November 20, 2002

My Latest Reason Piece -- '...

My Latest Reason Piece -- 'Woe is Media: It's Time to Save Journalism From its Saviors': Please, friends, read it!

It's a critical discussion of a group I christen the "Harvard 25" -- two-dozen of the profession's elite who gathered on that august campus a few years back to wring their hands in unison and launch the Committee of Concerned Journalists. I review two books from Harvard 25 faves, and mention a couple of others. It took a long time to read & write & get published, so your attention is my reward.

Posted by at November 20, 2002 11:10 PM
Comments

Great stuff Matt! Keep on pooping on the poobahs who wish everyone's navels were as lint-free as their own.

Posted by: henry at November 21, 2002 05:23 AM

I went to journalism school (Ohio State University) in 1986 to learn to become a radio news reporter. Why radio news was the wrong area to study is another story! Here are a few tidbits of wisdom I learned. Remember, this is 1986.

-- Newspapers have been failing since the 1950's ... and not being replaced.

-- Newspapers are in the advertising business, not the news business. News stories exist to fill in the space around the ads.

-- Newspaper writing always get worse and papers become more expensive when the competition goes away.

-- Television is in the entertainment business, not the news business.

-- Newspaper scribes will always envy glamorous televison reporters, hence the poo-pooing of the decline of TV news. The distain is learned early. The reporters at our student newspaper use to look down their nose at the TV students by saying things like: "It's a good thing a picture is worth a thousand words, because TV reporters don't know a thousand words."

Posted by: Chris Howell at November 21, 2002 06:10 AM

I forgot to say:

Matt, good job scolding the scolds!

Posted by: Chris Howell at November 21, 2002 06:12 AM

Matt,

Regarding "Woe Is Media";

Right on and awesome to boot! You have outdone yourself! I am still laughing at the last sentence in this paragraph . . .

"That pretty much sums up the recommendations offered in The News About the News, an embarrassment of a book that, if labeled honestly, would have been called Why
Arenít You As Good As We Are? Neither Downie nor Kaiser has ever worked in any newsroom other than The Washington Postís. Reading them talk about the disappointing "news values" of local TV stations and small-market dailies carries all the insight and charm of watching Richie Rich deliver a lecture about self-reliance to a roomful of crack orphans."

Posted by: Warren Celli at November 21, 2002 06:16 AM

Brilliant, well-argued piece and right on the money. AND I see Romenesko linked it today. So...there you go!

Posted by: Cathy Seipp at November 21, 2002 10:02 AM

Read it. Bought the magazine. Subscribed.

Posted by: Rich Hailey at November 21, 2002 12:50 PM

Matt, good job.

Posted by: Howard Owens at November 21, 2002 03:12 PM

First quill.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at November 21, 2002 10:10 PM

Shortly after The New York World Journal Tribune closed in 1967, the New York Times Magazine ran a piece titled "What's Wrong with America's Newspapers?", which predicted the same sad end of media as Kovach does. James Poniewozick (sp?) of Time once said the golden age of journalism was always twenty years before the present.

I've never liked the puriticanical streak in modern media criticism, and I've always waited for the ink-stained wretches to stand up to our doom-saying overlords. Well done.

Posted by: Brian Lyman at November 22, 2002 05:48 AM

Matt, I enjoyed the article but I especially enjoyed the phrase "factually uncluttered hyperbole." Sheer poetry!

Posted by: Mike Schmelzer at November 22, 2002 07:06 AM

There's some consolation in knowing that a little self-awareness must creep into the bloviators' minds while they sit in the faculty lounge...that little voice that says, "If you're writing a Pew-funded report and not tomorrow's lead...you don't matter anymore."

Great piece Matt!

Posted by: chandler at November 22, 2002 08:06 AM

Very well done

Posted by: Mark at November 22, 2002 11:24 AM

It on.

I made a choice entering into this book review not to address Bernard Goldberg's "Bias," that one dude's book "Coloring the News," or Ann Coulter's "Slander." Why? Because I have never worked inside a non-collegiate U.S. newsroom, and I don't feel very qualified to assess the extent of newspaper people's political bias. Also, because the vast majority of media-bias complaints I have read (though I did not read these particular books), usually tell me more about the bias of the *critics*, rather than the media, leading me to an easy-way-out conclusion that it's nearly hopeless to determine with any accuracy who's right. To give you an example -- the "progressive" press, for which I used to write (at WorkingForChange.com, for example), truly believe that there's a "conservative bias" in the media, and that "real liberals" are rarely used as guests on the talkshows, for example. If there was indeed a "liberal party line," these people have not received the memo. As a non-partisan preoccupied with the way ideology distorts truth, I am also personally biased when it comes to incredibly divisive partisan issues -- the Florida vote-count is a strong example -- and tend to simply turn away, and focus on other things. I do not doubt that I am missing on some good stories that way, and perhaps shying away from some important fights. It's something I struggle with.

That said, my admittedly shallow guesses on generalized media bias is that most reporters share many of *my* beliefs -- that free trade and capitalism are *good* things, for example, but a little regulation here and there helps; that the government should help protect the environment, that the health care system is somehow broken, that the Death Penalty is probably unfortunate. It's a professional-class bias -- these people own 401ks, live middle-class and upper-middle class lives, and aspire, as you imply, to make the world a better place. The graybeards of the profession -- Halberstam and Kovach are two prime examples -- also identify themselves with the Civil Rights struggle, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the toppling of Richard Nixon ... and have been trying to reclaim that activist mojo ever since. Again, these are broad strokes.

