A Free Press and the Public Trust

June 23, 2003
BARUCH COLLEGE PUBLIC RELATIONS

NED REGAN: Thank you all for attending our panel on "A Free Press and the Public Trust". I want to first welcome a renowned -- renowned in the field of journalism -- panel. You'll all get to meet them in a minute. And thank you all in this audience, for attending. I hope you get a chance to walk through this wonderful building. It's only been in use now for two academic years. And, as you walk through, those of you that haven't been through it, you will notice how it accommodates what we have always wanted in an urban institution, the spontaneous interaction of faculty with students, and students with students, and faculty with faculty. Each floor is like a quadrangle, in that regard. But, in New York City, we stack our quadrangles. And, that's exactly what has been done here.
And, a big "Hello" to those of you watching CUNY-TV. We welcome you here too.
Finally, let me introduce the director of our master's program in business journalism, who is renowned himself, distinguished himself, and if you don't know about him now, you will know in an hour or so. How lucky we are at Baruch to have Josh Mills with us. Josh? Please welcome.
(Applause)
JOSH MILLS: Thank you. It's nice to see all of you here today. I just wanted to mention that one of Ned's great accomplishments in the last two years at Baruch was to create Center for Integrity in Financial Reporting, CIFR, which holds many important events here, about all different aspects of corporate governance, and events that some of our students cover for the college magazines, and Web sites.
And, it occurred to me that if we struck the name financial out, we'd be left with the Center for Integrity in Reporting, and that would be a pretty good banner for today's event.
As we were planning this event, and as we were talking to panelists and ascertaining their availability, I think one of the things that struck me very powerfully was how upset people were about what had happened at the New York Times. It felt like everywhere I went, people wanted to know what I knew about it, people wanted to talk about it. This was not just groups of journalists, but people I meet every morning in the woods when I walk my dog, parents at the school where my children go.
I think there was a lot of indignation, and a lot of concern. And, as I've been thinking about this event for the last couple of weeks, I was trying to think of one overriding image of what this meant to me, and what I kept coming back to, even though it seems a little silly to say this, but in my universe, the universe of journalism, and the people I know and have worked with for 30 years, I kept thinking of Nixon getting on the helicopter, and slinking away. I think that the stunning departure of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd although there was no helicopter, reminds me of that in some ways.
I wanted to note too that, just about a year ago, I hosted a workshop here for student journalists and faculty advisors from throughout CUNY, and some of my colleagues in the audience today participated in that. It was a wonderful day of training, and talking about a broad range of issues. And the keynote speaker that day was Gerald Boyd. Gerald spoke very movingly, very powerfully about the post 9/11 coverage, coverage which I think the Times very rightly was recognized with the Pulitzer for public service.
So, here we are 14 months later, after that event, and times have changed rather dramatically, and of course now the Times has changed rather dramatically as well, and is not done changing. I think all over the country, or I suspect all over the country, there are journalists watching 43rd street the same way many people watch the chimney at the Vatican. They're waiting for the sign of a new leader.
I'm delighted to have this distinguished panel today. I was trying to figure out how much experience in journalism we have collectively, and it must be somewhere up around 150 years.
W: Can't believe it.
JM: Yes, that's why I'm not probing any deeper. (Laughter)
Also a number of us have worked at the Times, I guess in the name of full disclosure, I should say I worked at the Times for ten years. I was beat up by Howell Raines a few times. On my far right is Tom Goldstein who once worked at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and also New York Newsday, as a reporter, and who was later the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, first at Berkeley, and then at Columbia, where I had the pleasure of working with him. And, Tom has just accepted a professorship at Arizona State University.
In between us is Dorothy Rabinowitz, who is the media critic of the Wall Street Journal, and a member of the Journal's editorial board, and a very well known freelance writer and commentator, who has not ever worked at the New York Times, as far as I know.
On my far left is Jan Schaffer. Jan is currently the Executive Director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which describes itself as an incubator for new ideas in journalism. I'm curious to see if some of those ideas will be incubating forward today, as remedies for some of the problems that we talk about. Jan worked for many years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which for several decades was, in some people's minds, one of the three or four best newspapers in the country, before the budget cuts took their toll. Jan worked as a reporter -- she broke the ABSCAM story, which many of you are too young to remember, I think, but the scandal involving the FBI posing as Arabs -- and presided over several Pulitzer Prize efforts by her team of reporters.
On my immediate right is Geneva Overholser who is currently based in Washington, where she teaches a course in reporting on public affairs, is an endowed professor of the Hurley Chair at the University of Missouri. Geneva has been the ombudsman of the Washington Post, and a columnist for it, and was a member of the New York Times editorial board, in between two stints at the Des Moines Register, one as a member of its editorial board, and later as its editor in chief.
So, I think among us we have not only many years of experience, but a lot of time in newsrooms of major papers around the country, papers that are looked to as role models.
Where I would like to start is with this issue. The recent turmoil at the Times has raised questions in many newsrooms about how well papers police themselves, and how well they are earning readers' trust. There have been many people suggesting in print, and on the air, that the Times is a surrogate for all of American journalism and the Times' now obvious problems indicate that there is an industrywide ailment. I thought, Tom, I would like to start with you, since you are out on the other coast a fair amount of time. What do you think of that?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: Well, let me give a two-part answer. First, from being a resident of the Bay area, on and off for the last 20 years, nothing can be generalized from the Bay area. It is a bubble unto itself. And, I think a common reaction among people I talk to out there is the post modern reaction. You say, well, you can't trust anything you read anyhow. And it's very dismissive, which I disagree with.
But, I would like to just give, if I could, a little bit beyond that. What's happened now is certainly startling to a degree, but it's not startling in another degree. What's happened at the Times has happened at other papers over the years. The context of it goes way, way back. There's a book called Behind the Front Page, written about 30 years ago, by an organizational behaviorist named Chris Argyris. And, he studied a newspaper called The Daily Planet, which in fact is the New York Times. And, many of the conclusions of his book are very prescient. He says of the New York Times, it has a clear inability to examine itself critically, and a predisposition to create conditions that tend to isolate it from the public it serves. He goes on, another prediction is that the inability of the Daily Planet, or the New York Times, to manage its own living system, its own environment, will eventually break into the open, and become public knowledge. Well, it's 30 years after this book, but a lot of the problems we're seeing now have been longstanding problems, not only of the New York Times, but of journalism. I'll mention one, and maybe we can discuss it later. Journalism rests on the star system, and there are good reasons for that, but one of the things that I think the recent turmoil at the Times suggests, need there be a star system? And if there needs to be a star system, how can you manage it? So, I mean, it raises all sorts of questions that have been sort of below the surface and discussed in various ways over the years, but now they're just more pronounced.
JM: Dorothy?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, I can't say I disagree about the star system, but that undercuts what was so different, to many people, to me, about this event at the Times. The thing that I found quite infuriating was the fact that people found in the Times epic a symbol of what's wrong with the newspaper business, and that it was all there. The day those 14,000 words were written in a sort of confession about Jayson Blair, the day we read that, something unique and pathological was exposed to the world. I remember e-mailing my colleagues at the Journal and saying, "This tells more about the psychopathology at the Times than it does about Jayson Blair." I got back answers like, "You know, they have to protect themselves," and "They have to do this before somebody else does it," and "We did it," after all, the whole thing. Nobody ever did anything like this. The tone of this piece was so crazy in its over-the-top hostility, in its rampaging self-righteousness, and you could see them pulling in, in one paragraph, and lurching forward in another one. I thought, "This is like what they used to call in the 1960s, or whenever it was, a psycho-drama on paper."
