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February 16, 2009

Now More than Ever, Weʼve Got to Get it Right.

This essay was written by NAJP member and NPR reporter Laura Sydell:


The election season is over. We have a new President. For the moment, the emails about Barack Hussein Obama's links to radical Islamic groups have stopped showing up in my inbox. But, throughout the election I heard regularly from a relative who was convinced that Obama was the Manchurian Muslim Candidate hiding his real anti-American beliefs. She sent me articles via email several times a week. They had bylines and layouts that made them look legitimate. My relative even sent one article she claimed had been written by Maureen Dowd; it traced some of Obama's campaign funding to banks in Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern nations. As soon as I read the piece I questioned its source. It had nothing of Dowd's usual biting satiric style. So, I checked the New York Times website and there was no such column. My relative backed away from the article but said she was still convinced Obama was getting money from radical Islamists.

When she sent me an article claiming that the school in Indonesia where Obama studied as a child was actually an extremist Madrassa I sent her an article right back from the Associated Press that had done investigation into these claims and proved them false. She still suspected there was something to it.

I had many fights with this relative. I pointed out that her sources were far right web sites. I told her she might want to get her information from more main stream outlets like the New York Times and the Associated Press she told me that they were biased and didn't report the truth. What is especially troubling to me is that this particular relative is a retired lawyer who was at the top of her class in school. She had the ability to be a first class thinker. However, she was a disgruntled Clinton supporter who had been offended by the Senator's treatment in the media. She could site Tucker Carlson's comment about how he crossed his legs every time he heard Hillary Clinton or the media's microscopic attention to Clinton's teary eyed comments in New Hampshire as proof that that main stream was willing to over look the truth to push the candidate they liked.

As a professional reporter who really does care about facts I found it hard to stomach my aunt's incessant critique of my colleagues...

Yes, there are cable network personalities like Carlson, Kieth Olberman, Chris Mathews, etc. who lace their information with over sized personalities and pomp. But, I also know what it's like in the trenches with hard working reporters who check and double check sources and biases. Surely, they should carry more weight and credibility than a web site run by one or two very opinionated conspiracy theorists?

Unfortunately, a lot of Americans are moving in the direction of my aunt. They may not be visiting right wing web sites but they are going to blogs, wikipedia, YouTube and other online outlets for news and information. Mistrust of professional journalists is on the rise; surveys by the Pew Center for the People and the Press report that in 1985 just 34 percent of the public believed that the stories reported by main stream media were often inaccurate. By 2007 that number climbed to 53 percent.

No doubt some of that mistrust comes from the high profile scandals that have rocked the media in recent years. Former New York Times reporter Jason Blair caught plagiarizing a story about a woman whose son died in Iraq and making up quotes from people he never interviewed. Rick Bragg offering lush descriptions of places heʼd never been.

Perhaps the Waterloo for professional journalism came in the lead up to the Iraq war. Most main stream journalists failed to question the Bush Administrations rationale for dragging the United States into a difficult, long term conflict. Once again, one of the most trusted sources in news, The New York Times, got it dead wrong. They put Judith Millerʼs report documenting evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on the front page.

During the 2004 Presidential election one of Americaʼs most distinguished and trusted news anchors took a very public fall. Dan Rather formerly of CBS raised questions about President Bush's service in the Natural Guard using documents that may have been forgeries. He was fired from his job and is currently fighting his dismissal in court.

These high profile scandals came after two decades of relentless attacks on the main stream media from Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundaton and other right wing opinion makers. There have also been notable, although less successful attempts on the left to discredit the media from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Amy Goodman and others. Although these attacks were sometimes justified they overlooked the cadres of hardworking sometimes lesser known professional reporters who work diligently every day to report local scandals and put the spotlight on companies and officials who lie for their own reasons. This string of high profile failures at the nation's most prestigious news organizations and the constant onslaught from the left and the right heated up public opinion and the lid was ready to pop off the pot.

The steam has been seeping out slowly over the Internet. Opinions and reports that once would have been met with rejection by editors and gate keepers in the professional media no longer face filters. Anyone can blog. And there have been some real scoops by citizen journalists: Mayhill Fowler of the Huffington Post caught Barack Obama on tape at a San Francisco fund raiser talking about how small town voters get "bitter" and "cling" to their guns and religion. During terrorist attacks on luxury hotels in Mumbai, India the first pictures from the scene were loaded up to flickr and the first news of what happened was sent by text message over a service called Twitter.

