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Journalists on Journalists

September 30th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

There are few things more entertaining than “journalists covering journalists.” This happens all the time. Television news shows interview their “reporters in the field.” Cable talk shows interview the anchors of the TV news shows. Newspaper reporters interview other newspaper reporters. Recent examples include slow moments at both the Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson trials; the same, in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and even the execution of Timothy McVeigh, where 1,600 journalists were credentialed, Marks, P., “Story of McVeigh’s Death Gives Journalists Pause,” New York Times (May 8, 2001). At all of these events, journalists were forced to resort to what only can be characterized as a form of cannibalism (that is, interviewing each other), in order to stay on air.

There are plenty of examples of this in the print media, too. For example, in Spring of 2003, the New York Times ran a series of articles, entitled, “A Nation at War.” It was not about the Iraqi war itself; but rather, about how journalists were covering it. They did the same thing with the war in Afghanistan in Fall of 2001, before the invasion of Iraq; that series was called “A Nation Challenged.” And they also did the same thing following the 9/11 attack, Barringer, F. & Fabrikant, G., “A Day of Terror: the Media; As an Attack Unfolds, A Struggle to Provide Vivid Images to Homes,” New York Times (Sep’t 12, 2001).

I have two particular favorites. The New York Times once published a story about a story in the Wall Street Journal, which in turn was about a story in the Seattle Times, Barringer, F., “With Prizes Near, Paper Prints Attack on Other’s Entry,” New York Times (Mar. 20, 2002). Another is an article in the New York Times about the New York Times’ own coverage of events that occurred at the New York Times, Calame, B., “When the Newspaper Is the News,” New York Times (Dec. 4, 2005).

I think these types of stories – that is, journalists interviewing journalists – should be abolished. I think that articles in newspapers only should be about real events that have occurred in the real world. While I don’t mind interviews, they always should be with the principals involved – never with journalists. The reason why is simple. Journalists aren’t the actors or protagonists in the story, itself. Rather, they simply are commentators on the action, one step removed (or three, as in the above examples). When they purport to “relate” the story to another journalist, they subtly but pervasively incorporate all kinds of potential bias — bias that would be weeded out by an effective editor. Readers don’t want some journalist’s “take” or “slant” on the news — they can get that on the editorials page. Rather, they want the “news” itself, straight from the source.

In other words, they share the same logical status as the very reporter writing the story. I don’t know if its laziness, unavailability, or inanition, but if for whatever reason the reporter writing the story can’t get to principals, then the story shouldn’t be published. Because all that’s being published, is some other journalist’s perspective on the underlying events – nothing about the underlying events, themselves.

I would allow an exception to this principle, which is when journalists are writing about actual events that also just happen to involve their newspaper. For example, when Judith Miller left the New York Times in the wake of controversy over the CIA leak case, the New York Times itself covered the story, Seelye, Katharine Q., “Times Reporter Agrees to Leave the Paper,” New York Times (Nov. 10, 2005). The same thing happened when it appointed a Public Editor, Steinberg, J., “The Times Chooses Veteran of Magazines and Publishing as Its First Public Editor,” New York Times (Oct. 27, 2003); and, when Jason Blair “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud,” Barry, D., et al., Correcting the Record: Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” New York Times (May 11, 2003).

I’m not picking on the New York Times, which after all is said and done is the best newspaper in the world. Other papers such as the Los Angeles Times (which I also happen to read, seeing as how I’m sitting here in Los Angeles) also provide instructive examples.

I would allow, for example, David Shaw’s 1999 analysis of a business deal the Times had struck with the Staples Center, a local convention hall, to publish a special issue of the paper’s Sunday magazine, devoted to the arena. The deal became a scandal when it was revealed the two sides had agreed to split profits resulting from the sale of ads. Shaw’s article ran to some 37,000 words – a massive act of journalistic introspection equaled only by the Jason Blair coverage in the New York Times.

I also have no problems with the Los Angeles Times’ recent coverage of various management disputes it’s having with its corporate parent, Tribune Co. Rainey, J., “Local Leaders Urge Owner of The Times to Avoid Cuts,” Los Angeles Times (Sep’t 14, 2006); Rainey, J. & Mulligan, T., “Tribune Defends Its Ownership of The Times,” Los Angeles Times (Sep’t 19, 2006); Rainey, J., “Times Publisher Acts to Mend Rift,” Los Angeles Times (Sep’t 21, 2006); Rutten, T., “Absentee owners skew the coverage,” Los Angeles Times (Sep’t 23, 2006).

The reason why is that all of these were stories about events that took place in the real world. I don’t want to abolish all “news about the news;” rather, just when the media interviews itself, in order to get the story.

A little bit dicey, on the other hand, is a story like Johnson, R., “Trashing the media – Veteran journalists are coming to some grim conclusions about their industry. Are they raising red flags or merely grinding axes,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 11. 2004). This ostensibly is about a real-world event – that is, journalists’ opinions about the journalism business. However, on closer inspection, it really turns out to be a case of journalists interviewing journalists – and not about a real-world event, but rather, their opinion of journalism and other journalists. This one would have to go.

Another puzzling case is the movie “Snakes on a Plane.” After it was discovered by the blogosphere, the movie became the story itself (not the story being told by the movie, but rather, the fact of the movie’s existence, its cute, self-referential title, etc.). All of this coverage in mainstream-media inspired the producers to incorporate situations and story lines suggested by bloggers, into the movie itself, thus creating a kind of neural feedback loop. While the movie did reasonably OK for a movie of its ilk, it did no better than that; in other words, all of the internet activity, and resulting media publicity, did not seem to contribute to its domestic theatrical box office. Proving, I guess, that internet buzz is not necessarily a key to success; and that people tend to talk about things without necessarily intending to actually do them (i.e., go out and see the movie).

In exchange for not writing any more stories about themselves, I have a proposal, which is that under no circumstances should journalists be required to reveal their sources. This became an issue not only in the Judith Miller case, but also in the Wen Ho Lee matter, Liptak, A., “News Media Pay in Scientist Suit,” New York Times (Jun. 3, 2006). Put slightly differently, I would abolish the notion of any journalistic privilege, if there was evidence that another reporter was one of the sources. I also would add caveats to the effect that the article can’t be an editorial, i.e., it has to be a fair and unbiased report of the underlying events; and, that the article in fact was published (which ended up being a curious wrinkle in the whole Judith Miller saga).

This seems like a fair trade-off, because if the media are covering a real-world event, and not just a report of a real-world event, then they should be entitled to some form of protection. They’re not just like any other “ordinary” witness to the event, because they’ve disseminated the information to a mass audience, and there is a public interest in this type of activity.

If anybody else has examples of hot media-on-media action like the above, please send them to me; thanks in advance!