Losing The News, Part II

GUEST: Alex S. Jones
VTR: 05/21/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and this is our second program with the author of an extraordinarily insightful and compelling new book on the press in America. Its grim title: “Losing The News”.

Alex Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the New York Times … has written two magnificent studies of First Families of the American press: “The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty,” and “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times.

And since 2000 my guest has been director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

So I think we ought to pick up now where we left off last time. You know, during our break I came back to the suggestion that you’ve put forth that solution to these problems of the economics of newspaperdom would be a non-profit organization funded by Warren Buffet and Mr. Gates.

JONES: Well, not to all the problems. But I think that, that, that one of the … you know, if you’re a billionaire … you probably have more money than you really need and you, I think, especially if you’re as public spirited as, as Buffet and the others, many of his ilk, you’re looking for a way to make that money really change the world for the better.

And what I suggest in the book is one way to spend a couple of billion dollars that would be a terrific improvement, I believe, and, and a spur to news organizations, both print, broadcast and otherwise. And that is that they should endow the NewsHour, on PBS. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Now the NewsHour is a one hour show in every … it’s on every television set in America because it is low on the spectrum, it’s on Channel 2, 3 or 4, 13, in the case of New York. It’s on every cable channel. It’s on for an hour and it is a program that is distinguished, but it’s limited because they don’t have the money to be a genuinely reportorial enterprise. They are a talking head show, for the most part.

They have a great idea there, but think what would happen if you gave those resources to a television program dedicated to serious journalism, but that could command the talents of really talented television journalists to put on the kind of television news that can be so very compelling.

I mean imagine 60 Minutes on every night with terrific television reporters and the kind of, of, of, of approach to news that would allow the NewsHour to be what television news at its best could be without concern for economics and without worrying and looking over your shoulder at the ratings for Fox News or CNN or whatever.

I think this is something that if you wanted to change the world for the better, it would be a great thing to do. For one thing it would be a great public service. Number 2, it would create a genuine rival to the existing cable news operations to get their act together and compete. I think it would draw every talented television journalist in America would want to … would want to work there and I think it would be a great thing.

HEFFNER: Now what would it take to do this?

JONES: Well, I’d back up … I’ve picked a number out of the air … let me put it this way …

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I don’t even mean the NewsHour …

JONES: Oh …

HEFFNER: … I was going to say … extend it … what would it take to make the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of them, worryless about this matter of the marketplace.

JONES: What it will take is an influx of advertising revenue. And that advertising revenue, I think, will come to a certain degree when the economy turns and those two news organizations … I mean … you have to understand something … advertising … newspaper advertising … all advertising, really, but especially newspaper advertising in about December of 2008 fell off a cliff.

I mean it just took a nosedive. And I think that we have been, you know, in a very bad economic climate, that for newspapers has been especially bad. But newspapers … they’re … it’s a cyclical business. These things have happened in the past and when it comes back, the advertising begins to flow back.

What has happened in the meantime is that the digital revolution has persuaded people, I think wrongly, that when the economy turns, newspapers will not get any of that advertising back. I don’t believe they’ll get all of it back, but I think that they’ll get a significant amount of it back and I think that they will then, having pared down their expense basis, having sort of shrunk to a more realistic size in terms of overhead and gotten rid of arcane work rules like, you know, things that the Boston Globe had, like, like lifetime job guarantees … the newspaper business can’t afford that kind of thing anymore.

Get their overhead down, a new influx of revenue from, from the economy generally, which would affect both online and print advertising and then they will have the resources, I think, in many cases, to have a fighting chance of solving the real riddle and the real challenge. Which is how do we endure for the long term in a digital world, because they’re going to have to adapt to a digital world.

I don’t believe they should adapt to a digital world by changing what they fundamentally are.

I think that what they need to do is become what they fundamentally are in a digital world and that will command an audience that will be a desirable one … a high demographic one, an educated one … it will be one in a local community that, that recognizes that it needs them.

What they can’t do, in my opinion, is simply try to do anything possible to attract eyeballs. And become something that is calculated to appeal to people who, I think, are not going to be appealed to. That would be a mistake. That’s, I’m afraid, the strategy that a number of newspapers are following. I think they’re going to come to their senses and listen to what I’m saying.

HEFFNER: Ah, that’s the definition …

JONES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: That’s the definition.

JONES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But you know, I was wondering about what you would consider the expense budget … the expense budget of the newspaper, The New York Times … the newspaper, The Washington Post?

JONES: Well, the newspaper … when I say “the newspaper” I mean on paper and online, it’s the same essential news organization delivered …

HEFFNER: Okay.