So the dimensions of this immediately took us out of the sameness category. Something unique goes on in human experience. It's like crime. If somebody is found having beaten his wife to death, we have now all discovered wife beating, and that this goes on all the time.
So, I would ask only to reserve the uniqueness of these individual performances at the Times, the premier, you know the most fascinating newspaper, in addition to my own, and look at it that way, because the moment we begin looking to the larger issues endemic to all of us, you lose the exquisite, specific nature of this event, which has to do with politics, and neurotics, and who gets elevated and why.
Let me just add, if I might, that I walk my dog every morning too, if not in the woods, in the woods of Greenwich Village. And, I want to say that nobody comes up to me and says, "What's going on?" in horror. They are titillated and curious, as though some, about the background of a major star. They're not worried that the republic is going to fall because of what goes on at the Times.
JM: Geneva?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I couldn't agree more with Dorothy's comment about the four page extravaganza. I had lunch the other day with Jack Rosenthal who's the former editorial page editor at the Times, and an old friend, and he used a phrase which I think is incomparable, he said, "Have you ever seen so much culpa, and so little mea?" Which certainly exemplified that.
On the other hand, I think that in fact what happened at the Times, not that four-page unique experience, which again I agree entirely with Dorothy about, but the events that led to it, I do think that we need to think of them as something all of us in journalism have participated in. You know the Times really is the pinnacle of American journalism, I think, although I agree the Journal is close, my own other former paper the Washington Post certainly can lay some claim to excellence, but the journalism at the New York Times, I think, is the journalism that I think we all really look up too. And, pinnacles are both wonderful, in terms of giving us something to aim toward, but they're also quite inaccessible.
The Times has been so, so much the leader is the wrong word to use, but perhaps appropriate here, in what has typified all of us, and that is to be far too inaccessible to our communities, to our critics, to people who want to reach us to say that something went wrong, that a story was inaccurate, that we should have talked to so and so. I mean, the Times just did that better than anyone, and that clearly, I think contributed to what happened here.
But, I would argue that other excesses, again excesses, but some things that all of us in journalism are guilty of. The star system, we've discussed it. I'm not sure that we'd ever want to stick a dagger in the heart of the star system. We'd pretty well take the air out of journalism. But, the degree to which Howell Raines, and I've known Howell a long time, but I do believe that the degree to which he was willing to favor certain staffers, and not just have less favor for others, but really just sort of disregard them, and thereby lose veterans. Interestingly enough, I was talking to a couple of other former colleagues at the Times the other day, and we were talking about the fact that, come on, Abe Rosenthal was every bit as tyrannical as Howell Raines. I mean, those of us who worked for the paper when Abe was in charge, you know, sort of think, "Oh, so you're going to get fired for being a tyrant?" But, then someone said this, "Yeah, but he didn't mess with the news in the same way." And, I think there arose a perception at the Times that Howell Raines was actually kind of messing with the news, especially with the Augusta golf coverage, and a couple of other things.
So, I guess in short, what I would say is that the Times is unique in the sort of the way all this happened, but I do think that the underlying themes are present in all of journalism, and that we all have some self examining to do, and I think it's going on all over the country.
JM: Jan?
JAN SCHAFFER: Well, I think the Times' mea culpa, or culpa mea, 14,000 words is not new. Back at the Philadelphia Inquirer, in the days of Laura Foreman, those again, of you, who are old enough to remember, the Philadelphia Inquirer did the same thing, when it was discovered that a political reporter was sleeping with one of her subjects of news stories, and the FBI was investigating. And, they dispatched (Donald) Barlett and (James) Steele to do a major investigation. And, we ran it in the newspaper.
This is how journalism polices itself, with a lot of postmortems, and a lot of self flagellation. And we're really good at it, and we do it all the time. We do it after every election. We do it after every ethical scandal, and now, unfortunately, we're doing it after fraud.
I'm concerned, I think, that more and more fraud is being introduced into the realm of journalism than we have seen before. I think we're beyond ethics here. We're into Enron, Worldcom fraud, in terms of defrauding readers, and that's of concern, of major concern.
I agree with Tom, there is a lot of favoritism in newsrooms. I think there's a lot of anger in newsrooms, and I think you saw, and what drove the New York Times' controversy here, was a lot of that anger, because it found an outlet in a very interactive age, on Jim Romanesko's Web site. What you saw with this story, that we have not seen before in journalism, is we saw mega dumps of anger out of that newsroom, on a site that was accessible to all journalists. Reporters were really unloading a lot of anger. I think what journalism needs to do is figure out what's driving that anger.
Some of it is addressed at the star system. There have always been star systems at newsrooms. At the Inquirer, it was the guys who played racquetball at lunch. At the New York Times, it's people who appear to be anointed, whether you're a Rick Bragg or a Jayson Blair. From the women I know of at the Times, they're really angry about what they call the degree of towel slapping that goes on at news meetings. They feel very excluded from that.
There's a lot of anger there. There's anger among minorities. There's anger about pay scales. So, I think that there's a fairly explosive environment going on. I think in a world where our audiences have ways to talk back to us, whether it's e-mail, voice mail, blogs, Web sites, to be inaccessible, as the New York Times has been, historically, gets you in an increasing amount of trouble. I think that this was a classic example of what's going to happen in the future. There are no more secrets that can be kept secret anymore.
JM: Well, one of the things that I've found fascinating about the Times over the years, probably the first thing I read every morning is the corrections. As a former editor there, I've had to write my share of corrections. It seems to me, on the one hand, the Times fastidiously, and even compulsively, corrects everything, and on the other hand, it doesn't make it easy for readers to call in a correction, or get in touch with people. I'm bringing this up because I think it speaks to this issue of inaccessibility. There are a lot of newspapers now, in fact, I think a majority, where the reporter's e-mail address appears on every story, either at the beginning, or at the end of the story, where you can open the newspaper, and the e-mail address of everybody on the masthead is listed. So, if you have a gripe, or if you have a tip, it's the most straightforward thing in the world. Where, at the Times, just the other day, one of our recent graduates called me up and said, I want to submit something to the Times Magazine, which editors do you know there? I know quite a few, but I was attempting to discover the e-mail address of any of them. This is even with some access to Times listings and systems, it's just not there, couldn't do it.
I think that this is one aspect of the inaccessibility. Another is the issue of an ombudsman, where a lot of papers now have ombudsmen. I don't know if any of you have seen figures on what percentage of papers do.
GO: Only 40.
JM: Only 40 do.
GO: That's out of 15 hundred daily newspapers.
JM: Wow. But, that's something that the Times and the Wall Street Journal have never gone near, or felt the need to do. Do things like that make a difference to people? Does that effect this issue of accessibility and conceived arrogance?
GO: I definitely think so, having served as an ombudsman for three years at the Washington Post. I must say, I didn't believe in ombudsmen, before I became one. When I was the editor of the Des Moines Register, I said what almost all editors say, and that is, the buck stops here, I'm the one should hear the complaints, I'm in charge.
