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Bad news bearers
What’s black and white and not much read?
On Saturday, November 17, seven big-time editors and reporters, one celebrated blogger, and a former presidential press secretary met on the stage of Robsham Theater to consider the latest puzzles, annoyances, and threats facing the mainstream media. The occasion of this worry-fest was a symposium titled “No News Is Bad News,” which like three previous fall convocations—on presidents, the voting rights act, and the Supreme Court—was sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and hosted by Boston College. Over the course of the afternoon, before an audience of some 300, panels of speakers chewed over such topics as the challenge of the Internet, plummeting newspaper circulation (and advertising revenues), shrinking staffs, and charges of liberal and conservative bias. The grimmest consideration of all, however, was undertaken by the first panel—a set of war correspondents who addressed the risks and obligations of reporting from Iraq, where the conflict has resulted in the death of 124 journalists, including 32 in 2006 alone—a single-year record, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Boston Globe‘s Kevin Cullen (Iraq, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia) and the Washington Post‘s Pulitzer winner Anthony Shadid (West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq) spoke of the difficulties attendant on their work in Iraq because reporters, Western reporters especially, are increasingly seen as legitimate military targets—something new in the annals of journalism, according to the panelists. “I was only in Iraq for a week,” Cullen said, “and I thought I was going to die every day. I was in Belgrade for 40 days of bombing every night, and I never thought I’d die.” Shadid, who arrived at Robsham with what appeared to be a diaper tote slung over his shoulder (his young daughter was in the audience), and who was wounded by an Israeli round several years ago while reporting from the West Bank, noted bluntly, “I have a daughter, and I’ve sometimes taken risks I shouldn’t have taken.” During his last tour in Iraq, he said, secu-rity was so perilous that “I simply couldn’t do my job anymore.” Without the Iraqi journalists who make up 80 percent of the Post’s Baghdad staff, “the story would not be coming out,” he said, adding, “The Middle East, probably the most relevant region in terms of news, is in some ways in a process of entropy. It’s collapsing. We have to figure out how to cover that story.”
A third panelist, the Kennedy School of Government’s Samantha Power (former Yugoslavia, Darfur), herself the winner of a Pulitzer for A Problem from Hell, her book on genocide, described the cost-benefit analysis she did when offered a reporting assignment in a war zone. Power, who traveled to Darfur in 2005 to interview the head of the Janjaweed militia, said, “No one had gotten to the head of Janjaweed, and there was no evidence that we as Americans or as Westerners or as journalists were targets, even though . . . this guy was clearly a killer par excellence.”
Adding insult to the serious prospect of injury, those covering Iraq face charges of bias from the war’s supporters and critics at home and abroad. The war reporter’s job is to analyze and explain the conflict, said Shadid, and not to express pro- or anti-war views. But “increasingly, the political culture in the United States doesn’t want that type of discussion. It wants to know which side are you on.”
As if to illustrate the point, a woman who identified herself as a Boston College graduate used one of the floor microphones to accuse the panel (and the University) of a “liberal bias that made it impossible for you to think positively about the war.”
“How would you presume to know what our bias is?” retorted Cullen, whose short stay in Iraq had resulted in a column about some U.S. marines who had flown a sick Iraqi girl out of the country for medical treatment.
A second audience member, equally impassioned, came at the panel from the opposite angle, asking whether the media would keep the country from “being spun into another war,” this time with Iran. “Apologies [for being misled on the Iraq war] aren’t what we need,” she said. “We need an independent press.”
Power responded by saying that the invasion of Iraq took place during a time, following 9/11, when normal journalistic skepticism “melted away,” as had—she noted—most checks and balances within government. Citing recent editorials against a war with Iran in the Washington Post and New York Times, she expressed hope that this period of immoderate trust had itself now passed.
The symposium’s second panel, titled “Political Reporting,” was the one that featured Joe Lockhart, the former presidential press secretary, and unsurprisingly, it turned into a discussion of the Clinton impeachment, which occurred on Lockhart’s watch. The former spokesman recalled that the audience for news increased following the revelations of the president’s Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky—that is, until Ken Starr, the special prosecutor, issued his report, after which the public, its thirst for naughty details quenched, “went back to watching Oprah” and largely ignored the impeachment proceedings themselves.
Marcy Wheeler, the author of a book on the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and a well-known blogger under the name “emptywheel,” said that had she been blogging at the time of the impeachment, she would have focused on exposing the “partisan media outlets” that were targeting the president. Conceding that Clinton had, by his behavior, played into the hands of those who wished to damage his political career, Lockhart returned to one of the themes raised in the first panel: “What the coverage cried out for was perspective—political perspective, journalistic perspective. . . . Maybe it’s just nostalgic to think that journalism as an institution used to provide that.”
If the day’s final panel examined the media through a more mundane lens—flagging profit margins suffered by newspapers and the weakened position of newspapers relative to new media—its focus was no less significant, pertaining to the quantity and quality of original reporting being accomplished by staff-reduced media organizations, and the related question of whether newspapers remain capable of producing telling accounts of government activity. John Carroll, who in 2005 resigned as editor of the Los Angeles Times after a series of layoffs of editorial staff ordered by the Times‘s corporate parent, the Tribune Company, observed that “corporate ownership has accelerated the decline of our best newspapers, and some bad ones.” Corporate owners, Carroll said, having grown accustomed to newspaper profits in the range of 20 percent, have dealt with their loss of audience to web publishing and cable news not by deciding to live with lesser profits but by cutting costs: laying off reporters, which in turn decreases the attractiveness of newspapers, further driving readership elsewhere.
Nevertheless, all three panelists—Carroll; Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times; and David Carr, who covers the media business for the New York Times—agreed that among publishers of all kinds, newspapers still have a crucial role to play in keeping government transparent and accountable to citizens. With the downsizing of news staffs, however, “the stockpile . . . of original reported information is shrinking,” said Carroll, and blogs, generally one-person operations, seem unlikely to be able fill the reportage hole traditionally filled by teams of shoe-leather reporters working the courthouses, the streets, and the conference and hearing rooms of government. Carroll said he took comfort in the fact that corporate newspaper chains, unhappy with their dwindling profits, were starting to spin off newspapers to local owners who may pay more attention to broad and deep news coverage and less to the perceived need for annual profits of 20 percent or more.
Another business model for newspapers was described by Neil Brown, whose St. Petersburg Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to training journalists. While the Times itself is a for-profit business, it doesn’t face the same financial pressures as a corporate-owned paper, said Brown.
The New York Times‘s Carr brought up two more models, including one in which a newspaper’s corporate parent earns its large profits elsewhere and uses the paper as “a hood ornament.” (He mentioned, among others, the Washington Post, whose parent, the Washington Post Company, owns the highly profitable Kaplan test preparation firm.) Another model cited by Carr would have elite newspapers, those that provide “trusted, branded content,” drastically increase subscription prices and accept the resulting loss of circulation. The demand for “the New York Times and Wall Street Journal is inelastic, and many people will stay with those papers no matter what you ask for them,” said Carr. These newspapers will “come out on the other end a smaller business, but . . . with an incredibly rich, exciting demographic” of affluent, influential readers whom “advertisers are going to be dying to reach.”
The panel, and with it the symposium, ended on that mildly hopeful note. Ellen Hume, director of the Center on Media and Society at UMass–Boston, the panel’s moderator, sent the audience out into the evening with this valediction: “Please pay for your subscriptions, if you can.”
David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.
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