JONES: … in different ways. The news … the budget for the New York Times is probably greater than for any news organization in America. Maybe the world. And I think it’s to the credit …

HEFFNER: How do you estimate it … what is it?

JONES: It’s a couple … two or three hundred billion dollars, something like that. I think that the, that the, the great thing about Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. who is the member of the Sulzberger family who is in charge and has taken a lot of hits … is that he has stayed consistent and true to the mission of The New York Times.

That, I think is the critical thing that newspapers have to remember. The value that people are going to perceive is the extent to which they stay true to the mission, the mission being, delivering the news that people need to govern themselves, to be informed citizens, to live in a very complicated world. That is, I think, the thing that newspapers can’t afford to give up.

And if they give that up in this kind of frenzy to get people to go to their website, if they’d spend their resources on, you know covering T-ball, like it was the Red Sox, then that’s a mistake, in my opinion. And it will not be what sustains them over the long haul.

I think they can have those things. They always have. Newspapers, you know, have been sold to people who didn’t want the news, they wanted the sports, they wanted the society pages, they wanted the garden stories, they wanted the real estate ads. That’s fine. I think that that’s always going to be the case. But they can’t get rid of or throw overboard, or abandon that expensive iron core news gathering function. Or, as I say … they won’t matter … it won’t matter whether they survive or not, if they give up that public service mission … which they have really had, newspapers especially have had, over, over time.

HEFFNER: Well, let me, let me turn for a moment to this fascinating part of your book in which you talk about being shocked when you read Janet Malcolm’s opening paragraph in a piece … two pieces …

JONES: Yes.

HEFFNER: … in the New Yorker magazine. And ask you to comment on it then. In fact, I ask my students to read that every year and then to comment on it.

Interestingly enough they manage to pass over that, that first paragraph:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns, when the article or book appears, his hard lesson. Journalist justify their treachery in various ways, according to their temperaments, the more pompous talk about freedom of speech, and the public’s right to know. The least talented talk about art. The seemliest murmur about earning a living.” Now that ticked you off.

JONES: That ticked me off because, you know, I respect Janet Malcolm and I don’t frankly believe that she even believes that … what she wrote. But she’s a very powerful writer and she certainly got the world’s attention when that appeared.

HEFFNER: And your attention because you write …

JONES: Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: … that you began to think about that.

JONES: Because I think it is … I think it is absolutely true that journalists need to be mindful of the power they have to do damage and the responsibility they had, in some cases, to do exactly what she says … to betray a source by telling the truth.

But I think that it is wrong to suggest that journalism is not an honorable profession.

HEFFNER: Is it a profession?

JONES: I absolutely believe it … well, I consider it a profession. I think we have a debate about that … a craft, a profession … how do you want to consider it?

I consider it a profession because I feel that it has standards and I feel that it has a, an ethical base that makes me feel that it is important for journalists to question themselves about their motives and it is just as important for them to be accountable to other people.

And I don’t think it was wrong or bad that Janet Malcolm held us up in this very harsh light. Because I think some times that exactly what happens.

But I think it’s also unfair because in my experience most newspapers and most newspaper journalists or most journalists, period, are people who have an idealistic motive for being in journalism. They may not be admired by a lot of people. But they certainly don’t go in it for the money. They go in it because they feel that they can do some good, number one. And number two because they have this kind of … they’re impelled to tell the truth. And they think the truth is a powerful thing.

I believe that. I believe that the thing that is being lost, in part, in this way that we’re moving to a kind of blog and online set of values … is that we’re losing the idea of objective truth. I don’t mean a perfect truth. I don’t mean, you know, a truth that is some … you know, kind of a cosmic abstraction. I mean a practical truth. I want people who are responsible and trained and intelligent and intellectually honest to tell me as best they can the objective truth about the world they’re observing as journalists. That’s what I want from journalism, that’s what “iron core” journalism, as far as I’m concerned is for. And I want it to be done that way. That’s my …

HEFFNER: You want it.

JONES: … taste.

HEFFNER: Are you getting it?

JONES: I get it at the New York Times as far as I’m concerned.

HEFFNER: Okay.

JONES: Some people would say “absolutely not”. I think the thing is that we tend to, to gravitate to journalism as … into opinion … that basically confirms what we already believe.

But, and this is where the irony comes in. If you want to change someone’s mind … change their mind … not reinforce what they already believe, but change their mind … I think you have to give them facts. You have to persuade them by telling them and persuading them that you are honorably telling them the truth about something and that that truth does not necessarily square with what they thought earlier.

HEFFNER: In …

JONES: I’ll give you an example. The, the war in Iraq. People changed their minds about the war in Iraq, not because of polemicists … in my opinion, they changed their mind because of reporting that came week in and week out and then year in and year out from journalists in the field reporting about what the reality of the field was. And it was, you know, it was … it’s a mosaic of reality. It’s not one reality.