But, that's part of the problem. When you are in charge, and first of all you don't have enough time, really, to listen to all the people who want to speak with you, but second, you want to explain to them why you did such and such. It feels very much like defensiveness, or justification, when you're on the other side. To you, what you think is, let me help you understand. Well, a lot of people who are calling don't want you to help them understand, they want you to listen, and they want you to take them seriously.
When I became ombudsman of the Post, I realized how differently you listen. Because this call could be column fodder, and also because that's your job, and you didn't make the decision, and you don't feel defensive.
Now, I'm not sure that every newsroom ought to have an ombudsman, but every newsroom ought to be sure that it has systematized ways of listening, because as you said, Josh, the Times, I think is better at corrections than any other paper we have. But, the fact is, they can only correct what they know about. And, it's very hard to reach people at the Times.
I think it's noteworthy that the person who finally got this fraud looked at was a newspaper editor. How many people had tried to call before Bob Rivard in San Antonio, a newspaper editor, finally got heard. They have got to figure out a way to be accessible, and I assume that this Siegal commission, which I understand is going to be reporting next month, so it will be soon, will come up with some ways to make sure that they are more accessible.
DR: You know, one of the little known side effects of spam, is that news organizations have had to take the e-mail addresses of many of their staffers off of their Web sites. I've discovered this only in about the last eight months, because they've invented something called a "spider," that goes in and searches all these Web sites for e-mail addresses, and then the staff will get spammed. Eight months ago, you could look up a news organization's Web site, and actually get the e-mail addresses of a lot of their staffers. It's very difficult to do that right now, so that's an additional kind of cost of what we're seeing with spam right now.
But, I do think that you really need to create some kind of entry points for people to talk back at you, or let you know about things, whether it's an ombuds program, or an ombuddy program if you're a smaller paper, and you just assign a rotating crew of people to do it for every week, which many smaller papers do, it's important to be able to have someone who's not listening defensively, because I think news organizations are very defensive listeners. And, we may run corrections, but it's very begrudging.
JM: Do you think the issues of access and trust are linked? Tom?
TG: Yes, I do. And, let me get to some of the specifics. I read the corrections second. I read obituaries first. (Laughter) And in the Times, there are lots of corrections to be sure, and I think as Geneva said, probably better than anybody else, but within the Times, and I would hope that they would figure out a way to cure this, there's an embedded suggestion that everyone keeps the papers for the last several weeks, in front of them, so they can turn to the page to see what's been corrected. Because it sort of comes out in the vacuum. I don't keep all the papers like that. So, there's only a limited effect, that's a structural issue that needs to be addressed.
Similarly with ombuds ... people, or however you refer to it. There are different types. Geneva at the Washington Post has probably the best model, because of the independence at the Washington Post where you only answer, what, to the publisher? And, presumably can't, you have a term, and once the term is over, you vanish. So, you have no stake in staying on, but of the 40 ombuds people in this country, I think that that is unique.
So, it's not a cure, and I'm not sure that would be a cure for the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times and their particular cultures. But, you would certainly have to be very careful how you re-arranged it. And, if I could ask Geneva a question?
JM: Certainly.
TG: Because when you were the ombuds, one of the things, I think I'm correct, that you crusaded, quite vigorously, was the over use of anonymous sources.
GO: Really worked, didn't it?
(Laughter)
TG: Well, that's my question. I mean, it's been going on for a long time. And, it's very good that you did that, and what has been the effect?
GO: Well, I guess I like to believe is, I mean, you know of course what you think is, "Why didn't I change it at the time?" I like to believe these things are cumulative, and in fact, the questions I raised made some difference.
But, yes, the real question is, if you are ombudsman, does it make any difference? The Post model, I think, is a good one for the reasons you've cited, that constitute its independence, but also because they tend to bring in critics from outside the paper, who have some standing in journalism, and therefore supposedly will be heard by the staff. And, I think in some ways, I was heard. I talked about local news, and its really remarkably small role at the Post, and I think it really did change, in terms of some of the resources put into it.
I talked a whole lot about anonymous sources, and it kept on going. I must say that people have been fighting that fight for a very long time, but I'm very glad you raised it, because I think it was another piece of this really very difficult set of occurrences at the New York Times which isn't getting enough attention. There was fraud, but it's a lot easier to have it when you have anonymity. In the sniper coverage, the biggest national news story at the time, this very young man, not from the Washington bureau, was using anonymous sources, and he wasn't questioned in their use. That really shows how much anonymous sources are with us. And, to our great disadvantage, because anonymity allows people to speak with impunity, to say things they wouldn't otherwise say, and it robs the reader of the ability to judge. And, I think it's a terrible plague. It's specially practiced in Washington. And, we need to be examining it, so thank you for letting me restart that crusade.
TG: Well, you know, in the wonderful article that the Wall Street Journal published the day after the resignations, the one for which they had been gathering information for several weeks ...
GO: We want Dorothy to tell us what that article was going to say that it didn't say.
DR: I gather that, there was some rumor that the imminence of this piece sparked the quick action at the Times. I'm not sure of that. But, Matthew Rosen, it was a spectacular piece, you'll agree.
JM: Well, there were some nuggets in there, one of which was about anonymous sources. Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, who incidentally spoke here last year, said that she had once had an Enron scoop, and it was based on anonymous sources, and it went all the way up to Howell, and Howell called her in, and said, who are your sources? She said, I know it's your job to ask, but the deal I made is I can't tell you, and he said, I won't run the story. And, Gretchen said, I understand, you're doing your job. And, that was that. And she said, so imagine how I felt, a few months later, when I find out that there is this 26-year-old reporter, with a track record that is known throughout the newsroom of having problems with truthfulness, and on the most important national story of the day, they are taking his story and putting it in the paper
I think that that shows the star system gone amuck.
DR: In an exceptional way. That's the thing that really boggles the mind. It was so wildly unusual to have this kind of freedom that this kid had. I'm sorry, you were going to say something.
JS: Well, I mean, in my 22 years at the Inquirer, nobody ever asked me to reveal a source. I'm not saying that they shouldn't have done it, but they never did. And, I think it's somewhat sanctimonious to suggest that, oh, "How could they not have done it in this circumstance?" because I think it's very unevenly applied in most newsrooms. I don't think reporters are generally asked to reveal their sources. You might argue that they should be asked, but I think it gets into, if you're in Washington, the object of cocktail party journalism, you have no control over where your editor is going to be, at what dinner party, and what, you know when your source is going to be ... It's really a kind of messy situation, and I don't think it's as simple as, "How dare he not disclose his source?" I would ask all of you, have you ever been asked to reveal sources on a regular basis?
GO: But this, don't you think this was an unusual case? I certainly think, as I said, that it's way too prevalent. This is, again, not a Washington bureau reporter. I know from talking to friends in the Washington bureau, that they were raising concerns about his coverage. Longtime reporters who knew law enforcement sources, and nobody's asking him who the sources are? And, the law enforcement sources are calling to complain? I do think it's an unusual case.
JS: I think in this case, yes. And, I agree with your campaign at the Post, that they should be revealed, I just don't think it's being done on a regular basis in newsrooms around the country. I don't even think most editors see it as part of their job, or saw it as a part of their job.
