Tell me again, what’s our ulterior motive?
Last week, two old guys sat on a stage at the University of Maryland to talk to journalism students. It was a rare joint appearance by the two, who bear little resemblance anymore to the actors who portrayed them in “All the President’s Men,” the cinematic story of how two young newsmen 30 years ago peeled the coverup off the Watergate break-in and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Bob Woodward, 59, and Carl Bernstein, 58, represent an earlier time, when thousands of young people were inspired to join the profession in which I have now spent more than 30 years of my own life.
But how different times have become, according to the two. The real trend in journalism in the last 30 years, in Bernstein’s words, “has been the dominance of gossip, sensationalism and less regard of the truth.” About the news world being created by 24-hour cable news channels and the Web, Woodward added: “We live in an environment where everyone wants the latest, and the latest often is wrong and is irrelevant.”
This is a debate among journalists that flares up periodically, often during media frenzies accompanying ongoing, terrifying stories such as the 9/11 attacks and the recent D.C. sniper shootings.
Of course, the all-news cable channels drew their largest audiences of the year this week, about 1.2 million viewers a day for CNN, for example. When you consider the total national audience for CNN when there isn’t a serial tragedy is about 185,000 at any one time, we’re talking big bucks. But what is the cost in credibility? And what does that have to do with us in this beautiful corner of the world?
For one, it means that this image of sensationalist, money-grubbing media taints all of us, even those dedicated to trying to serve small communities.
This hit home this week when a fire district candidate apparently caught heat for a story we wrote and reacted by claiming the reporter made up the whole story. In fact, he is asking the district’s board to support him by refusing to talk to The Union.
Why would someone think they could get away with impugning the reputation of an honest journalist just to protect his own skin? Because, says the candidate in a fax: Everyone knows that “newspapers are in the business for one reason only, to sell newspapers.” Sure, and firefighters are only in the business so they can ride in big red trucks.
If we really wanted to sell a lot of papers, we’d do like the British tabloids and run a picture of a nude model every day, not try to inform readers about local elections. And if reporters at The Union were ordered to write a phony story to sell more papers, they would quit en masse.
A story like the sniper is legitimate news, of course, but the screaming promotions and scary speculation by experts-for-hire divert the audience from things that responsible news organizations should be doing. And it opens the door for the media-savvy to try to use competitive pressures for personal advantage.
For example, it is obvious that there are sophisticated political operatives involved in the Nevada County elections. One strategy seems to involve planting stories about a foe in friendly, pseudo-journalistic media, then aiming a phone and e-mail blitz at The Union, demanding to know why we won’t cover the “news.”
A newspaper then is faced with several options. One is to write about every rumor and leave it to the reader to sift truth from lies. Another is to not to write anything. Either response, however, means putting our news decision-making in the hands of others, which we can never do.
We’ll continue to look at each situation individually, and make our coverage decisions based on professional and ethical judgments, and on what is best for our readers. But we’re resigned to the fact that, no matter how fair and balanced we try to be, some will see ulterior motives everywhere.
The latest complaints are coming from people who are counting the candidate-endorsement letters we run. These folks, who seem to have way too much time on their hands, believe we are deliberately publishing more letters for certain candidates, and insist we should select equal amounts of letters to create a “balance.”
That’s not our job. You write ’em, we publish ’em – first-in, first-out. But a conspiracy makes a much better story, doesn’t it?
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.
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