But I think that people’s attitudes about what the war was and what it’s prospects for success were … changed because they became persuaded … even if they’d supported it … they became persuaded by what they read … not in the polemical press, but what they read in the objective press and came to believe was at least a, a credible version of reality. I think that that is the important thing that we not lose. As far as I’m concerned.

Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t value opinion. I do. I value editorials and op-eds and blogging. I value polemicists. I just don’t want to have nothing but polemicists.

HEFFNER: Do you think, to take our favorite paper … The New York Times … do you think, since I started to read it … well, forget about that, that’s ancient history … since you started to read it and work at it … that there has not been a shift in the objectivity, rather than the subjectivity of much that appears in news columns, supposed news columns?

JONES: I believe that, you know, I think that these things can wax and wane to a degree. I worked for Abe Rosenthal who was a very … was a stickler about objectivity, but had very strong opinions of his own. That were, you know, that … and I think we didn’t even know what his politics were until he left the, the newsroom of The New York Times, in many respects.

Let me put it this way. I was at the New York Times and this was in 1983 when I began there and there were people who were complaining then that The New York Times was not what it was. I then worked on a book about the New York Times that went all the way back to the beginning and what I found was, that there was on consistent thing …

HEFFNER: It’s not what it used to be.

JONES: That people have been saying that The New York Times was not what it used to be from the very beginning. I think the thing is this. I believe, as a New York Times reporter that I tried to be objective in my coverage.

I believe that reporters at The New York Times and editors at The New York Times still have that as their standard. The New York Times has adapted to, to the, the, the need and the importance of having analytical writing by creating mechanisms for that.

They call them “Q-heads” at the New York Times. They’re analytical pieces, they are labeled news analysis. That is something that is not an editorial, but it’s an analytical piece and it’s, it’s identified as such.

I think that in my opinion most of … I can’t … you know, I think that the culture of The New York Times, the standards of The New York Times, the idea that The New York Times expects its reporters to work objectively has not changed. I think that these … of course, you know, I have friends who view The New York Times as a, you know, as an apologist for the Left. I don’t look at it that way.

But, you know, the thing is I believe that even these people, were people who came to be persuaded because they believed over time that the, that the sort of the … the factuality of the culture of The New York Times, even overwhelmed their prejudices against The New York Times and I think in many respects, again, for instance, with the war, it caused them to change their minds about it, not because The New York Times was persuading them of something, but because The New York Times was trying to reflect reality.

I think that the thing is we live in a world in which a lot of powerful people don’t want you to know reality. They want to manufacture reality. They want to manipulate reality, and the web makes that very, very, very easy. That’s why these institutions like the New York Times and this culture of verification and factual reporting I think is really important and it did not go away.

HEFFNER: Do you think I’m being unfair if I conclude that what you, your answer to my question about the Times is very strong and very positive “maybe”.

JONES: No. I think, I think that the culture of The New York Times reportorially has not changed. I think that if I read a New York Times article …

HEFFNER: The culture? You mean the beliefs of the people who write?

JONES: And who report.

HEFFNER: And edit.

JONES: And who believe that they expected and, and intend to write objectively.

HEFFNER: But what appears on the first page, the second and to the last page.

JONES: No. Are you saying do I think that that is, is, is … that the books are cooked politically? No, I don’t. I think that The Times has made some terrible mistakes. And I have talked about them in this book.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

JONES: I mean I’m certainly no one who has not been critical of The New York Times when I think they deserve it. They’re far from perfect. But I think that, you know, a lot of times we have now moved into a kind of a mindset where if a reporter gets something wrong … well, that’s a … that’s biased … that was motivated by, by a kind of bigotry and a bias in, in a subjective journalistic intent. I, I think that, you know, we used to think that they were just a stupid reporter who’d gotten something wrong, or at least that was one of the possibilities.

Now if something happens, if you read, that you find maybe it is biased, maybe it is too subjective, maybe it’s wrong. That’s something that is interpreted in the most kind of ideological way. In my experience that’s not usually the way it works.

Usually, it’s human error, its laziness; it’s an editorial …what I mean by that … an editor who’s not done the job of questioning the information. It’s a mistake.

I think that that is something that, you know, I take I guess as an article of faith. I don’t believe that The New York Times is, is, you know, setting out to be an ideological newspaper. I think it’s, it is written by human beings and edited by human beings, but I think that it’s intent, it’s objective intent is to be objective.

HEFFNER: And you, of course, judge your students at Harvard on intent.

