These critiques are valuable and necessary. Still, sometimes I think the situation is much simpler. Reading Larry Lessig’s pained response to New York Times coverage of a recent panel he shared with Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Steven Johnson (of Feed and several great books, including the forthcoming “Everything Bad is Good For You“) reminded me of why.
Lessig read the Times piece and, despite the number of people who told him they thought it was great, reported his disappointment in David Carr’s coverage — specifically, Carr’s failure to offer his readers a full understanding of the issues in the copyright controversy, which are far more complex (and interesting) than the dull-brained dichotomy of “I support piracy” vs. “I think artists should get paid” that the Hollywood content cartel promotes, and to which, Lessig felt, Carr’s piece reduced Tweedy’s position.
This disillusionment happens every day, even with publications at the top of the heap, like the Times, the Post and the Journal. (Our expectations for broadcast journalism are so minuscule that there’s less room for disappointment — we assume the worst going in.) We’re happy with what we read in the paper until we’re reading about something we know really well. Then, too often, with all but the very sharpest and most conscientious reporters, we see all the small errors, distortions, omissions and problems that are daily journalism’s epidemic affliction.
Of course we experienced our share of this over the years at Salon, during the period when every little sneeze and twitch of our business — as well, to be sure, as some more significant seizures — seemed to call forth an avalanche of coverage. If you bothered to complain about problems in coverage, the common reaction of most journalists followed a sort of Kubler-Rossian sequence of stages that rarely cycled all the way through to the end:
- Denial: There’s nothing wrong with our story. You’re blaming the messenger.
- Anger: Ingrate! You should be glad you’re getting any coverage at all.
- Bargaining: Okay, we did mis-spell that name, but does anyone really care about the distinction between “losses” and “debt”?
- Acceptance: The correction will run when we get around to it. (And we’ll remember what a pain in the butt you are the next time around.)
When our own stories were challenged, I always tried to remind our staff of how they felt when we were on the receiving end of sloppy coverage, and to work past the inevitable human reaction of defensiveness toward a more disinterested stance: if we got something wrong, we should be the most eager to find out what “right” is and fix the record. (This is one of those discussions where it remains useful to try to uphold the fast-eroding distinction in the language between “disinterest” — meaning, you can be neutral because you don’t hold any interest in the matter — and “uninterest,” meaning you’re bored.)
Of course, many complaints about coverage aren’t about simple facts but rather about emphasis, scope and slant, and the correction process doesn’t really help there, anyway. Lessig’s issue is probably in this category.
The problem is that writing on deadline is hard to begin with. Writing on deadline about a subject you’re only modestly knowledgeable about is even harder. The newsroom is a place of generalist bravado, in which most reporters feel perfectly qualified to write about anything, even if they’re flying blind. They’d better feel that way, since their editors ask them to do so all the time.
Until recently, each reader who saw the holes in the occasional story he knew well was, in essence, an island; and most of those readers rested in some confidence that, even though that occasional story was problematic, the rest of the paper was, really, pretty good. Only now, the Net — and in particular the explosion of blogs, with their outpouring of expertise in so many fields — has connected those islands, bringing into view entire continents of inadequate, hole-ridden coverage. The lawyer blogs are poking holes in the legal coverage, while the tech blogs are poking holes in the tech coverage, the librarian blogs are poking holes in the library coverage — and the political blogs, of course, are ripping apart the political coverage in a grand tug of war from the left and the right. Within a very short time we’ve gone from seeing the newspaper as a product that occasionally fails to live up to its own standards to viewing it as one that has a structural inability to get most things right.
Blogging potentially allows CEOs and politicians, companies and institutions to tell their own stories in their own words, and that’s dandy, but I’d never trust it as the only record. Coverage of important news by smart generalists — disinterested generalists — remains of great public value. But too many practitioners of this venerable art have grown (figuratively) fat and lazy from their monopoly position. They’re not used to being challenged, they don’t like being challenged, and too often their first reflex when challenged is to question the motive of the challenger.
Now the monopoly is fraying, the challenges are coming on in a wave, and the entire field is at a crossroads. As a profession, journalism has a choice: It can persist in a defensive, circle-the-wagons stance, pretending that nothing has changed. (The public has spontaneously and inexplicably decided to withdraw its trust from journalists! How strange! Let’s wring our hands and wait for the madness to pass.) Or it can accept the presence of millions of teeming critical voices as a challenge to shape up and do a better job.
It’s hard work, and it requires a level of humility that is not yet in wide enough supply in the newsrooms I’ve known. But most journalists are, or once were, idealists, and I think enough of them still wake up in the morning wanting to seek out and tell the truth that there’s hope they’ll come to understand that the Internet can be their ally in that quest, and not just a channel for random noise and personal invective. (It helps to have a thick skin and a functioning “ignore” filter for such invective when it’s encountered.)
As a business, journalism has a choice, too: It can ride out the monopoly’s sunset, delivering the dregs of a once-profitable position to investors until the business sputters out, replaced by a whole new system with new opportunities, problems — and owners. Or it can get entrepreneurial, invest in some new experiments, knowing that many will fail, but that the few successes could point a way out of today’s cul-de-sac.
Almost inevitably, incumbent business franchises choose door number one, the cul-de-sac. There are just too many reasons to say “no” to change, and too few guarantees of a payoff if you say “yes.” So, while I’m hopeful for the choice that the journalism profession will make, I’m skeptical that the business management of most media corporations today will will hear the alarms through their profit-drugged stupor and rouse themselves to do the unexpected.
After all, if they did, it would mean admitting that some of those ragtag bloggers might have been, you know, right.