DR: You know, the great movie, you know, you mentioned Nixon's downfall. When they didn't reveal their sources, or they did, I forget if they were asked to reveal their sources before they did the Watergate story, Bernstein and company. There are different cases when this is required, when it's unique and special. But, no one, it's true, no one has ever asked me to reveal a source. I'd like to think about some other editorial oversight, which I think is sadly lacking, which this Times story reminded me of, because it represented one of those things that happened repeatedly. You get a story about wholesale plagiarism, wholesale no sources, someone who didn't show up. The reporter then, feels obliged to do the entire compendium of everybody who has ever been cited. It doesn't matter how small the alleged offense, or how great, everybody was Jayson Blair who had ever been caught on the smallest thing. There was Doris Kearns. And, then there was Mike Barnacle. Mike Barnacle? Jayson Blair? Mike Barnacle stole two, and by the way, this is one of the great untold stories of someone being thrown out of a paper for nonsensical reasons, but it's the lack of an editorial supervisor who says, "By the way, did you really think all of these people belong in this category?" That there's no judgment as to size, and no judgment as to offense. But, they do take this step, otherwise they haven't done their story, they have to put everybody in. That's just a sore complaint.
JM: You know, one of the other issues I have observed in this scandal, as it's unfolded, and I'd like your opinions on this, is it seemed to me that there was almost as much public indignation about Rick Bragg, as there was about Jayson Blair, which to my mind is sort of like comparing Jack Welch to, say, Dennis Kozlowski. Which some people have done as well.
Clearly, there were some problems with what Bragg was doing, but the problems were more in terms of the Times own bizarre rules, that you had to drive through a town before you could use its dateline. And, the Times for many years, had a rule that if you were a stringer, your name could not be used on a Page 1 story. And, I remember sitting in a Page 1 meeting, years ago, where I was offering a stringer's story. And, they said, "Well, we can use the story, but we can't use her name." I said, "So the point you're making is better off not knowing who wrote the article, than knowing who wrote the article." And, they said, "Oh, if you put it that way, we'll have to re-examine this." And, over the course of a couple of years, they re-examined it, and changed the rule.
But, do you think that's true? Or, was it just a timing factor that because Rick Bragg came immediately on the heels of Blair, that it seemed to get people so upset, and feed into this, we don't know who's writing what, one person comes and interviews us, and then someone else's name goes on the story?
GO: It's hard to judge, of course, what upsets the public more than another thing. But, yes, I really think that what happened is that because the Rick Bragg thing broke in the midst of the Times being so open, and wounded, and because as Jan so correctly said, we had all of this echo chamber going on. Everybody in the journalism world was reading all about this. And, the Bragg thing made more people mad internally, because Bragg asserted that everybody does this.
I don't think it's just such an odd policy that you ought to be in the place where there's a dateline. You know, you ought to be there when you're reporting. And, I do understand your point. But, Bragg wasn't there. And, he said, "This is what everybody does." And, Howell Raines didn't stand up and say, "Oh no, they don't really." So, this went right at the anger. All these veteran reporters who already thought they were undervalued, I'm sitting here working hard, and Bragg is doing all these lyrically beautiful things. Well, I go report. I don't want anyone to think I don't go report. So, they all got pissed, and started shooting memos.
And, for the first time -- don't you guys think this, having worked at the Times back in the era when nobody from the Times ever spoke out in public about internal difficulty -- for the first time, that was totally blasted wide open, and everybody's reading all these memos of people pointing fingers at one another, so I think it struck internally very hard.
DR: You could have predicted a lot of this long before that Jayson Blair episode, when the Village Voice, months and months ago, before any of this started, printed a very long piece called something like "Kingdom of Fear." Kingdom of Fear? New York Times. But, it was perfectly clear that everybody with a gripe had come running to the Village Voice. And, the quotes were clear, the intimations were clear. The smell of death was already in the air. It's been in the air a long time.
JS: But, you know, I'm a little concerned that in the controversy over star systems, over sources, over ethics, that we kind of miss the baseline issue here, and I think the baseline issue, writ large, is just fundamental accuracy in reporting. And, that's the issue that more transcends just this Times episode.
I think that we've got a real problem in journalism today, in that reporters are writing stories, and they have barely a clue, sometimes, what they're writing about. And, having been on the other side of those stories now, hundreds of times in the last eight years, and reading what has been written about civic journalism, and whether you love it, or whether you hate it, or whether you're clueless as to what it's about, I will tell you that there is only one story, of the hundreds that have been written about civic journalism, that was entirely accurate. Only one.
What's scary in this, early on I didn't call and complain. But, then I began to realize, guess what? Everybody who follows basically does a clip job. So, early errors get magnified again and again and again. The best teaching journalists could ever experience is to be on the other side, and be written about, because right now, it is really scary out there.
JM: On Friday night, I was at a dinner, and one of the speakers was Peter Bhatia who is the executive editor of the Oregonian, very nice paper in Portland, Oregon. He is also the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And he said that he thought right now, because of all the concern about the Times, this was a defining moment in American journalism, a profound test of our credibility. People are asking, "Can you a trust the watch dogs?" And, there was a recent poll, I think it was the CNN/USA Today poll, that found that 62 percent of those polled said that they don't trust the press. Of course, I think there's a similar number who've also told the pollsters that they believe that the US has already found the weapons of mass destruction. So, I'm not clear what we should make of these numbers. But, is this a defining moment? And, is the press' credibility on the line right now? Dorothy?
DR: You know, every time I hear these figures, I think about polls themselves. There is in the air, hanging heavily in the air, every time someone, some citizen is asked something, a quiet sense of expectation of, what should my answer be? And, if you know that skeptically, an intelligent person doesn't trust the press, your answer is going to be, I don't trust the press. This has very little to do with what this person really does, which is pick up the paper and say, "Oh my God, Martha, look at this, you know the aliens have landed!"
The polls are so untrustworthy on these things, because they cut right into people's wish to be in the mainstream of intelligent, advanced opinion, which is we don't trust these people. Which means, we don't know.
GO: I wonder if I might jump in on that too, Josh. You know, sometimes people say, as we've examined this New York Times issue, "How can we restore people's belief in the press?" But "restore" is the key word there. The fact is, these gloomy figures, whatever they reflect, and I agree with Dorothy's doubts about how substantial what it is they reflect should be judged to be, but they've been with us for a long time. The Times is the showiest example that we've had. But, I feel a little less gloomy. I've had some journalism done to me. Jan's had more. And, I do agree that if every journalist could have journalism done to him or her, we'd all be better. But, I actually think that the news media have a much better story to tell than we're telling. I think the New York Times is a great paper. And, it clearly made these terrible mistakes. And, I think there are fine papers across the country, although one thing, I know it's not the center of our discussion, but profit pressures on newspapers today are really undermining them. We're not training reporters. We're not paying them enough. Our news hole, the amount of space for news, is too small. That, I think, is a subject for another discussion. But, still we do fine journalism. I would argue that one thing we ought to derive from this New York Times mess, is that they fired, I'm sorry, these two men resigned.
(Laughter)
GO: And, did Enron stand up and say, boy, we really goofed? In five weeks, from the first of these things, the New York Times no longer had in charge of its newsroom, the two top people in its newsroom. And however unseemly might have been the four page extravaganza, how ever much they ate each other alive in public, the fact is they took care of this with dispatch. And, we should be grateful. I mean, if we look to this newspaper as having the public trust at the center of what it does, then they behaved well. And, how many industry leaders have done that?