JONES: I believe that my students are, are trying to interpret intent as they try to calculate what is bias and what is a mistake. I think if you, if you read a newspaper or read a paper by a student and you find plagiarism, then you have got something clear. If you read a paper by a student and you find that they’ve done a lot of work, but they have, by your standards, missed something important and made a mistake, I do not think that that is the same thing as the student trying to actively mislead me.

HEFFNER: In the couple of minutes we have left, what do you think about this … well, the old News Council, or the, the new Public Editor approach?

JONES: I love it. I think, I think that newspapers are power … you know newspapers are powerful entities themselves and they need to be held accountable.

HEFFNER: But you know most of the journalists who come to this table, say “there’s no one in here but us chickens”. They disavow the notion of power, or influence.

JONES: Well, they’re …that’s absurd. I mean …

HEFFNER: Why do you think that is?

JONES: … the power, the power of deciding what goes on the front page of The New York Times above the fold, that’s a very powerful thing. You know, if nothing else that probably does more to define what appears on the NBC Nightly News and so forth than anything else. Still I think that the power of the press in part is the power of focusing attention. And the, the, the power of newspapers like The New York Times and The New York Times suigeneris in many ways, I mean there’s just nothing quite like it. It’s not the only powerful newspaper, but it’s certainly one of the most powerful newspapers.

And when the Times pays significant attention to something, the world tends to say, “This is something I need to pay attention to.”

HEFFNER: The Times opposed the National News Council idea …

JONES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … at the time. You think it would now?

JONES: I don’t know whether they would now, but I think it was a mistake that they did. And I think it was a great … you know … I think that the, the decision of The New York Times after the Jason Blair scandal to create a Public Editor was a great move. I think it was really important. The Washington Post had already created an Ombudsman before. I think The New York Times needs to be held accountable in ways that, that simply complaining to the Editor … not … don’t necessarily accomplish.

The New York Times is powerful, there’s no question about it. It needs to be held accountable. So do all newspapers. But they need to be held accountable in a world in which they function. And I think that is the question … are they going to be in this world that’s, that’s coming … able to continue to do their job and to be held accountable and to be judged objective or not objective. Are they going to be there to do their job and stand accused when the screw it up?

I think it’s fair also to point out that newspapers are probably more transparent than any institutions in the United States. They admit more errors more publicly than any institutions I know.

HEFFNER: Then why was there this opposition to a news council?

JONES: Because Abe Rosenthal who was the one who ran the newsroom, didn’t want a News Council. He didn’t want anyone, you know, telling him and judging him … he felt that it was the job of the Editor of The New York Times to be doing exactly that same thing. Well, when we set ourselves up as our own judges, you know we can sometimes get a little distorted in our judgments.

HEFFNER: Well, how come there isn’t a News Council now? I know that CBS and the Times really knocked it for a loop, but there have been opportunities to create a News Council again.

JONES: Well, I think that … I think that many news organizations now are much more receptive to being held accountable than they were at the time the News Council was proposed. This was back …you know … this was many years ago. I think that newspapers and one of the benefits of the web is that it has really been a mechanism for, you know, when newspapers make a mistake … that mistake is apt to be identified and is apt to be called to their attention.

And if it’s an honorable, you know, news organization they are going to acknowledge it. And as I say I think that newspapers are willing to acknowledge errors more readily than any other institutions.

Part of the News Council purpose was to deflect ruinous libel suits because at the time the, the News Council was suggested, newspapers were getting clobbered in the courts with these huge judgments. And the idea was that if there was a news council when someone had a complaint they could hold the newspaper accountable, then they … the, the libel suit, for instance, might be able to be avoided. I think that that proved to be not necessarily very … a very effective mechanism for doing that.

They’ve tried news councils different places, some have worked for a while, some have not. I think that the main reason though that the news council idea failed at these two institutions … CBS and The New York Times … was because they were pre-eminent and they didn’t want it.

HEFFNER: Do you think one would work now?

JONES: I don’t know. I think that the news is in such disarray that that’s something that they are, you know … maybe it would. I don’t know. If it would be something that would, would give credibility to, to news organizations, especially to newspapers then I would be all for it.

I think that the problem newspapers have now is so dire and their, their economic situations are so precarious that focusing on something like that is something that they really don’t have the luxury and it’s a bit of a, of a luxury to deal with something like this because it’s a complicated thing to try, to try to arrange. It’s not something that is easy. I think instead what they’re much more apt to do is to be more transparent and more accountable and, and to basically do their best to try to win the, the trust of the people that they actually, absolutely have to depend on.

HEFFNER: Alex Jones, I appreciate so much your being with me here again on The Open Mind. We’ve got to do still another program at some point on the one element we’ve left out of this … and that’s the government and public policy.

JONES: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thanks again.

JONES: Great pleasure, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at theopenmind.tv.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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