Paul Saffo a self described Silicon Valley futurist and a cheer leader for new media wrote this on his blog:

Todayʼs Mumbai terror crisis represents more than a new chapter in global terrorism -- it is also opening a new chapter in global news. While CNN-IBN and other news outlets struggled to make sense of events, Twitter ran rings around their coverage, displaying tweets from citizens on the scene.


The steam is rising up out of the pot and old media with its standards and gatekeepers seems to be melting away. We are living in a world in which anyone can pose as an expert. To quote a famous New Yorker cartoon, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

Enthusiasts of new media like Mr. Saffo say that over time the truth comes out as one opinion circulates and then is met with others who check facts and eventually the truth bubbles to the top. New media evangelists like Mr. Saffo believe the day of the professional journalist is over and the hour of the citizen journalist is here. To new media cheerleaders like Mr. Saffo old media is like the record companies -- just a middle man between the product and the consumer.

But, is that really the case? Were news organizations that paid people to gather and write about the news just obstacles to getting at the real stories? Or is there something that they provide that might be missed after the last columns of the professional fourth estate come tumbling to the ground? I posit that if the main stream professional media crumbles entirely we will have to invent it all over again.

Gathering news really does take work. Mr. Saffo also cited Wikipedia as source of citizen news on the Mumbai attacks. I went and looked at what had been published there in the first days after the event. There were a few eyewitness accounts but then the citizen experts began citing newspapers for statements from police and government officials and for statistics on how many had died. Those figures and statements came from reporters and publications that had been cultivating sources and reporting on Mumbai for years. The work they do requires time and no one will be willing to put in that time for free. And I don't think that most consumers of news want a list of facts, they want someone with experience to figure out which facts are most important and explain it with enough artistry to make it interesting.

Yet, with newspapers going bankrupt and laying off staff and networks cutting back reporters the death of the old media seems almost inevitable. So, let's get back to my relative. Part of the problem is clearly the lack of trust in old media. But, what if professional news outlets gained back her trust? Maybe she would even be willing to pay for trusted information. I think part of the solution for professional media is going to lie in working much harder to get it right.

There is evidence that people are willing to pay for information they trust; despite a plethora of websites that offer peer product reviews 3.3 million people are willing to pay 26 dollars a year for an online subscription to consumer reports. National Public Radio, the news organization where I work has seen its audience grow. Surveys show that people trust NPR and they are willing to pony up membership fees even though they can hear it for free.

Sam Zell, the owner of the Tribune company recently said he never made any money from winning a Pulitzer Prize. That isn't the attitude that is going to save legitimate news media. In fact, the complete emphasis on the bottom line may be what destroys it. So, let me make a bold suggestion. Perhaps the companies that are on the forefront of new media and are profiting from it may be the ones who could save the day. What if Google, Craigs List, Microsoft, Yahoo and others took some of their charitable money and used it towards trying to find a model for good journalism that can work and sustain itself. I should note that just recently Eric Schmidt the CEO of Google lamented the decline of newspapers. However, he said he wasn't interested owning one. Still, he certainly could funnel some of the money from the company's foundation to help find a working model for legitimate news.

Maybe the Obama Administration needs to look back at the creation of public broadcasting and at the model that produced early television news.Back in those days networks didn't expect to make money from news, it was the fulfillment of a requirement for their licenses that they had to do a certain amount of public service. Maybe its time the government looked at the new media landscape and figured out how to build up some trusted media sources.

The future of professional news is murky and certainly not assured. The current business models just aren't working. NPR listenership is rising but as the economy gets shakier so does it. Newspapers have lost their monopoly over the lucrative classified market and they are unable to make enough money from online advertising to support serious journalism.

So how do we get my aunt back? The current path -- cutting down the size of the staff -- tends to force reporters to produce quicker, less careful work with fewer editors as a safety net, guarding against errors. That invites exactly the kind of problem that pushes my aunt away from the evil Mainstream Media. But without a media to trust, she ends up in a cacaphony of rumor-mongering, where people fight over which facts to believe -- and tend to accept whatever assertions fit their preconceived ideas. A world, as Stephen Colbert would say, of Truthiness. There is an alternative. But it is built on news organizations regaining their sorely needed foundation of truth and accuracy. Now more than ever, we need to get it right.

February 16, 2009 12:49 PM | | Comments (0)

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