DR: I want to say something about that resignation, which is, even there, while it's really nice and civil to say that they resigned, it's perfectly clear to everyone that they did not resign. Howell Raines was planning his whole next week two days earlier. Now, I raise this not because one wants this cruel spectacle of people saying fired, and people should be allowed to say they resigned, but the fact that this murk exists. Why couldn't (Arthur) Sulzberger or his father, or whoever was the key figure there say, yes, we thought it best they go, instead of they thought of it themselves. This is one of these little white lies.
But, I wanted to say, back to the mystery of the paper, there are people out there who have questions to ask about the New York Times that no one will ever answer, and they sit quietly at home, over breakfast wondering. One of the questions they ask, I am sure I know is, "Who is Maureen Dowd? Why should I have to read her?" I can't read this person. I can't read this person.
TG: Dorothy, if you don't want to read her, don't read her, you have the option.
(Laughter)
DR: No, they want to know why she's there, if I can't read this person, I don't follow this, I don't understand this. Forgetting her politics. And, these are questions maybe they should ask, like, "What does she mean?" I don't understand her. There are figures in every newspaper that people hate, and they should ask about these people. They should be able to ask about them. People call us, speaking of non accessibility, people call us up all the time and say, "You should die."
(Laughter)
DR: And, they can get to you. My phone banks are always busy. People send letters. They always find our e-mail, and no one has been more reviled. So, it's not that there is no way to get to you, but there are certain mysteries one would like to know.
JM: Okay, I think this would be a good time to open the floor, and take questions. We will ask, when you ask a question, please identify yourselves, and raise your hands, so we can hand you a mike.
QUESTION: James Medore, I write about the media for Newsday. Josh mentioned Peter Bhatia, the President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. On Friday, he also expressed grave concern about another fallout from Jayson Blair, and that is the impact on the efforts to diversify newsrooms, and to bring in more young people to newsrooms, and he said that the American Society of Newspaper Editors has been flooded with postcards from people urging it to disavow diversity, and affirmative action in journalism. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what impact if any the Jayson Blair incident has had on efforts to diversify newsrooms?
JM: Jan, do you want to start?
JS: I don't think we know yet. The numbers are lousy, across the board. I mean, ASNE had their quota system, and they're way behind. If you look at the number of women, the number of women in newsrooms has fallen for the last three consecutive years. I do think it's very difficult, if you hire a good minority reporter at the Savannah Morning News, you're lucky if you can keep him or her for a year, before the Detroit Free Press kind of swoops him away with a bigger salary. You've got the Freedom Forum paying $10,000-a-year bounties to bring minorities into newsrooms, and put them on a fast track. It breeds resentment in those newsrooms. It's a very difficult conundrum. I don't think there's an easy answer. I do think the aspiration is there, but I think there's a very ham-handed way that the industry has gone around to do it.
GO: I must say it seems to me that if the lesson that we derive from this is that diversity has run amuck, we will have learned exactly the wrong lesson.
It seems to me that Jayson Blair if anything, exemplifies something I found when I was running my own newsroom, and that is editors tend to look out in the newsroom, and see people who remind themselves at a young and promising age, and promote them. I think Jayson Blair probably reminded Howell Raines of himself. He's an ambitious southern guy, smart, doesn't care whom he irritates, knows exactly who to suck up to, and he's black, that's gravy.
(Laughter)
GO: So, I think it would be silly not to acknowledge the fact that he's black is wonderful, when we all need to diversify newsrooms, but to say, "Oh, you see, he was given every chance because he's black, and therefore we're all wrong to try to bring in blacks and women and Hispanics" would be totally wrong. I think we should be able to talk about it. But, if these cards and letters coming in that Peter referred to, have any effect in newsrooms, to dampen what is already sort of struggling efforts, all of us will lose, because our newspapers will not reflect our communities. Now, of course nothing should be mindless, and I would argue again, we're training so little that, there again, that becomes an investment problem.
TG: If I could just add to what Geneva said, there have been numbers that have been bandied about. News organizations are just stingy, and they don't invest in talent, and they don't invest in research and they don't invest in development. And, those are sort of systematic problems that need to be changed.
JM: Well, that's a good subject for another day. And, I will just say that one thing that has always struck me is that both the New York Times Company and Dow Jones & Company own strings of smaller newspapers. And, for reasons that are completely unclear to me, even though I've been on committees to analyze this, they do not use them as training grounds, or farm systems. They don't find young people, say, and send them to Sarasota, Florida, and then move them to Santa Rosa, and then bring them to the Times. They act as if there's no known connection, except on the financial statements. I think there is a deeper training issue her. Let's take another question. Sir? We need a microphone at the front table here.
QUESTION: Judy Richheimer, I freelance for magazines, and I just want to say that when I worked for magazines considered to be as froufrou, as Vogue and New York Magazine, I was fact-checked from here until next Christmas.
My comment has to do with what I think is a larger issue or credibility which the panel has not raised, and that has to do with what I feel is an all too cozy relationship with official sources. And, I think the Judith Miller story that run below the fold during the war in Iraq, whereby Judith Miller basically was fed the story by our military, and the Times went along with this, I see Rick Bragg and Jayson Blair, I can't quite get into such high dudgeon over them, when I put this alongside of this other larger issue. I see them as bad and clever boys who probably should have been writing fiction instead of journalism. So, would you address the Judith Miller story that was kind of knocked off the radar by Jayson and Rick?
JS: Well, it's not just the Judith Miller one, it's the Private Lynch story, too, that was just knocked off by the Post, you know, to the glee of the Washington Times. I think that the departures of Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, and the Siegal commission alone will not fix what ails journalism, again, writ large.
I think we have fallen into some bad habits in journalism. Among them are writing top down instead of bottom up sources, relying too much on official sources, buying in too quickly to conventional wisdom, without testing whether that conventional wisdom bears any relationship to the truth. We frame stories too often on the basis of conflict, when the public really just wants an explanation. I think "the get," whether it's getting an interview, or getting a dateline, in this 24/7 news cycle has become all important, and has just even worsened what are some bad journalistic habits.
I think across the board, the training that Geneva mentions needs to address some of that, because we're taking short cuts here and there, and we're seeing the price that's being paid in our credibility.
JM: Tom, do you have anything to say on that front?
TG: No, I think you've given a very good list.
JM: I think that we all know that in different areas of journalism there are some very complex stories that are not told with the complexity they merit. And, as my students will all now groan, because they've heard me say this so many times, one thing where I feel this is very much the case is, use of public funds for stadium construction and sports facilities that benefit privately owned teams, and private owners. And, I'm looking forward to next year, and the plans to have the Olympics here, as an opportunity to examine this issue in a great deal more depth.
QUESTION: Anthony O'Malley. I'm a student at Baruch, and I've been following this Jayson Blair story with glee. I have a comment to make that, a lot of these journalists that write about places haven't even been in that place. Jayson Blair is a good example. He's writing about Jessica Lynch's family farm, and he's not even there himself. Right across the world, you have journalists that are writing about countries, they've never been there. They get a little inkling of the place, and I think that's a huge problem with journalism. The journalists are not globally aware of what's happening, so they're just fed information, write a little story, they use some AP wire or some other business wire, or whatever, and nobody says boo. And, this is happening with the New York Times. It's a symptom of a very deep problem with mostly American media. Thank you.
