The halls of professional journalism rang out with schadenfreude-fueled howls of derision this week at the Washington Post’s ludicrously misbegotten “salon” scheme. (Catch up with the story here if you’re out of the loop.) That the Post’s publisher would have even considered trying to turn her living room into a sort of influence-peddling bazaar has shocked, shocked everyone in its newsroom and most journalists outside.
Of course it was a bad idea. Arguably the Post did even more damage to its credibility in trying to explain itself than it did with the original concept — as for instance with the declaration that a beautifully designed and widely distributed flyer was a “draft.” (Surely the paper of Watergate record understands the old adage about the coverup being worse than the crime? Maybe not.)
But before the critiques gets too self-righteous, let’s recall that the blurring of editorial and business lines is happening everywhere. Magazine journalism is full of it. We will see even more of it as the business of print publishing continues to decay and publishers scramble for revenue. The Post’s “salons” aren’t the first instance of this kind of aggressive monetization of a journalistic reputation, and they won’t be the last. Because, alas, integrity doesn’t pay for health insurance. I say that with no glee, but rather as someone who fought countless similar battles over the years at Salon — mostly, I’m happy to say, winning ones — to keep the lines from blurring too far.
The Post’s hamfisted exercise in influence-peddling was a sitting duck the moment it became public. It’s the more obscure and fuzzy integrity questions that can be more dangerous to a publication’s credibility over time. I’m thinking of the questions that popped into my head as I read a recent New York Times profile of a society wife named Lisa Marie Falcone. About halfway into the piece, the writer informs us that Falcone is married to a man named Philip Falcone whose hedge fund “owns about 20 percent of The New York Times Company.” Whoa! (The story also tells us that Falcone became a billionaire by betting against subprime mortgages. So while the government was busy bailing out the financial firms that had made the stupid bets in the mortgage market, the cash went right into the pockets of the people who’d made the smart bets — presumably, the Falcones of the world.)
Is there any direct connection between Falcone’s stake in the Times and the article I read? Probably not — but who really knows? The piece’s problematic scent is unmistakable; you can’t help thinking that every word it uses to describe its subject — “wide-eyed idealism,” “quirky, independent” — had to have been agonized over. And that awareness on the reader’s part that something is off about the piece makes it unsatisfying and opaque. Whatever the story behind the story is, we’re not getting it.
The dance of awkward partial disclosure performed by journalists given the unenviable job of writing about their owners is even more painful to watch than the ritual self-lashings of an institution caught, as the Post was, in straightforward acts of corruption. I can’t help thinking that one remedy for both species of trust-eroding behavior is for newsrooms to get way more serious about transparency — which is a fancy way of saying they should be honest, forthright and open. Journalists have the opportunity to model for the rest of the world the behavior their work demands of others: tell the truth; don’t hide from questions; reveal your practices and processes; and if you screw up, tell all, fast.
The Times profile of Falcone concludes with this quote from her: ““I speak from my heart… I know that sometimes can get me in trouble. But that’s the only way I know how to be.” On the basis of the Times piece I actually think Falcone is hardly a paragon of “speaking from the heart.” But it would be nice if more journalists, editors and publishers understood how valuable “speaking from the heart” can be today. And if they did, we might pile on them a little less mercilessly on those occasions when they screw up.
- July 3, 2009 @ 10:18:13 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- July 3, 2009 @ 10:16:21 by Scott Rosenberg