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Is the damage to the press self-inflicted?

Ken Auletta

Writer, The New Yorker

Ken Auletta

But my own attitude is that the operative bias to worry about in the press is not a liberal bias, or even a conservative bias, though those exist. The operative bias you've got to worry about is the bias for conflict, and I think that oftentimes does cause us to have mindless coverage of events and to focus on the wrong thing, not on policy but on who's involved in a spat with each other. That gives a nice headline. And maybe our editors and bosses who worried about circulation and ratings like that more. But it isn't necessarily the function we're supposed to perform. ...

... And what have the media done maybe to help foster that impression or damage themselves?

Oh, let us count the ways. The media damages itself in many, many ways. One, you start with the blatant mistakes that are out there, be it Jack Kelley, USA Today, who makes up stories, or the fellow [Jayson Blair] at The New York Times who makes up stories and is thrown out for that; be it the television reports that are exaggerated; be it the pictures in Time magazine that are composite on the cover. So we're constantly making mistakes and giving ammunition to our critics. ...

On the other hand, we do a lot of good things and have for many, many years. There was a period of time when [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein were reporting Watergate in '72, '73 and early '74, where the charge was The Washington Post is biased, and people like Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire to a lesser extent were out there railing against the press, against the anti-Nixon bias. Well, in retrospect, they were right. They did a pretty good job. So the press has a mixed record like every institution has a mixed record. And we do better if we admit our mistakes. That's why it's a healthy thing to see ombudsmen or public editors or correction boxes, or to see press critics online, who hold us to account. ...

 

Carl Bernstein

Now, it could involve a financial sacrifice, but if we're talking about this in real time and not as an exercise in the hypothetical, we have to look at how the profession has changed. We have to look at what reporting represents today. We have to look at how few institutions there are that do good reporting, at how the standards of so much of the so-called media have little to do with the best obtainable version of the truth. ...

You go all over America and you see small papers that do really good jobs in their communities of reporting. The modern New York Times, the modern Washington Post, the modern Wall Street Journal are better papers than they were at the time of Watergate in most respects. But if you look at the rest of the field, ... real news based on the best obtainable version of the truth was becoming less and less a commodity, less and less a real part of our journalistic institutions.

But what seems to be breaking down?

Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff -- gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy. Take a look at the cable news channels, at these food fights that go on every day under the guise of news or information that's going to improve your knowledge. ...Why is that? It has to do with what the values of our institutions are.

I started in 1960 at a great newspaper, The Washington Star, no longer in existence. ... It was drummed into my head as a copyboy that the bottom line in what we do is to try and find out truth, not the bottom line in terms of profit. Today that is no longer the case. The conflict between the bottom line of truth and profit ... has become a terrible conflict, and the bottom line is winning except at institutions that can still afford to have these principles, like the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal -- small family-owned newspapers in America.

 
John Carroll

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

John Carroll

I can just hear some blogger out there saying: "What are you talking about? [New York Times reporter] Jayson Blair, 'Rathergate' -- there's a whole series of missteps and ethical lapses."

There have always been those. The difference today is that there is an array of other parties outside of newspapers who make it their business to amplify the problems in the press: The bloggers do it; the talk show hosts do it; the president of the United States and his staff do it; innumerable political groups of right and left do it; and then there are also many interest groups that do it.

All of them have a vested interest in damaging the credibility of newspapers. The newspapers have certainly done their share to damage their own credibility, but that is the nature of daily journalism. Daily journalism is, by definition, imperfect. It's not history. It's daily journalism, and it is flawed. And the only way that a good newspaper can give the reader a faithful portrayal of what's going on is to correct itself day after day and to add more perspective, and over time the reader gets the idea.

The Jayson Blair episode was bad, but the public was not damaged by it in the long run because it's all been corrected; everybody knows it's done. The only damage was to the New York Times and to the profession generally. But these things have happened forever. When I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1973, the paper's chief investigative reporter was in the penitentiary for extortion. Very few people know that because we didn't have all this amplification, and the Inquirer was able to absorb that devastating blow -- and it was devastating; there are people today who probably cringe when they think about it -- but it was able to overcome that and become a great newspaper.

So you're saying, then, there's unfair magnification.

Yes. It's out of proportion. Newspapers are out there stating whatever they want to state to the public, and therefore they're totally fair game and deserve criticism, and are made better by criticism. But if a reader thinks that the New York Times is just a terrible outfit or the Los Angeles Times is just a terrible outfit that distorts the news and isn't honest, they're not being realistic. There's no better source of news in America than a top-tier newspaper. By that I mean New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the L.A. Times. Nothing can touch that.

