The pooh-bahs of media criticism have quietly reached a consensus: a news outlet’s best guard against breaches of journalistic ethics is to appoint an ombudsman or internal investigator. Who better than a trusted insider to ferret out bad media behavior?
Steve Brill is ahead of the curve. In the April issue of Brill’s Content, he suggests that as media companies form partnerships, they should be required to appoint an ombudsman to monitor their business and editorial practices for conflicts of interest, or else give up valuable government benefits.
By way of example, Brill has asked Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation and the magazine’s “independent ombudsman,” to “expand his portfolio and now also be prepared to receive and report on any complaints from anyone on our editorial staff concerning our treatment of the media companies with whom the magazine now has a connection.” Brill refers to the many companies that are his partners in Contentville, a new e-commerce site.
Meanwhile, the new Columbia Journalism Review features a first-person narrative by the Los Angeles Times‘s David Shaw on “How I Got That Story”—that is, how he investigated his bosses’ decision to share profits from a special magazine section with the Staples sports center in L.A. Shaw, a Pulitzer prize-winner, expresses little self-doubt about his own methods; indeed, NYU journalism chair Jay Rosen proposes in a sidebar that Shaw’s model for self-scrutiny may constitute “the next frontier in credibility.” Rosen goes so far as to suggest Pulitzer prizes should be given out for “outstanding self-examination.”
I’m not implying that Shaw’s report is flawed—just that the coverage sounds a little self-congratulatory. The backslapping continued last week, as a Harvard think tank gave Kovach its annual award for “Excellence in Journalism.” I’m not suggesting Kovach doesn’t deserve it. But given that he’s so well-equipped to judge the implications of Brill’s business partnerships, why didn’t Brill have him tackle that subject in the current issue instead of filing a history lesson with no news hook? Brill Media came under fire by outsiders last month, but apparently Brill considers a complaint important only if it comes from someone on his editorial staff—a prospect he deems irrelevant “either because we will never deserve such complaints or because no employee will have the gumption to lodge one.”
Maybe the pooh-bahs are right. But shouldn’t they be more skeptical about the risk of bias that attends any insider asked to carry out an investigation? For example, the cover story in the same Brill’s Content, on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s coverage of bombing “suspect” Richard Jewell, is written by a woman who worked at that paper for 13 years. It’s a fascinating story, based in part on unpublished internal interviews with the editors and reporters involved. But the piece never explains how the author obtained the interview transcripts, or whether she relied on anonymous sources who work for her former employer. (This is doubly relevant because anonymous sources are the crux of the Jewell story.)
Internal investigators might produce better-informed conclusions, but they could also lapse into whitewash. For evidence of that, consider the LAPD’s failure to discover corruption within its ranks, or the Justice Department’s decision that Al Gore’s role in the Buddhist temple scandal did not merit the investigation of a special counsel.
I have my own grievance against the Columbia Journalism Review. The new issue fronts an 18-page “special report” on the proliferation of media critics, yet omits any mention of Press Clips. It’s not for lack of context—they might have stuck me between Russ Smith and Eric Alterman in “Other magazines,” or perhaps in their feature on “Alternative papers,” somewhere among Rick Barrs, Dan Kennedy, Jack Shafer, David Carr, and the other guys.
Ironically, the illustration for the cover story depicts diversity of gender and race in a newsroom—a principle apparently more honored in the breach than in the practice at CJR. Indeed, the editors gave 10 out of 11 bylines in this special report to men. (The only girl in the club is a CJR assistant editor who coauthored a sidebar.)
CJR senior editor Mike Hoyt takes the blame. He says the author of the piece on alternative papers originally wrote that most alt-media critics are “white and male,” noting me as an exception. Hoyt says he wasn’t sure if I was not-male or not-white or both, so he cut the reference at the last minute.
For the record, I’m white.
On Monday, media crits got another occasion for self-examination, when the Tribune Co., owner of The Chicago Tribune, announced it is taking over Times Mirror, which owns the L.A. Times, Newsday, and The Baltimore Sun. The L.A. Times reported that the deal will cost Times Mirror publisher Mark Willes his job—an unexpected defenestration that let Times reporter Shaw call the Staples deal a “flagrant violation” of editorial independence.
Reporters were given lots of numbers to grind out—how much the new monster cost, how many old and new media outlets it controls, and how much it’s expected to make. And executives seized the day, telling us the deal does not require FCC approval, and that it was spurred in part by a belief that Internet revenue can sustain the quality of newspaper content. But while some Times Mirror folks welcomed the merger (“Everyone from guild members to managers with vested stock options will get something,” said one), Trib employees fretted as their stock dropped seven points in one day.
It’s unclear which paper will suffer the most cuts under the new regime. The L.A. Times will be first, according to one newsroom pundit, “because it has the most fat.” But despite promises that no layoffs are in sight, the editor and publisher jobs in this merger are by no means secure. For example, Newsday publisher Raymond Jensen and editor Anthony Marro heard about the deal in advance, but how will they react if the new owners want to reenter the New York newspaper market, which Trib execs sound eager to do?
David Laventhol, a former publisher of New York Newsday, recalled that the Tribune lost money when it owned the Daily News in the 1980s, just as Times Mirror was unable to sustain New York Newsday, which it closed in 1995. “I don’t know what they’ve got in mind” for the New York City market, said Laventhol. “We’ve been down that road already, and so have they.”
At the Baltimore Sun, publisher Michael Waller has promised no layoffs, but does not know whether he personally will be asked to stay. To be sure, Sun staffers face a double whammy, fearing they might lose both Waller and their beloved editor John Carroll. It’s no secret that Carroll has a shot at becoming curator of the Nieman Foundation when Kovach steps down in June.
Said Carroll, “It’s still early in the process. . . . Nobody’s offered me a job and I have no idea what I’d do if they did.”