JM: You raise a crucial issue. Many years ago, when he was President of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins said that newspapers should be like universities, and they should be modeled after universities. People should know something about what they're writing. And, I would hope that many newspapers follow that to an extent, but the general notion of a journalist is a generalist who can be parachuted in any place, and be an expert in a very short period of time. I think that that is under question, and should be continued to be questioned.
GO: I'd like to add that I think you've also raised an important issue, and that is our international coverage, which has declined in broadcast, it's declined in print, in terms of percentage of news hole that goes to international news, and this at a time when we are so, so by far the most powerful nation in the world, and we're all, as we know, closer in every way, economically, environmentally, it's just crazy. And, again, I think a lot of it is about economics.
I had a broadcast news president say to me that it really doesn't matter that they've reduced their foreign bureaus so much, because now with what electronics being what they are, it's so much easier to get news. Well, we used to go, and now we don't go, and that makes a difference. And, I think it's a real shame.
QUESTION: Howard Ross, Baruch College. There is a columnist in the New York Times who does regularly publish his e-mail, that's Paul Krugman. That's because nobody reads his column, nor should they.
I have two questions, one on the Op Ed page of newspapers, where major columnists appear. There is a general boredom, a repetition that you can't escape. It just fills me with wonder, why they don't change these columnists, so that you can get a variety of opinions. Secondly, and I think this is the most important question. Newspaper research has declined over time, significantly. The problem we're talking about today seems to be part of it. Isn't raising newspaper readership a vital issue with the journalists assembled here?
DR: Just to address that in a related way. You remind me of the thing I had on my mind about Howell Raines. Say what you will about Howell Raines, he could write an English sentence. And, this is not a small thing, which has somehow been forgotten. I read the editorial page of the New York Times now, and it is simply dead. I knew when Howell Raines went to take over the editorship that they'd lost a real voice. Now, do we need lyricism and high rhetoric? Not necessarily. But, it ought to be some element of what makes writing, especially on an editorial page. Number two, more important perhaps, talking about knowing what you're covering, people who have no knowledge of history at all, who have come without any background in history, are suddenly in the news business. And, I remember being on television two years ago, in a misspent life, and having people who were delivering the news, say to me in the newsroom, "Oh yes, we always knew that Franklin Roosevelt, and the Democrats, and the Americans, were on the side of the Nazis until Pearl Harbor." I said, "What? What? Have any of you?" And, I went around the newsroom, and I asked every single person there, "Do you believe that the Americans were allied with the Nazis until Pearl Harbor?"
"Oh, well, yeah, I do. After Vietnam, I can believe anything."
Well, how come you don't know otherwise? To have a general education in history, that would equip you to know the difference between falsehood and truth. It's crucial. Who is going to read the Jessica Lynch story which came out in the Washington Post, which showed her mowing down until her ammunition ran out? Was there any reporter who didn't say, "I don't believe that." We all said, "I don't believe that." That story went nowhere. But, that skepticism to ask is necessary, and it comes not without education. Sorry to make a speech, no more.
GO: Could I say a couple of things? Absolutely everyone I know worries about declining newspaper readership. And, no one has found the key. I think it's very hard to increase readership when you're decreasing resources, for one thing. But, I would also add that reports of newspaper's deaths are, like Mark Twain's, exaggerated. The fact is that more people read their Sunday newspapers on Superbowl Sunday than looked at the Superbowl. And, nobody says that football is dead in America. So, I do think it's important to remember that newspapers are still very powerful, although they search in vain to increase their readership.
As for the sort of sleepwalking editorial pages, I think the Washington Post is worse than the New York Times. And, I agree with your point. And this gets back to some things Jan has said, we've a very narrow conception of what is appropriate commentary. And, I'm kind of amazed. I think some of that is because we can only hear certain voices of authority, I don't know. But, I can't believe that we think these make compelling editorial or op ed pages, particularly.
JS: Just to add to that, we talk about news stories as the only way to educate the public, or make them smarter about public issues, and one of the most promising developments I've seen in the last two years are efforts to experiment with non narrative types of information in news, interactive journalism writ large. And, what we're finding, and it hurts, because I love a beautifully written news story, and the mantra in the profession for years is, "If we would just write it better, we would get more readers." But, we're not confronted with a generation of news consumers who process information, I mean, I look at my little boys, and they're into Gameboy and Nintendo, and they are processing information in a very different way than I ever did, and I look at our nation, which is now, well approaching 50 percent minority, and to expect this population, whose primary language often is not English in many cases, to want to read an English news story, I think defies logic.
So, what we're seeing right now are some efforts to engage people in public issues through efforts at what you might call gaming the news, news experiences, rather than news stories. So, that in Seattle, you might have a gridlock game. You have state budget calculators happening in Minnesota and California. And, the epiphanies, the "Aha!" moments, for the journalists are that people, when allowed to interact with this information, don't come up with the expected choices.
DR: In some cases, they will tell their public officials, they want different options than what was expected to be on the table. And, they will often pay more tax dollars for it. So, it's a very interesting development.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I have a background similar to Gretchen Morgenson's from Wall Street.
JM: Your name please?
QUESTION: Andrea Pesoris. Thank you for taking my question. The people for whom I worked, credibility and intelligence, such as insight, were highly valued. And, I'm curious, I have two questions, hopefully you can give me some thought, and it is at the editor level, or even at the ownership level, perhaps you should go private, and I don't say that from Wall Street, I say that so that you can then control what you do spend, and you don't have to answer to "shareholders."
Look at all of the awards that several of your papers have won related to September 11th, and the war on terror, but I'm a witness to the explosives that were in the foundation of 6th World Trade that morning. I'm a catastrophe victim, and I went to several of your newspapers with this information, and the FBI confirmed off the record to a woman with whom I'm acquainted in the NBC building, that there were explosives in her building and the Trade Center, and that she should go home. Now all of you, I mean, several of your papers won awards based on all this brouhaha over this new war on terrorism, and this horrific, I just can't convey the op that was done downtown. I mean, what do you people really want? Why don't you report the truth? You're protected by the Constitution. Go out there, be controversial, but what are you afraid of?
JM: Well, Geneva, what are you afraid of?
GO: I'm not afraid of any of those things you've said, and I don't know exactly what to make of your "you people" thing. I mean, you didn't contact me, so I don't know that I would have turned you down. I also don't think that prizes indicate that newspapers have done well in every respect. Prizes are another funny part of the system. Your statement that maybe people should go private, you remind me of my investment banker niece, who every time I bellyache about all this stuff, she goes, "Well you know, it's capitalism, if you want to be a not for profit, go non profit." The fact is that newspapers that have retained this two tiered voting structure, where family members really have an impact on the finances, and this is true of the New York Times, it's true of the Washington Post, it's true of the McClatchy newspaper company, my husband is Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, so I'm not objective about this, it's true of Dow Jones. I would argue that the best newspapers in this country are representative of this particular choice. Going private, I mean, it's not as easily said as done, but it's an important question. I think we're going to have to look at different ownership models for our media. National Public Radio is a different ownership model, and it continues investing in news in ways that many operations don't.
