Standing Firm  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Standing Firm   


Thanks for a good piece of thoughtful reporting and writing () in your October/November cover story.

For me, and I believe for many editors and publishers around the nation, former Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet identifies a central issue for news media today: that a majority of the American public simply does not understand or, more important, value the role of an independent, questioning press. This is a huge threat to what we do and to our very existence, and I think a real threat to democracy. As Baquet says: "The reason people think we did something wrong is because they think that our job is to work with the government in the war on terrorism."

The perception that the media should work with government (and not challenge the powerful) extends to issues beyond the war on terrorism. Increasingly, Americans tune out or lash out at media that challenge, partly explaining the decline in readership at daily newspapers, which traditionally have provided aggressive journalism. American unease with an aggressive press is rooted in fear. We are fearful for our personal safety (terrorism, school shootings, you name it) and for our economic security (for the average American the economy has been flat for more than a decade; oil prices are all over the map, etc). That fear makes readers and viewers particularly susceptible to the notion that an aggressive media and its tough stories is just getting in the way of or possibly threatening the real and important work of the day: jobs, squirreling away savings, defending the nation, defending "freedom."

I used to believe that there was nothing more American than questioning authority or just questioning, period. To be fair, and as you point out in your piece, the chief questioners of our society the media have always been criticized for going too far, questioning too loudly, even threatening American security, etc. The difference now is that the accusation is sticking.

The risks of publishing (or airing) sensitive stories are higher than ever. Stories are no longer only followed by the rest of the media; they are questioned, the news organization's motives for running the stories are questioned, criticized and more. With the prevalence of punditry on the Net and TV, the media themselves quickly become a story, often a bigger story than the controversial information they report. Crass, rough criticism is a small price to pay for aggressive journalism. But it's not the only price.

The New York Times, for example, is staggering under a barrage of criticism for being liberal, un-American, anti-Bush, etc. This hurts the paper's image, which surely affects its business at a time of huge financial pressures on the news media in general. Advertisers (and readers and viewers) are more fickle than ever, and their options are many, and multiplying. Furthermore, advertisers are growing openly unhappy about appearing alongside controversial material and happily choose not to support aggressive journalism. Why support journalism when you can run alongside stuff that makes people feel good?

Which gets me to my final point. Media now because of the Net are much more of a vehicle for consumer choices and sympathetic political and lifestyle views than ever. Aggressive journalism is a smaller and smaller piece of the media pie, largely because that's how the market wants it: media to make you feel good, to deliver products, help you make consumer choices.

Those same consumers are driving news coverage: focus groups, news-you-can-use, blogs, online polls, self-designed news home pages. The idea of a clutch of editors/news directors deciding what's important and what to publish on the front page is anathema, elitist, in a consumer-driven media world.

In my own market I run a tiny paper-of-record weekly in Vermont I am under pressure every week to overlook the domestic violence in our county, to minimize developers' controversial proposals for open land, etc. and, as Baquet says, "to work with" the powers that be to provide a cheery and prosperous version/vision of our community and our state. And when we don't, the criticism is that we're hurting our economy, undermining real efforts to grow employment, etc. In other words, we are working against the prevailing powers to the detriment of the prevailing wisdom. This damn-the-messenger accusation has been going on for years in our business, but in the current climate of fear in America it resonates. Most people, for example, couldn't tell you exactly what the Swift story was all about, except that the New York Times ran with it and that it threatened the program and therefore threatened our national security. As it turned out, the New York Times and the L.A. Times became the BIG story, not the information the papers provided. And the predictable fallout: big, bad news media.

Biddle Duke
Publisher
Stowe Reporter
Stowe, Vermont

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