Mediacheck

Journalism's Chronic Illness

Fabulists abound, and a new study says Canadians don't trust the news. Yet the media's current crisis is business as usual.

By Shannon Rupp 7 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Findings from the Report Card on Canadian News Media, a recent survey of what Canadians think about print and broadcast news, raises an obvious question: were the researchers and the people they interviewed talking about the same things?

For example, the committee of journalism professors that did the study found that more than half of Canadians think the news media try to cover up their mistakes.

Okay, but what do they mean by the "news media?"

They can't mean journalists. Even the most casual acquaintance with journalism culture -- as opposed to the corporate culture of news media owners and their ladder-climbing senior managers -- suggests that the ink-stained wretches don't try to hide their mistakes. In fact, they seem to view it as part of their job to expose and mock the craft's failings.

I often wonder what journalism's legendary scribes would say about this year's crop of liars, plagiarists, and incompetents. Probably something like "t'was ever thus," but with more wit -- because until recently wit was valued in newspaper writing.

What a man will do unbribed

News of New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair probably would have prompted British scribe Nicholas Tomalin (1931-1973), to repeat his most famous line: "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability," wrote Tomalin, a Sunday Times reporter who was killed while covering the Yom Kippur war.

He added that "The capacity to steal other people's ideas and phrases -- that one about ratlike cunning was invented by my colleague Murray Sayre -- is also valuable."

When the story broke that Jack Kelley, the only USA Today correspondent ever to earn Pulitzer nominations, was taking "creative non-fiction techniques" a tad too far, some typist would have spouted the old adage: "The three rules of journalism: make it juicy, make it brief, make it up."

The story of Stephen Glass, the twenty-something New Republic magazine writer who managed to slip 27 fanciful tales by a battalion of editors and fact-checkers, put me in mind of English journalist Humbert Wolfe's (1885-1940) clever analysis of reporters. "You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to."

A pimp 'to look up to'

On the Canadian scene, I have to admit that I was amused to hear some editors deny that they had suspected that Angele Yanor, a freelancer who wrote a dating column the Vancouver Sun, fabricated her adventures -- let alone borrowed a story from that little-known rag, The New York Times. This, despite the fact that the people Yanor interviewed rarely had last names, and her tales sometimes sounded suspiciously like the previous week's Sex and the City plot. It reminded me of Hearst reporter Gene Fowler's observation: "An editor should have a pimp for a brother so he'll have someone to look up to."

Although, in Yanor's defence, in this post-Blair era she could have been confused and thought what she did was less theft and more recycling

Yanor is in good company: the Toronto Star's Prithi Yelaja was suspended for making generous use of copy from another little-known New York paper, the Village Voice. And last week the National Post revealed that its medical reporter, Brad Evenson, had "fabricated names and quotes" in several articles. Well, as British writer Rebecca West said, "Journalism is the ability to meet the challenge of filling space."

The fact that fabulists make it into print just confirms what American writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) said was definition of an editor: a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed. (A quote for which Adlai Stevenson used to take credit, which suggests he should have been a journalist instead of a politician.)

But what I do think would surprise the famous scribblers is the response of today's media managers to revelations of wrongdoing. Given journalism's well-known history as a dodgy business, why are so many of them professing to be shocked -- shocked! -- over actions that used to inspire wry quips?

Over on CAJ-L, a discussion list sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists, someone actually proposed that the hacks hire a PR firm to polish up their image.

"Journalism used to be a high calling," one of his supporters ranted, displaying research skills that suggest he's a publisher. "This prestige has been squandered by somebody."

'Worse' than heroin, but non-smoking

A high calling? Prestige? When? Where? Journalists have always been maligned, and sometimes with good reason. Hell, even Gandhi took a swipe: "I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers."

Oh sure, there was one brief, shining moment, after Woodstein's Watergate adventures, when J-skool enrolment climbed and images from films like The Front Page and His Girl Friday faded. But it couldn't last. No sooner had some imaginative producers cast Robert Redford as Bob Woodward (did these people never see the average print reporter?) than it was back to business as usual.

And the business hasn't changed much since its origins in the 19th century. Yes, yes, newsrooms are all non-smoking now, many publications offer middle-class salaries, and some hacks even have graduate degrees -- but those changes are superficial. Fundamentally, things are still pretty much as Hunter S. Thompson (1930- ) described them in the '70s: "I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it -- a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange, seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures." And I'd like to add that that is just the editorial board.

Although I'd be inclined to replace "drunkards" with "wingnuts" since drinking is less fashionable than it once was, and there has always been something about journalism that attracted people with personality disorders. As American columnist Anna Quindlen phrased it, "Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description."

Competition keeps reporters honest

In fact, the only significant difference between the newspapers of today and those of the mythical golden age seems to be the lack of competition. In short: the problem isn't the decline in journalism standards, it's the decline in ownership standards.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that good journalism has never been produced by organizations. It has always been done by individual journalists with an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong and a willingness to question authority, including the authority of their employers.

Ironically, given all the contemporary blather about ethics, it's much easier for today's ethically challenged reporter to thrive. Thanks to concentrated ownership and copy sharing the competition that once forced reporters to maintain a reasonable level of accuracy, or risk having their malice and stupidity exposed by better journalists, has all but disappeared. These days, there may be only one reporter covering a story, so if he makes it up, who's to know? Not his overworked editor, who doesn't have time to catch the typos, let alone check the content.

Journalism has always attracted a few miscreants. But it wasn't such an issue when there were thousands of journalists in hundreds of news rooms acting in good faith -- not necessarily getting it right, but at least trying to.

Media try to show they care

Which, I suspect, is the real reason for the current round of hypocritical hand-wringing over the supposed decline in journalism standards -- it's actually a form of spin-doctoring done by those trying to gloss over the problem of media concentration. In fact, the approach is straight out of the PR for Dummies handbook.

When organizations are confronted with embarrassing stories -- the PR euphemism for this is "crisis communications" -- they're advised to be seen to be doing something about the problem. You'll note that they're not advised to fix the problem, merely to be seen to be doing something about it.

So when you hear about newsroom managers who want to strike ethics committees in response to plagiarists, or listen to mea culpas from obviously disingenuous editors, it's worth recalling one more truism of the trade: "News is something someone doesn't want you know -- all the rest is publicity."

Shannon Rupp last wrote for The Tyee about why Canada should be grateful for the Bloc Quebecois.  [Tyee]

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