I remember a writing coach mocking what a typical reporter might consider a successful morning. If the reporter came to work and the telephone message light wasn’t on — no angry callers — the story he wrote the day before must have been a success.
The punch line: Maybe no one read the story.
It’s true, though, that we too often strive to avoid corrections and view a complaint as something to be parried.
I’ve heard the term “defensive crouch” to describe news organizations’ reluctance to face criticism.
My current newspaper (a community daily) and my previous newspaper (a small weekly) are woven into our coverage areas. Readers feel ownership and sound off directly to us when they think we’re wrong.
The mightier the news organization, though, the further removed it is from the people.
One amazing detail to emerge from Jayson Blair’s reign of plagiarism and fabrication at The New York Times was how disconnected readers and sources said they felt. Even after sources quoted in Blair’s articles read made-up facts about themselves and manufactured quotes they never uttered, they didn’t alert the newspaper; they felt no one would listen.
The Times learned painful lessons and made significant changes, and perhaps readers now have a better chance of being heard.
Major TV networks showed last year how much they need similar soul-searching and a renewed, more candid and open dialogue with their audiences.
An exhaustive, revealing look by the Times at retired military officers whom the networks passed off as impartial outside war analysts was no small matter. By failing to disclose officers’ defense industry connections and their secret access to Pentagon war planners, the networks let viewers be duped.
By refusing to cover the administration’s widescale propaganda effort as a news story, ignoring their own roles in it, and not doing public ethical “autopsies” of where and how their coverage went astray, the networks essentially thumbed their noses at viewers and colleagues, further damaging the credibility of their news coverage and analysis.
Defensive crouch? This was worse, and, as of this writing, it continues.
SPJ spoke out about the news organizations’ poor ethics after the first Times’ story, and again in December, when a Times follow-up zeroed in on NBC’s continued reliance on the supposedly impartial commentary of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, without acknowledging his powerful, lucrative defense industry ties. NBC didn’t respond to SPJ’s request for comment the day before we issued our latest statement.
The Times’ story about McCaffrey built upon a telling report The Nation did in 2003 about McCaffrey’s enormous conflict of interest. He sat on the board of a company that sold war machinery, and he talked about the company on the air.
Even with so much at stake — examining whether national newscasts were in some sense manipulated by the administration; the Times’ reporting suggests they were — the networks have curled up and hidden.
NBC News seems interested in two-way communication about its news coverage through a blog called “The Daily Nightly,” where its news people post items and viewers respond.
Interestingly, I counted at least a dozen pointed public comments asking the network to explain itself after the Times’ exposé on the military analysts. Apparently, no one from NBC News answers questions on the blog.
A few SPJ Ethics Committee members tried to post a link to our statement, but our posts weren’t accepted.
I must point out that NBC News President Steve
Capus was wonderfully responsive when SPJ called on him in 2007 for our national convention in Washington, D.C. We had a program reviewing the ethics of news coverage of the Virginia Tech mass shootings.
NBC News played an enormous role in that coverage by airing a videotaped manifesto it received from the shooter, who killed 32 others, then himself. Capus’s insight about the network’s weighty but careful decision to air parts of the videotape was much appreciated.
A straightforward, honest approach is sorely needed from every news organization that played a part, even unwittingly, in the propaganda program. I’d gladly turn over this column space to any network that wants it to explain itself.