When you get your news from these talk shows or from television network news, you're not in the ballgame, as far as being a sophisticated, informed citizen, with someone who is getting their news from a top-ranked newspaper.

So when you hear somebody say that you are "elite, arrogant, condescending, self-serving, self-righteous, biased and wrongheaded" --

Yeah, that was from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and it was in response to a column in which I not only criticized him and his protégé, Mr. [Bill] O'Reilly, but actually made light of him, which I think was an unpardonable offense. So does it bother me that Roger Ailes feels that way about me? No. I'd be disappointed if he didn't. That's part of being in public life.

You said his network practices "pseudojournalism." Give me an example.

I cited my paper, the L.A. Times, as an example. O'Reilly attacked my paper for certain perceived failures, which were factually and provably false, and he wouldn't correct it. For example, when we criticized Arnold Schwarzenegger for dealing in an unseemly way with women, O'Reilly went on the air and asked: "Where was the Los Angeles Times when Clinton was misbehaving in Arkansas? Why didn't they do anything then? This proves that they are biased against Republicans and conservatives and in favor of liberals." But when you look at the record, the Los Angeles Times was the leading newspaper in exposing Clinton on the so-called Troopergate scandal in Arkansas. We had as many as nine reporters in Arkansas at that time. We broke that story in newspapers. ... Yet O'Reilly says we didn't cover it. That's what I meant by pseudojournalism: The facts don't matter; it's made up.

They would argue you're mixing up two things. They're a news network. They have reporters out in the field who have covered Iraq, who have risked their lives -- you just don't like the politics of their commentators.

No, ... the politics doesn't bother me in the least. I read and listen to a wide variety of commentary from left and right, and I find it interesting; I find it fun to read; I find it challenging; I learn from it. I'm totally in favor of that.

But the old-time commentators who were so revered, people like [New Republic founder] Walter Lippmann and [New York Times columnist] James Reston and so on, they built their reputations by being journalists. They were faithful to the facts. They didn't make things up; they didn't lie; and they corrected their own errors. This crowd -- and I'm thinking particularly of the Fox commentators, but it's not limited to them -- they're not journalists, because they don't care about that stuff.

 
James Goodale

First Amendment attorney

James Goodale

... Some prominent reporters, particularly in television, over the last 15 years have testified before federal grand juries.

I know of one. I was disappointed. I don't think they should have done it. ... I'm glad you said the last 15 years. One thing we haven't talked about is that I'm sitting here as the veteran of 30 years ago in the Caldwell case, and there's been a change in the attitudes of the press toward testifying and giving up sources. It's not as militant, in a nice way, as it was 30 years ago, and I'm not happy with that.

We've gotten soft?

Yes. The press has gotten soft. ... I think the press is under huge pressure with respect to the Internet and everything else, and as a consequence, it's more difficult to take on a huge fight like this for them -- in a real sense. ... When you have 6 million bloggers picking on a mainstream media, that is going to take some of mainstream media's energy to deal with that, OK? …

Even though many parts of the empire are declining, the proper strategy, in my view, would be to stand up and fight, because that will make you important forever and enable you to survive. Now, [that] may be a tough sell to the accountants that are looking at the readers who are going on the Net, so forth and so on. But honestly, I don't think you really want to have mainstream media that doesn't stand up and fight. ... Someone ... has got to stand up to the government. Someone has got to stand up for these institutions. And part of that process is fighting these subpoenas.

 
Nicholas Kristof

Columnist, The New York Times

Nicholas Kristof

Is it a political strategy to attack the press today?

Yeah. I think a long time ago politicians figured out that offense is often a pretty good form of defense. The Nixon administration was particularly successful at that, in portraying journalists as not just wrong and unfair, but also an unelected elite.

It is effective in part because we do have a problem in the news media of elitism, and it's one I think that we should be trying to address. There really is a deep resentment and anger on the part of a lot of Americans at the way we report things. …

You think the press is out of step with the rest of America?

Journalism has moved upmarket to some degree since Watergate. Increasingly, if you look at the nation's biggest newspaper and television networks, we're staffed by Ivy League-educated people, often with professional degrees. We're perhaps more likely to know London and Paris than small towns in Texas or Alabama, where you'd have roughly a quarter or one-third of America that is evangelical Christian. There are very few reporters in mainstream news organizations who are evangelicals.

That does mean that we're not as representative as we should be, that we can't cover some parts of America as well as we should. There are very few reporters for the large news organizations who have military experience. That is something important -- it's harder to understand if you don't have people in the newsroom who have been in that kind of situation. So I think we also do need to look at ourselves and figure out ways of having a genuine diversity that is not just about race but also goes to the breadth of the American experience and try to incorporate a fuller range of background.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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