But this is a story that's picked over & endlessly debated by thousands of people. *My* story, about professionalized Woe-is-Media movement, is one that hasn't been written about much at all, partially out of deference and even fear of offending the Lions of Journalism. It was the value I could add, having written about and sparred with these people many times before, so that's the article I wrote.

And I would also suggest that this sort of monopoly-journalism inertia, arrogance & what-have-you can frequently have more direct impact on newspaper practices than personal politics. For an example of which, there is the case of me.

You write -- and I thank you for it -- "Does any reader of Matt Welch not convinced that he has been denied a more prestigious position at a major media outlet because he fails to hew the party line?" Yet as much as that flatters me, I am convinced it's not the case. First of all, I have a pretty nice perch in the well-regarded Review section of Canada's National Post, plus I have fairly easy access to Reason magazine and the L.A. Daily News (and, cross your fingers, I may soon start working for a national political magazine of note). Sure, it took to age 34 for this stuff to happen, but the Party Line wasn't the thing that froze me out.

So what did? I truly believe it was a combination of my own strange career choices, and more importantly the structural narrow-mindedness of the newspaper industry, as touched upon in my Reason review.

I moved back to L.A. in early 1998, after spending the whole decade in Central Europe, where I launched a pretty good newspaper at age 22, covered Slovakia's first year of statehood for UPI, managed a Business Journal in Budapest, and did a fair amount of interesting, reputable work. Yet the most common reaction I inspired in hiring editors was a slack jaw, and a wave of the hand. A woman from the San Francisco Examiner -- that paragon of 1990s journalism -- told me to "come back when you get some real clips." The L.A. Times said (and these quotes are approximate), "you don't exactly fit into the little boxes we like to have for people." The Long Beach Independent Press Telegram told me to try again after I got some "community journalism experience." The L.A. New Times and L.A. Weekly never returned my faxes, mailings or e-mails. Some Times-published community weekly decided, against all evidence, that I might be a contentious & divisive figure in the newsroom. The cherry on the sundae was the Investor's Business Daily, which agreed to hire me & then rescinded because I do not have a college degree.

NONE OF THESE REBUFFS WERE POLITICAL. They were, I think, a combination of the usual bad luck, and a surprising (to me) lack of imagination on the part of newspaper editors. Which in turn, I have come to believe since, is symbolic of a strange culture-shift that has taken place in newspapers.

If you click on the "journalism" link to the left and scroll down to 1998 or so, I wrote several articles and columns that touched on this as well. One thing I noticed quickly was that the kind of smart weirdos I'd grown accustomed to working with in Central Europe had now gravitated online, because of the stuffy atmosphere of the newspapers they had once so loved. And again, some of this is regardless of politics. There are similarities between Salon's David Talbot and WorldNetDaily's Joe Farah -- both of whom I wrote about often that year -- and I felt a natural camaraderie with these type of people, whether they be right, left or wherever. The majority of my work for the next three years was online, even though newspaper ink flows through my capillaries.

This is not to say that some media celebrities don't consider the Democratic Party to mean "we," or whatever (one of the more vile moments I witnessed was David Halberstam waxing poetic about Al Gore on stage at the 2000 Democratic Convention). I just don't think that "party line" you refer to is as remotely strict as all that, especially among journalists under 50 years old. Republicans are still outnumbered by a ton, and a broad bias can still be felt, but very very few people, I'd guess, either get fired or don't get hired based on their personal politics. I could be wildly wrong about that.

Finally, and abruptly: The Harvard meeting was smack in the middle of the Clinton/Gore era.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 25, 2002 11:33 AM
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approximate), "you don't exactly fit into the little boxes we like to have for people." The Long Beach Independent Press Telegram told me to try again after I got some "community journalism experience." The L.A. New Times and L.A. Weekly never returned my faxes, mailings or e-mails. Some Times-published community weekly decided, against all evidence, that I might be a contentious & divisive figure in the newsroom. The cherry on the sundae was the Investor's Business Daily, which agreed to hire me & then rescinded because I do not have a college degree.

NONE OF THESE REBUFFS WERE POLITICAL. They were, I think, a combination of the usual bad luck, and a surprising (to me) lack of imagination on the part of newspaper editors. Which in turn, I have come to believe since, is symbolic of a strange culture-shift that has taken place in newspapers.

If you click on the "journalism" link to the left and scroll down to 1998 or so, I wrote several articles and columns that touched on this as well. One thing I noticed quickly was that the kind of smart weirdos I'd grown accustomed to working with in Central Europe had now gravitated online, because of the stuffy atmosphere of the newspapers they had once so loved. And again, some of this is regardless of politics. There are similarities between Salon's David Talbot and WorldNetDaily's Joe Farah -- both of whom I wrote about often that year -- and I felt a natural camaraderie with these type of people, whether they be right, left or wherever. The majority of my work for the next three years was online, even though newspaper ink flows through my capillaries.

This is not to say that some media celebrities don't consider the Democratic Party to mean "we," or whatever (one of the more vile moments I witnessed was David Halberstam waxing poetic about Al Gore on stage at the 2000 Democratic Convention). I just don't think that "party line" you refer to is as remotely strict as all that, especially among journalists under 50 years old. Republicans are still outnumbered by a ton, and a broad bias can still be felt, but very very few people, I'd guess, either get fired or don't get hired based on their personal politics. I could be wildly wrong about that.

Finally, and abruptly: The Harvard meeting was smack in the middle of the Clinton/Gore era.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 25, 2002 11:33 AM
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