Journalists should have seen it coming.
In the past few decades, this newspaperman has witnessed--from perches
as editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a member of the Pulitzer Prize
board--old-fashioned journalism undermined by several trends. Journalists
assumed the adversary stance toward government when the opposition party
flagged in hostility. Press-conference television favored the reporter
whose questions turned from firm but fair to rude and accusatory. TV
conferred celebrity on the quick and glib.
Celebrity brought money and glory to those reporters swift with the
sound bite. Huge speaking fees set the famous ones to writing windy
orations instead of muscular news stories. The old rumpled reporter chewing
on his pencil got his suit pressed and his hair styled--and wound up on
camera, where real reporters don't belong.
Higher pay and lower modesty in the ranks coincided with the newsroom
brass becoming soft. By turning papers' content over entirely to reporters,
editors disempowered their subeditors. At the same time, remnants remained
of a 1960s foolishness called New Journalism which suggested it was all
right to improve a true story the way Truman Capote and Norman Mailer did
in "In Cold Blood" and "The Executioner's Song."
Against such a background of rotting values, some journalists would be
sure to forget the bedrock value of decent journalism: Cut no corners. So
Janet Cooke, Patricia Smith and Stephen Glass made up stories in the
Washington Post, the Boston Globe and The New Republic, respectively.
Journalists used falsehoods to advance their politically correct
predilections. It's fashionable to dislike the military, so CNN/Time
wrongly reported the Army had used sarin against U.S. defectors in Laos;
big business is suspect, so the Cincinnati Enquirer's reporter used stolen
documents to try to tar Chiquita; the Central Intelligence Agency is seen
as a conspiratorial octopus, so the San Jose Mercury News suggested in a
series of articles that the U.S. was complicit in Los Angeles narcotics
imports, charges the paper later retracted.
And there was no crusty deskman who used to warn, "You're making a stove
out of steel wool here."
Perhaps the business side has played a part in the decline of
professional standards. The concentration of media ownership in a few hands
has come at the price of commitment to public service. Publicly held chains
must pay attention to the sensitivities of securities analysts, and those
birds are not overly sentimental about good intentions that might dilute
shareholders' profits. Add to the mix competition from new technologies
like the Internet, and front offices start trying to count jumping
Cranky owners of the only paper in town are seldom around anymore to
tell demanding advertisers, "You can take your ad across the street." For
the advertisers can now yank ads and hand them to direct mailers. They can
walk ads over to a TV channel or buy a whole 30-minute infomercial.
They can buy consecutive pages in magazines with the space ambiguously
labeled "paid for." They've gained purchase on newspaper advertising
managers. Just note those two-column ads floating right in the middle of
the stock market quotations so as to obstruct the reader's eye.
Managers can feel the heat when they bend old rules. When the publisher
announces he's going to tear down the Chinese Wall between the advertising
department and the newsroom, as Mark Willes has done at the Los Angeles
Times, it helps him if he has journalistic credentials. If, like Mr.
Willes, he's a marketer who has not lived through the inevitable tensions
between printing the truth and displeasing influential people, he is not
helped with the troops.
Editors and beat reporters are bred by nature and trained by experience
to monitor such business-side developments. When some distant corporate
headquarters gets the local editor talking Dilbert-speak about FTEs
(full-time equivalents) and MBOs (management by objective), the signal is
noted. Hand-licking fads like "civic journalism" may soothe the business
office into thinking maybe those bomb throwers in the newsroom are finally
going to grow up and get nice. But once a couple of public projects blow up
in the face of a newspaper that has promoted them in its news columns,
journalists are likely to get back to covering the public officials who
were elected to do this work.
So it's useful to note that the resurgence of the business side, which
is suffering pressures on its own values, accompanies the softening of the
news side's standards--standards on which a paper's public credibility
Journalism is in a rough patch. So let me repair to the axiom of the
late Vermont Royster, whose stylish editorials in this newspaper disarmed
his enemies by conceding their strengths before he attacked them. "First
you give them something," Mr. Royster used to say, "then you take it
Given the glaring faults of contemporary journalism, I remain confident
that the news media will learn the lessons of the recent embarrassments and
succeed in pulling up their socks before the public loses faith in them.
The written word is going to prevail as the reliable record of a free and
reflective society, no matter what technology delivers it to the reader,
and the tough idealists who take up this line of work will be committed in
the main merely to telling the truth.
[Mr. Patterson is the former editor of the St. Petersburg Times and a former editor at the Washington Post.]