Jill Abramson, executive editor of my favorite daily newspaper, The New York Times, will speak in town a week from tomorrow, 10 days later than originally planned. Her announced topic will be the same thing that delayed her: "The Boston Marathon Tragedy: 'Quality Journalism's Role in the Hyper Speed News Cycle.'"
For what's probably a pretty good preview of her remarks, I refer you to the op-ed piece by Times "public editor" Margaret Sullivan that ran Sunday, called "A Model of Restraint in the Race for News." Sullivan said of the paper:
"On Wednesday, it stayed on the safe side of 'the Rubicon of inaccuracy' -- in the words of Jill Abramson, the executive editor. That regrettable river was crossed, in a bizarre chain of events that was painful for any journalist to watch, by CNN, by the normally cautious Associated Press, and by many others who cited unnamed law enforcement sources."
Ah, the "Rubicon of Inaccuracy," or, as we call it in the biz, "Old Man River." We've all toted that barge at one time or another, haven't we? In fact, Abramson's trip down that river occurs at an especially ironic moment here in Dallas, if she's really going to brag about not making any mistakes on the Boston bombings, which I assume she will.
This week those of us who travel down the city's central corridor have been driving by bitter reminders of a much, much bigger bombing story 10 years ago, "Shock and Awe" in Baghdad, subject of protests outside the just now opening George W. Bush Policy Center, self-described as an "action-oriented think-tank." In terms of the death and dismemberment of innocent women, men and children, Boston was bad, but it didn't hold a candle to Baghdad. Not even a match.
If memory serves -- it does -- The New York Times blew Baghdad. Big time. The New York Times didn't just get the reporting wrong after it happened. The paper actively promoted the war beforehand in its news columns, publishing stories promising the existence of weapons of mass destruction written by a reporter described later very obliquely as having been "too close to her sources."
I know the Times did a mea culpa afterward, ending with this promise: "We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight." Indeed, since then the paper has done a lot of good reporting on WMD.
But what about setting the record straight on TCTHS (too close to her sources)? Close how? Close what? How does that work exactly? How close do you have to be? If we're going to get all juicy about CNN's John King blowing the arrest story in Boston, how about some juicy details on TCTHS?
All of the old-school news media, not just the Times by any means, are making a last stand for the industry by trenching themselves in around a castle of so-called professionalism. We should trust them because they're so good at what they do. But is that true?
Do I have to mention Baghdad again? Maybe they're good at getting the cop-shop stories pretty right as they're breaking, mainly by being slow and allowing themselves to get scooped every hour on the hour. But what about the big stuff where it's much harder for us to see them at work? And by the way, when did getting scooped become a good thing? Is that what they teach now in the J schools? In the vocabulary of the new media, I must say both OMG and LOL!
Anyway, I never believed journalism was a profession. It takes more technical knowledge to sell aluminum siding. The arguments for professionalism always start with a box score on Pulitzer Prizes, which most people outside the business probably think have something to do with dress design. And then, as in Sullivan's piece, we always get a lurid catalog of bad mistakes made by naughty less than professional people, with an implicit suggestion that only the slow and deliberate pros can protect us from contamination by bad info, mainly by stalling us on the story.
But what protects a reader from bad information about WMDs? In the old days when daily newspapers were aggressively and intensely competitive with each other, it was that -- the competition. Every daily in a market scoped out every other daily hoping for an error to stick in the enemy's eye, while living in dreadful fear of making itself vulnerable to the same attack. In fact the closest thing to real integrity in the news business has always been competitive anxiety.
That was how it was always supposed to work. It was always supposed to be the reader, scanning competing versions of the truth, who would be its judge and final arbiter. The suggestion that truth could ever be trusted to some kind of journalistic priesthood would have made the founding fathers toss their cookies.
For that, I always go back to Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson, architect of the First Amendment, believed fervently in a free press, arguing its existence was more essential to the survival of democracy than any of the three branches of the federal government. But when he was asked what he thought about the people who actually did the work, Jefferson said, "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."
It was all crap, in other words. But if the reader had access to enough of it, and if there was true competition between the purveyors of the crap, the reader, in her or his wisdom, would ferret out the bread-crumbs of truth in the forest of crap. In terms of Boston Marathon coverage, what does that sound more like to you -- The New York Times or Twitter?
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My own bias here is transparent. The invention of a journalistic priestly order of professionals not only fails to replace competition as a basic engine of truth. It's a scam that operates directly against the truth. Every time I hear journalism described as a profession, I want to bring in Ricky Jay.
My wife and I wrecked a good vacation glued to two iPads, two phones and a Kindle with a really bad web browser scarfing up every bit of junk we could get about Boston and West. I'm always going to go with the crazy, messy, wildly inaccurate, uncannily accurate goulash of information that crashed over the world last week from the linkosphere.
Hey. I go with the Times, too. I said it was my favorite daily. I meant it. But I don't go with it first, and I won't go with it forever. Somehow I don't see the linkosphere ever being remotely capable of ginning up a whole war against another nation no matter how close it gets to its sources, precisely because it's so crazy, so wild and always gnawing off its own paws.
Give me crazy I can see any day, as opposed to something called "too close to her sources" that I can't see because it hides behind a wall of ersatz professionalism. Somebody asked me once when I decided I wanted to be a reporter. Thought about it. Told him I never did. I always wanted to be a reader. Now there's a real profession for you. By the way, do they get prizes?