QUESTION: Curt Simmons, I teach here at Baruch. My question goes back to the drop in circulations which we started discussing a couple of minutes ago. And, it was addressed just a little bit in terms of talking about language, and the issue of minorities. And, the lack of diversification. I've worked for Dow Jones, and I've worked for Times Mirror, and I worked for the Daily News. And, the one thing that I can say is that there doesn't really seem to be, in most newsrooms, and from talking to various other reporter friends who are in those newsrooms, at this point, there doesn't seem to be this connection between real drops in circulations and the lack of diversity, in terms of newsrooms. New York is 60 something percent minority, and there's no one close to that number, in terms of a major newsroom. I think the closest is probably Newsday, with 20 something percent, and that's mainly out on Long Island. How can we expect there to be a connect between the readership, which is now overwhelmingly minority, especially if you're talking about in urban centers, and these newspapers, when there doesn't seem to be an attempt to really get those demographics right? I mean, other industries have recognized that. Movie industries market more towards minorities. When is the newspaper business going to start making that kind of movement, in that type of direction as well?
JM: Thank you Kurt. Well, one thing I would like just to respond initially, is I think the truest test of how well you cover your community is the diversity of the coverage. And, certainly the diversity of the staff is a big part of that, but I think you can look at some areas of public life, and I would argue that the New York Times actually does a pretty good job covering the public school system these days, even though it's doing it with a largely white group of reporters on that beat, but I think the coverage speaks to the concerns of the many families that participate in the public school system. So, I think it's fine to be concerned about minorities on the staff, and in fact I am, but I think the ultimate test should be how fair the coverage is. Jan, do you want to say anything?
JS: I think that's precisely the point. It's more than just a numbers game. It's really how you're framing the coverage, and whether story ideas that are brought to the table by Blacks, Asians, Hispanic, women are validated as legitimate news, because in truth they often bring to the table a very different definition of news, and they are not definitions that have been traditionally described as news stories. You can ask a conventional journalistic threshold for what is a good school, and you would say well, it's test scores, funding ratios, drop out rates. You could ask in a minority community what is a good school, and you might get a very different answer. You might get, "Well, is my kid learning anything? Does the principal return my phone calls? How do they treat bullies on the playground?" So, what is a good school? And, is a good school what we in journalism always say it is? You don't get to that, unless you have the right people on staff, I don't think.
JM: Dorothy, do you have anything on that subject?
DR: No, I think you've covered it.
JM: You know, one other point, Kurt, that you and I have talked about is, that I think one reason so many newspapers under-cover small business is that the business staffs are not particularly diverse, and miss a lot of community based stories, and immigrant entrepreneurs, and so on. So, there's a case where, I've said the education coverage I think is pretty good, I think the small business coverage, at least in the Times, is somewhere between awful, and non existent.
QUESTION: My name is Alice Libra(?) I'm a free lance op ed commentary writer, and I think if I understood it, Mr. Raines was given a mandate to I think broaden the readership, and so forth, and I just want to say for me, I'll miss him because I never liked the Times, because it was turgid and slow, and they never gave me the 5Ws in the first paragraphs. And, I started reading it after 9/11, and I would write Mr. Raines letters, and I even got a response once, from a Washington reporter, too. So, I'm going to miss him, and the day he converted me was the day that they put on the front page of the Times, in color a picture of a hero policeman. And, I never though I would see the day when the Times would honor law enforcement. So, I just want to say that I was one convert, and I'm going to miss him.
QUESTION: Malena Jackson, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. My concern since the Jayson Blair debacle, I like to call it for some reason, what are your thoughts on "Googling" it. If you are a reporter, and you find a subject matter, something you might be interested in, you go on Google, type it up, see what you can find out? Just for some reason, ever since this whole thing has come up, I question every move that I make, to make sure that it's accurate, and it's fair, and it gets the information to the reader. So, what would be your advice, as far as research is concerned, in reporting online, when you're researching online?
TG: Use Google with great caution, which is a change. I taught at Stanford, this past fall, and assigned papers, you know, general topics, and every, I don't think a single student, and they were good students, read a document. They all Googled, and they were quoting sources, I could not figure out where they came from. And, then I would look, and because they were on Google, and on the first screen, not necessarily good, in fact quite bad some of them. And, I think Google has great potential, but you really have to use it with the utmost caution.
GO: It's a place to start, not to finish.
JM: Now I think, I'm not sure if Columbia does this, but I know that we make a point here of teaching how to use the Internet, and getting away from your reliance on it, and Jerry Bornstein. I don't know if you're here, our wonderful research librarian, runs work shops on how to assess what you find on the Internet. And, I think that's a starting point for all journalists these days.
QUESTION: Roz Bernstein, from the Baruch Journalism Program. I would like to get back to specifically the Jayson Blair story, and ask the following question. What have we learned from the point of view of a management model, a newsroom management model? What is the best design, if there is such a design, for mentoring, nurturing the young reporter, so that this does not happen? You know, what's the balance between independence, and a sense of a system that works and catches these things, what design, if any, works?
GO: I'll take a stab at a few elements, I'm not sure that there is one. One thing is, of course, is that managers need to talk to one another, that was so painfully evident in the Times failure. Those who had spotted trouble were not always communicating with others, and some would say that's because they knew that Howell didn't want to hear it, whether that's fair or not, I think that's an element.
Another key is that we really, in the journalism biz, we've usually sort of operated on an un-named but defacto apprenticeship system, and in many newsrooms, that's broken down. Partly because veterans have been kind of pushed out, and we need to acknowledge that it has broken down, and that as one friend of mine said, what we spend on training is essentially equivalent to a rounding error. Whatever the model is, we've got to worry about it. We've got to care about whether these people are being nurtured. And, especially if we're going to bring young talent in, it just seems to me that's one of the things we clearly have to fix. And, I don't know if we know the model yet. First of all, we have to say, let's worry about it. The Times clearly just thinks you bring people in, and they sink or swim. It just can't work that way.
TG: I think it would be very regrettable if the lesson that was derived from this was sort of anti young person, because I think young people at newspapers add such great things. And, I was at the Wall Street Journal, I started at the Wall Street Journal when I was 26, and I was old. And, surely there's mentoring and training, but there should be room for fresh talent.
JM: Well, sadly, one casualty of the economic down turn, has been there has been a great drop in internships, particularly in paid internships that have historically been a ladder for bringing good young people into the newsroom. And, I think that it also gives news organizations an opportunity to evaluate people on the job. And, maybe that's one lesson that news organizations could take going forward.
QUESTION: Sir, my name is Aranna, my first name Joseph, and by the end of these comments, I do not know whether I will have many friends, but however few, they can call me Joe. I have been writing for the print media for the past 30 odd years, and have kept away from TV, because I was initially told that I didn't have the face for it. I have also eaten a lot of American hamburgers, and so open heart surgery, and so now I just write on an ad hoc basis.
I would like to broaden this a little bit to find out from each one of you, what you think about the news coverage that went on during the recent war in Iraq. Was it there for the purpose of reporting genuinely what was going on, or was it slanted towards putting America with the best face forward? I have been traveling recently, and I got so fed up with CNN, and its, in my opinion, biased American view, that I would switch to BBC, where I felt I would be a more non-biased viewpoint. We seem to have stressed about how well we did, in my opinion against a very rag tag army, and we rolled into Baghdad, and da, da, da, da, da, it went on and on and on. And, now we are starting to face the real war, because the bad guys have started to realize they can't face us with the armaments we have, and so they are using guerrilla war tactics, which we term terrorism.
I would like to know from each one of you, what you all think about I have just mentioned, and I would like your feedback. Thank you.
JM: Okay, thank you. Jan, do you want to start, and we'll just go right across the panel?
