As Good and As Bad As It Gets
An outstanding Baltimore Sun series and misguided live TV coverage in Los Angeles take us to extremes.
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
Why don't you ever print the good news? people are always asking newspaper reporters and editors. Journalism review editors sometimes get the same question.
When the mission is to analyze and dissect news coverage, it's not surprising that a goodly portion of what results is critical.
But there should always be plenty of room, it seems to me, for celebrating what ought to be celebrated.
Which brings us to the Baltimore Sun's series on shipbreaking. These powerful and immensely moving articles are a textbook example of newspapering at its best (see page 11).
ýhipbreaking is the arcane process in which mothballed Navy ships are dismantled and the leftovers sold for scrap. Before the Sun started poking around, it apparently was as little regulated as it was little known. And it was extremely dangerous both to the poor souls who broke up the toxic old vessels and to the environment itself.
Judging the investigative reporting category in SPJ's annual contest in March, I was dazzled by the series' combination of tough reporting and human pathos. It wasn't hard for me and my fellow judges to settle on it quickly as our number one pick. And I was hardly surprised when it also won an IRE medal, the Selden Ring Award and then the Pulitzer.
The work of reporters Gary Cohn and Will Englund was truly impressive. But the series is also a vivid reminder of why God created editors.
Over two years ago, Englund wrote a takeout on shipbreaking in Baltimore that in effect was an outline of the series the reporters ultimately produced. But Editor John Carroll sensed the story was bigger than that. He wanted more.
Problems associated with shipbreaking were hardly unique to Charm City. Sun reporters crisscrossed the country chronicling shipbreaking's bloody legacy. And the misery hardly stopped at the nation's borders. When the trail led to India, where shipbreakers work under subhuman conditions, the Sun never blinked. Cohn and Englund were Asia-bound.
Êhe result? Congressional hearings and, more significantly, reforms. The Pentagon decided to figure out how to scrap ships safely, and the Navy stopped exporting the deadly detritus to the Third World.
So this is a journalism saga that has it all. An editor with great instincts and vision. Talented, relentless reporters exploring uncharted territory. And, wonderfully, a newspaper – a newspaper owned by a publicly held company run by Mark H. Willes, no less – willing to invest its resources, lots of its resources, in doing world class journalism.
The Sun sprung Cohn and Englund for a year and a half to work on the project. It could have done a fine series even without the passage to India. But it didn't. It did it big. It did it right.
And it reminded us what journalism is all about.
"Where were they going without ever knowing the way?"
– Fastball, "The Way"
As bright as the Sun shone, just as appalling was the saga of the televised suicide.
You know the story: A bunch of Los Angeles TV
stations, not to mention MSNBC, broadcast live footage of an episode that began when a man pulled his truck off of a freeway and started shooting (see page 10). The cameras kept rolling as he set himself and his truck on fire, grabbed his rifle and shot himself.
Worse yet (and this seems to need one of Dave Barry's "I'm not making this up" qualifiers) some of the stations broke into programming aimed at children – cartoons.
This is news? Major news? News that required bumping regularly scheduled fare? The rationale, of course, was that the bizarre incident was affecting traffic, and anything that affects traffic is big news in L.A.
Yeah, right. Those cameras weren't aimed at traffic jams; they were aimed at a man doing violence to himself.
This wasn't about news. This was about voyeurism. This was TV news as freak show.
And it was bound to happen. It was the logical, inevitable extension of years of blurring the line between news and infotainment, of local newscasts dominated by blood and gore, of if it bleeds it leads.
At least the awful excess wasn't followed by the circling of the wagons. Some news directors admitted they had been way out of line.
And maybe this will be one of those outrages that is so stark, so clearly beyond the pale, that it will lead to reform. RTNDA President Barbara Cochran wants to see the creation of "rules of the road" to prevent debacles when stations go live. Even something as simple as a delay would help.
But what is really needed goes way beyond that. The problem isn't so much the dangers of live coverage in the face of out-of-control events as it is the whole notion of what should constitute local news on television.
The local newscast shouldn't just be a procession of bloody incidents, abandoned warehouse fires, terminally cute chatter, meteorology seminars and localized ESPN, as it too often is today. There needs to be much more emphasis on real news, news that affects people's lives – government news, environment news, consumer news, investigative reporting, substance along with the mayhem and the Doppler radar.
It doesn't seem like it should be too much to ask. l ###