Watching the Watchdog
Let’s Uncover Journalism Together
by Jennifer Karchmer
Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist who writes on freedom of the press and First Amendment issues. As the Washington State Bureau Correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, Jennifer advocates for fellow journalists worldwide. This column is reprinted from her blog “jennifer the journalist” found at bloggerlite.wordpress.com.
Although he holds the self-described title of recovering cocaine addict and talks with a nasally drawl, David Carr is a reliable, veteran journalist who gets to the heart of a story. Carr is busy as a media reporter for The New York Times. I was introduced to his Jimmy Breslin-get-the-story style when I watched “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” the documentary that was showing this summer at the Pickford Film Center.
In one fly-on-the-wall scene, we see Carr researching the Comcast-NBC Universal merger as it unfolded in 2010, when he hits a snag in his reporting.
“I have to move people on the record,” he says, after hanging up the phone with a source. Carr is getting information without attribution. In other words, his sources are talking but don’t want to be quoted with their name in the newspaper. This is a problem for a credible journalist.
The film continues with Carr working his journalistic mojo — interviewing sources in person on their turf (not just via phone interviews), brainstorming decisions with his editor, referring to exact quotes and details documented in handwritten notes in his steno pad — activities of a real journalist.
As a journalist with 20 years in the biz, I really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes newsroom shots in the film. As a reporter for CNN in New York City, the Associated Press in Albany, NY and for my hometown paper The Poughkeepsie Journal, I’ve worked the beat from the inside, spent days corroborating one piece of information and toiled over writing, and rewriting, ledes (editor slang for the main paragraph or sentence of a news story). For the love of the profession!
At one point during the film, I was not perturbed to hear a whisper behind me (amid cell phones and texting, whispering is a minor offense these days) as an astute moviegoer perched over my right shoulder said to his date: “This is amazing.” The comment came during the “page one” scene where editorial bigwigs assemble to discuss and decide what will go on the venerable A1, the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times.
Yes, this work IS amazing: more transparency in the news business would mean readers, viewers, consumers, the public would have a better understanding of what needs to get accomplished every single day at The New York Times, The Bellingham Herald, or any of the other 1,385 daily newspapers still cranking it out in the USA.1
More understanding by the reading public of what good journalism is may lead them to the more credible, effective, noteworthy and well-laid-out publications that are struggling to survive in this corporate-run, bottom-line driven media industry.
Alan Rhodes’ Tips for the Herald
So when I read with interest recent criticism of local journalism (see Cascadia Weekly, Aug. 10, 2011, page 6, Alan Rhodes, “Helpful Hints for the Bellingham Herald: Fixing the World’s Worst Small City Newspaper”), I couldn’t help but think that the critique was falling on deaf ears.
I do find Rhodes’ suggestions about redesigning the Herald’s opinion page valid (i.e., publish guest columnists, move the weather and police report to a more appropriate space). But his lament: “You’re just not trying,” is misguided. The Herald is, in fact, “trying” but it’s just not trying to keep you as a reader as hard as it is trying to keep its shareholders and advertisers happy.
When a newspaper is run by a media chain like McClatchy that owns hundreds of other newspapers, it’s creating a product to feed its bottom line. Sorry, the paper is not catering first and foremost to its readers.
The era of the “newspaper as endangered species” has been approaching for several years now and with it has now come (to no surprise) a decline in the quality of the news product. Today, the reduced quality of the Herald (and the thousands of other local dailies) is the byproduct of slashed newsroom budgets, which are themselves the result of a huge decline in advertising revenue.
Is Profit Compatible With Journalism?
So while the criticism of today’s daily newspapers is warranted, the discussion needs now to turn to: how do we separate the fundamental role of journalism in our country from the supposed American dream of moneymaking and perpetuating the values of consumerism?
Whatcom Watch is one example of a grassroots, volunteer-driven publication that started almost 20 years ago (1992). The articles typically come from concerned citizens, environmentalists and experts in their fields. Occasionally trained journalists write stories from an objective perspective, so you could argue whether Whatcom Watch is a true newspaper, community newsletter or something else entirely. Nonetheless, what cannot be argued is that Whatcom Watch is independent and without corporate influence. Articles are written on local topics by local people, and the advertising comes from local businesses so it’s definitely community-driven.
Press Release Journalism
In the newsroom of the 1980s and 1990s, as press releases would pile up on the fax machine, a news clerk, intern or entry-level reporter like myself would sift through the announcements placing them in bins assigned to each of the desks (city, sports, features, life, biz, etc.).
A desk editor would decide how “newsworthy” the story was. If it was deemed a big deal, we’d send a reporter to try and get a quote the other news station or newspaper did not have. Sometimes, all it took was a rewrite whittling the two-pager down to a few short paragraphs.
An editor would bark across the newsroom: “Make a few calls and get a fresh quote in there” — an encouraging biscuit for the newbie reporter to verify the information and dig for an added kernel, so we’d have something different from the rest of the news pack.
The problem with this newsgathering is that it’s dictated directly from the source — local government, corporations, private companies or even nonprofits. It’s spoon-fed information, not journalism.
Transparency Requires Education
I believe readers and journalists alike need to share the burden of education and transparency in the news business. When readers understand how news works and are critical of where they get their news, they look more closely at the language in headlines, the placement of stories, the credibility of the stories’ sources and the biases of the owners of the publication. Then they can make more informed choices about the issues they’re reading about.
We journalists too can do more to educate the public about what we do and how we do it. While it’s not an Academy Award winning feature, “Page One” provides some good examples of what goes down between reporters and editors, reporters and sources, sources and corporations. Hitting deadlines, corroborating information, and sifting through fact and fiction are illuminated.
I would also reference “Ten Things You Can Do to Help Progressive Journalism,” published in the April 19, 2010 print edition of The Nation. Writer Walter Mosley suggests several excellent Web sites and sources, including Democracy Now!, Media Matters, AlterNet and GRITtv (grittv.org).
He also mentions FAIR-Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog group that does good work. In fact, its founder, Jeff Cohen, spoke at Western Washington University in 2007 on the importance of independent media. (To view Cohen’s talk, go to: http://jenniferkarchmer.com/Service.aspx and scroll down to “Jeff Cohen’s lecture”).
The kind of journalism we see Carr doing in the film costs money and can be painstakingly slow. The upshot, though, is meaningful, rigorous and thoughtful newsgathering.
Readers today don’t seem to have that kind of time to wait. They want quick headlines, 140-character Tweets and Facebook postings. These are fine tools to disseminate information and the corporate media giants are embracing those technologies.
But don’t call that journalism. §
1 In 2009, there were 1,387 daily newspapers in the United States, according to the latest figures from Editor and Publisher International Yearbook, which tracks newspaper circulation.
“Ten Things You Can Do to Help Progressive Journalism,”April 19, 2010, The Nation.