JS: So much of the postmortem about the war has really been around the issue of embedded reporters, and was that a good idea, or a bad idea. And, in truth, I think it just gave you a little slice of the pie. And, there's nothing wrong with a little slice of the pie. You eventually need to have the whole pie before you. I think what troubled me about the war coverage was something that troubles me about all of journalism, is what I would call another bad habit, and it's what I would almost characterize as the rise of stenographic journalism. And, it's we write it because he said it. And, so if the Reagan administration said it, or Victoria Clarke said it, or somebody in the field said it, we write it. And, we try to get another side, hopefully a Democrat, right? And, then our story is balanced. I think what's really troubling to me is there was a lot of administration folks saying it here. There were weapons of mass destruction. There would be shock and awe. It would be a short war. And, it's only now, considerable weeks later, that we are learning that intelligence data was probably manipulated, that there probably were no weapons of mass destruction. And, we've declared the war to be over, but funny, people are still dying, and I'm not sure why it's over. But, I'm very troubled by the war coverage, even though I think that American journalists were very brave, and got access to military action that really opened their eyes about a lot of things.
GO: Actually I would broaden your point, it seems to me that since 9/11, we in America have had a kind of an overt flag waiving, and patriotic isn't the right word in my view of patriotism, but as sort of an overtly nationalistic feeling of asserted pride, and I understand why we have it, but I think it's most inappropriate for journalists to have it, and it worries me that, as we already are worried about how people view us, I mean, way before the New York Times journalists were worrying a lot more about how people view us. We don't want to make people mad. Our owners want us to cultivate people. We want to have people buy us and watch us. And, so you watch flags waiving on the tube. And, I don't think this is good. We should be, I was on the television with Alan Simpson, former Senator Simpson, a remarkable guy, after 9/11, and he pointed his finger at me, and he said, "Finally, you journalists are going to give up your skepticism." And, I said, "Really, I think it would be great if we would give up our cynicism, but skepticism is patriotic for journalists." I think it is, and so I'm very concerned about that. It's not the first time this has ever happened, of course. I mean, in war coverage we tend to do home team coverage, and so did the BBC during the Falkland Islands, I would say. But, one good point is now you can read and see coverage from all over the world, so we can all get a better view than just MSNBC trying to out-Fox Fox, which is what I think happened.
GR: The idea that the BBC would offer you more objective coverage, I am still back there. I have to confess that nothing troubled me less than the thought that American journalists would not yield their citizenship, even though they were reporters. I don't think you could have faulted a whole generation of World War II reporters, who actually wore American uniforms, and American flag patches, and who went to cover the war bravely, and objectively, and successfully and made no effort to conceal their wish that we win the war, we being the United Nations, is very difficult to work oneself up to a problem with this. Waiving the flag is the way you talk about someone who puts the flag up. And, I think that it's one of the most interesting questions. There is an underlying hostility to all displays of identification with the nation. That is so interesting, that I think it is one of the things that one ought to think about in journalism -- that is, unless you simply sever yourself in a most unnatural way from who you are, where you come from, what you know, you are not an objective reporter, end of story.
TG: I would just like to reiterate, I think the coverage was a very, very mixed bag, in that journalists tend to forget the lessons that they learned from previous wars or encounters, but that's part of what journalism is. You cover elections, and there are postmortems, and you say you're going to do better, and you tend to repeat some of the same mistakes, then you have the same postmortems, but I think that cycle can be broken, and should be broken.
QUESTION: I'm Jim Drogen(?) I teach at Zicklin and I want to ask for a bit of a different perspective. I think if I were a journalist, I would learn an awful lot from what has happened and what's been discussed here. But, I'm not a journalist. I'm from outside the boundaries of journalism. What are the lessons that I should learn from this? How should I perhaps think about restructuring my behavior? For example, am I demanding enough of the news media?
JM: Thank you, I was going to ask that as my final question of the day, so I will let you have that honor. Let's take that as the final question, and let me expand it. How should readers and the public look at the media, in light of what we've learned, and what does the media need to do to restore whatever public trust it has had? Why don't we go right to left this time, so Tom, can I ask you to start.
TG: I started before, why don't we start in the other direction.
JM: Okay, Jan.
JS: I think that we are entering an era, we're already seeing it happen, where people are very engaged in the process of building their own news stories. We're no longer just delivering a finished product. And, this is made possible by all kinds of new technology. News organizations have to understand that while they will try, because it's the only thing we know how to do really, we will be delivering the finished product, in truth our audiences will be consuming components of that product. And, they will be very actively involved in building their internal master narrative of what they think went on that day, and that's what they will believe. And, I think that this story, above all else, shows us that that process is being very actively participated in by news consumers.
GO: I would second that. I guess part of the lesson that we've learned from the Times is that it's more evident than ever that the media are imperfect, but then who among us thought otherwise? I guess I would like to note that imperfection is hardly a surprising thing. It's a daily miracle that newspapers come out at all. I don't mean to excuse all the sins, but the fact is, having been in charge of one for seven years, I still am amazed at all that goes into it. And, to think of one the size of the Times. You know, the fact is, we've got a lot of good journalism in this country, and I think one lesson is, we all, as you said, we assemble the narrative ourselves. That means a good picture is going to be built of various elements, of listening and reading and viewing, and reading more longer term perspectives. You, obviously, would already do that. But, I think it's important. Sometimes people say to me, well, how can I believe what I read in this newspaper? Well, part of it is, you take this in, and you take other things in, to form a unified whole, but I really like your point, which is yes, you should ask more, and you should aggressively ask it. I'm so struck by how many people say, well, that's just what I expect from the paper. I mean, why should I call them? Why argue with people who buy ink by the barrel? I've heard every version there is. Wrong. You're a news consumer. And, if you want the news to be better, you have to ask for it to be better, and I hope you will. But, I also hope you'll think, well, these are servants of democracy, however imperfect, and we're still lucky in this country to have this free and lively and vigorous press.
DR: Well, I think that we should start thinking, not that it will ever happen, as journalists as less God-like figures. I don't know how it got to this position. If a journalist gets killed or wounded somewhere, the amount of attention paid is as though it was some great figure, elevated in our society. A journalist is a person who works, who is somehow, by dint of luck or talent, or whatever, got a job at a paper. You don't have to trust the papers, is the point. Why should you confide your God-given analytic powers and deduction to a single source. Use what's there, and say "I do, or I do not, believe it," and go on to the next sources. But, the amount of reverence, which is the only word I keep thinking of, that people attach to journalists, and figures in journalism is shocking, when you consider on whom they confer this reverence even more shocking. I mean, that's the answer. The other thing I would ask, more pragmatically, is are the editors at newspapers doing their job? Are they reading this copy? Are they saying, what are you talking about? How do I know this? How do you know this? The editors are not editing. How many times have you picked up a paper and said, don't they have any editors there? Key question. Go.
TG: Just to sort of reinforce some of the earlier comments, journalists are human, and we expect them to be super-human, and they're not. Also, I mean, one of the interesting aspects of what's happened at the Times, is I think there's a fascination among people, the storyline is a fall from grace, and that's always an important story, but I think more interestingly is that people care so deeply about what's going on. And, I think that has awakened in the eyes of many editors, that they have to connect more closely to their audience. So, I think you're going to see some big changes.
JM: Okay, well I would like to thank you all very much for coming. I would like to thank our panelists for joining us.


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