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The Times tumbles down
Matt Welch
National Post
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LOS ANGELES - When O.J. Simpson was ruled not guilty of murdering his wife, the United States discovered overnight the chasm of difference in perception between blacks (who found the verdict reasonable) and whites (who found it insane).

Something similar is going on with the fabrication scandals that have rocked The New York Times this month. Elite reporters and editors are reacting to the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg revelations with sorrow and anxiety, while the rest of us proles revel in the spectacle of a haughty institution being humbled and mocked.

Why are journalists so glum? Because The New York Times is their gold standard. It's the paper they all want to work for and, in the meantime, emulate.

"Its authority ... isn't just journalistic; it's downright ontological," The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg wrote a week after the Paper of Record published a 14,000-word exposť detailing Blair's history of barefaced lying. "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Times defines public reality."

This will certainly come as news to the "public," 99% of which doesn't read the paper.

Such top-down thinking -- with the Times up on the mountain, handing down stone tablets of truth to the throngs -- is typical of those lamenting the Times' fall.

"The Times sets the news agenda that everyone else follows," former Slate and New Republic editor Michael Kinsley wrote admiringly in The Washington Post last week. "Our basic awareness of what is going on in the world derives in large part from the Times."

In Kinsley's elitist world, a story isn't a story unless the Times (or The Washington Post) says so: "It's true that the journalistic food chain runs both ways: Big media like the Times often pick up stories and information from smaller fish, often with insufficient credit or none at all. But it is the imprimatur of the Times or the Post that stamps the story as important, before sending it back down to other papers."

Readers -- not to mention the legions of quality reporters at the nation's other 1,500 dailies -- can be forgiven for finding this notion laughable and borderline offensive. Since when does a meritocratic country of 276 million weirdos need a single council of wise men to decide what stories are important?

Yet some people act as if our very democracy depends on this essentially undemocratic notion.

"America's readers need The New York Times to re-establish its credibility," warned Mike Clark, the "reader advocate" for The Florida Times-Union. "America's journalists need the Times to regain its status as a journalistic role model."

This last point is highly disputable, though rarely disputed. The New York Times publishes in the most cosmopolitan and competitive newspaper market in the country; its focus on global and national stories, and its tone of liberal intellectualism, make perfect sense in an international and Democratic city that already has three local tabloids and two right-leaning dailies.

Almost every newspaper that views the Times as a role model, on the other hand, is a local monopoly in a less liberal city. Chances are, it will equate success with such Timesian yardsticks as Pulitzer prizes, and (in the immortal words of Rick Bragg) the ability "to go get the dateline."

All the more reason why the Times' horrible month will be good for journalism -- if it causes papers to reconsider their newsroom values and journalistic role models, old bad habits may receive a fresh round of scrutiny.

Already, many dailies are tightening up their use of anonymous sources, which have long been the crutch of budding fabulists. Newsrooms across the country are conducting internal investigations to determine whether they could be fooled by the next Jayson Blair, and are looking for ways to interact more smoothly with their readers. According to The Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz, "The Saint Paul Pioneer Press and The Plain Dealer [of Cleveland] will soon begin sending letters asking people who have been written about in their pages if they had been covered accurately."

As importantly, the bulk of this navel-gazing is happening in public, giving readers a rare, transparent glimpse into the sausage-making minutiae of newspapering. A week ago, if you had asked 10 Americans about the journalistic significance of the word "dateline," nine probably would have said "that stupid entertainment show on NBC."

Now, after Times reporter Rick Bragg was caught filing evocative feature stories with datelines from cities he barely visited, and two weeks after Blair was outed as an out-and-out dateline fabricator, it's a household word.

And non-journalists aren't the only ones learning about this concept -- I certainly had no idea that such a thing as "dateline pressure" even existed, and only in the midst of the current crisis did I learn that Bloomberg News fudged a bunch of datelines from Iraq during the war. (The financial newswire announced this week it is responding to the controversy by scrapping datelines altogether ... the less the information, the fewer chances of making it up, I guess!)

Further, I learn by looking at my colleague Amy Langfield's Web site that, "There has been rampant dateline abuse by many news organizations for years.... Over the years, I've been told by editors to use the good dateline if there was a photographer there, or if a press release originated from there or if a completely unreliable stringer whose information we couldn't use was there." Who knew?

To be sure, there are more weighty and pressing issues facing the world than the previously obscure practices of professional news organizations. But it does make for amusing theatre, especially in an institution as humourless and self-regarding as the American press.

And it also has a strong upside, if journalists would just look at it from a different angle. Typically, when reporlue="http://www.canada.com/weather/forecast.aspx?city=Vancouver&rg=BC">Vancouver



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