to bring people together in a theoretical agora and have them high-mindedly discuss civic problems and work toward agendas – the sort of poli-sci charette that the high minded, be they Barack Obama, Michael Dukakis, Adrian Fenty, think John Q. Citizen really wants.

So I would not have guessed that, when asked in an Economist interview to name news sources he believes are doing it right, he would have listed:

“'Advertising Age. Gawker. Wired. Voice of San Diego. The New Yorker. The Economist. (Disclosure: You're The Economist!) Rachel Maddow. Frontline. The New York Times. West Seattle Blog. Texas Tribune (Disclosure: I'm an advisor there). 'To the Point' with Warren Olney. The Atlantic. 'This American Life.' The Guardian. Jon Stewart.'”

Yeah, it's the liberal media. But the way in which Jon Stewart, Ira Glass, Rachel Maddow, etc. present news is not the classic, dispassionate, objective-view-of-the-world manner that in my mind, a typical Good Government type would crave.

Jay goes on:

“I think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which a serious journalist is engaged. … The American press does not know what to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and ‘report both sides’ reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there are such limits. But with this denial they've violated the code of the truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?. ... When journalists get attacked from the left and the right, they take it as confirmation that they're doing something right, when they could be doing everything wrong.”

Which gets back to what has become a thesis of “TTPT” – that newspapers did not fall from favor because they are printed, but because they became boring to their readers – which, then added to the fact that print is relatively boring compared with online, became a death sentence. A point of civic journalism was that journalists had become detached from the communities they covered; it was an effort to reconnect journalists with the public, and less with Reliable Sources. But the point of a Reliable Source was not just that he was a source; it was that he understood the rules you were playing by and played by them as well. The public was less in love with those rules than we were.

OK, this seems really obvious, but it also concerns why newspapers have been unable to save themselves. It’s not just because someone has to press the red button on a Goss Metroliner every night. It's because their entire worldview has been based on preserving and enhancing a professional technique that vast number of their readers found offputting, like putting out a car without upholstered seats.

Other voices:
INMA’s Earl Wilkinson: Newspaper publishers overseas think "the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment."

Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books reviewing “Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post" (nonsubscribers blocked): “The Internet was not ruining the paper, [newsroom executive Walter] Pincus argued…. Newspapers had lost audience through self-indulgence: they wrote stories for themselves instead of readers and produced blockbuster stories designed to win journalism prizes but destined to be unread by masses of people… Pincus was describing a divorce between reader and newspaper, and he thought American journalism’s passion for ‘objectivity’ deserved a lot of blame. It was ridiculous, ‘a lie,’ to believe that a journalist could not have an opinion. The illusion of ‘objectivity’ created reader detachment from a newspaper, and detachment leads to indifference and loss of another reader.”

Jon Stewart himself, in New York magazine: “’The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it!.... It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters… The mistake [mainstream news outlets] make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.”

UNC senior Christopher Sopher, quoted on Poynter’s website for his study of how to attract young people to news outlets: “’There's this sense that you're not getting the whole truth, or you're getting a varnished, polished, cold representation of what's going on, because it feels so impersonal.’ More than previous generations, Sopher found, young people seek a personal connection to their news providers. But that doesn't mean that consumers want biased reporting. Rather, he found, they're seeking a more conversational, explanatory tone. Reporters should leverage their extensive knowledge of their subjects to not only report the facts of ‘what just happened,’ Sopher said, but the context of ‘why it matters.’"

A wide swath of opinion, and one that needs to balanced with commercial considerations, as Marc Wilson in News & Tech quoted Advertising Age: “Advertisers trust newspapers to provide safe, sober environments for their brands and … marketers want newspapers’ authority to rub off on their ads.” Yet Ad Age and Stewart would doubtless agree that Fox News’ viewers see it as authoritative. And yet they care, passionately. Fox News tells them -- in my view incorrectly, but it tells them -- why the most obscure news story matters to them. And Fox News speaks to them as people who are just fine because they devoutly worship God and believe in the right to bear arms, as opposed to people who one can see objectively simply cling to shibboleths such as guns or religion while under stress, instead of coolly analyzing them.

Objectivity means in the end distancing yourself from everyone, because anything, even one's own feelings, can be analyzed. But most people don't do this about themselves and what they believe. There’s no doubt to me that Obama was factually correct in his famous statement about clinging to guns, religion and bias. But that's for a sociology paper, not a campaign - or a newspaper.


Anonymous said...

Do you think U.S. libel law -- or the reluctance to consider the occasional libel case as a cost of doing business -- is a factor in the cult of objectivity and the resulting didacticism in U.S. newspaper writing?

Barbara Phillips Long

Davisull said...

Considering that English libel law is much stricter ... no. It can have the dread chilling effect, but it is not a preoccupation in newsrooms to my experience.