News in bits and bytes... how will the kids know what's going on?
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GUEST: Victor Navasky
AIR DATE: 10/26/2013
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Victor S. Navasky, long-time editor, then publisher, of The Nation magazine and now Chairman of The Columbia Journalism Review.
Victor Navasky first joined me here in 1980 for an Open Mind conversation about Naming Names, his National Book Award winning study of the Hollywood blacklist.
Last time, my guest and I discussed his absolutely splendid, just published Alfred A. Knopf book, The Art of Controversy – Political Cartoons And Their Enduring Power.
And one must really puzzle over what has happened to the media generally in the three decades and more between our first and our most recent programs.
For that theme, of course, was summed up in the impressive May/June 2013 cover story of Chairman Navasky’s Columbia Journalism Review with the question: “Kids now get their news in bits and bytes from social media on their phones. With journalism retreating behind paywalls, how will they know what’s true?”
And that’s the question I would ask my guest today. Victor, with all the … I would going to say “garbage” … forgive me for that … but with all the bites and bytes that come in … unedited … how do our kids growing up know what’s true, what’s real, what to believe?
NAVASKY: I mean, you know, I’m 80 years old and the view from 80 is that we didn’t do such a great job ourselves of figuring out what was true. And my kids … I have three of them … seem brighter than I am … and, and they’re all into the new media … one of them reads a lot more than the other two do, but … and one of them makes documentary films and one of them is a social worker. And I have a lot … and I just came from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s Journalism Day where one of the co-founders of Politico … this website and publication … spoke and it was really inspirational.
And what he basically said was that with all of the sort of gloom and doom about what’s happening in journalism today, he believes there’s never been a more exciting time because everyone under 40 is into all of this new stuff that you deride, slightly, in your question.
HEFFNER: Not slightly.
NAVASKY: Okay. And that if you have an entrepreneurial gene in addition to an interest in journalism that there are no limits and it’s not accidental that all of these new millionaires and billionaires are under 30. And that it’s never been more exciting because you can create something and, and that doesn’t exist. And they’re doing it all the time. And my own experience tells me that when … not just experience, reading … tells me someone once said to me that they … Greeks thought that conversation … that print would put conversation out of business. And that people thought that radio would put print out of business. People thought that McLuhan came along … people thought that movies would put print out of business. People thought that television would put movies out of business. All of the old media are still with us … conversation is with us, print is with us … movies are with us … television is with us.
The fact that you have this new medium is not going to put the old media out of business. So they have more to choose from, rather than … rather than less. And that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t worry about some of the recent trends. In the sort run I believe that the online media and the … that world … the digital world is degrading the traditional media and its values.
In the long run I think the possibility of inter-con activity and back and forth-ness is a great thing. And there are many more sources we have to check things out.
There’s a great irony in the short run. The irony in the short run is … and I did … I, I got a foundation grant to do a survey of magazines and (laugh) their websites.
And here’s what I found, courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation … which you didn’t have to do a survey because you knew it beforehand, but once you get the numbers it’s impressive and depressing.
Number one, magazines, even a prestigious magazine like The New Yorker … their online versions do not fact check as rigorously, if at all, as their print versions.
Number two, their online versions do not copy edit, if at all, as rigorously as their print versions. Which is a degradation of standards.
Number three, the church/state wall between advertising and, and editorial doesn’t exist the way it did in the traditional media … in the online world. There are things that pop up all the time and there are other things … so called advertising content that blur the line between …
And number four … the presumption in the world of print that you don’t use anonymous sources except in cases where there’s a special reason to do so, is the reverse, online where everybody has a handle and so, there’s … in theory … no, no accountability.
Now there are answers for each of these things that people involved in the new media give to one when you point this out to them … they’ll say that … “Yeah, maybe it’s not fact checked … but they fact checked after the fact” … you get a thousand people who identify errors when they come in … and then you correct it. They have answers like that.
There are problems with all those answer, but I believe that, that in the short run there is a degradation because as things have speeded up they have forgotten the importance of these standards or, or not figured out how they imply in the new world of the, of the digital media.
In the longer run I think we’ll figure out creative ways to deal with it and you still have traditional media to weigh against the, the material that you see in the online world.
So I’m more optimistic than your question would suggest I should be.
HEFFNER: I don’t believe you.
HEFFNER: Now, Victor, that’s a terrible thing to say to a guest.
NAVASKY: No, it’s not. (Laugh)
HEFFNER: I think you’re trying to look at the brighter side, trying desperately to look at the brighter side and I guess I don’t blame you. To be a … since I’m much older than you …
NAVASKY: Yeah, I don’t believe that you don’t believe me … I think you’re just trying to make good television. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Well, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that someone as perceptive as you are doesn’t feel the need for looking for the brighter side. I, I understand that and you do … but I guess I don’t believe that the long run is anything other than a shield for “What in the world are we going to do anyway?” So, why with my three children, as my two children and my grandchildren accept this, are part of this as my students are … why curse the darkness? Let’s light a candle and the candle is one of hope.
Well, I look at the cover of your Columbia Journalism Review and it’s brilliant … all these little birds with their mouths wide open to be fed … are kids to be fed … and what do we want to feed them with? We want to feed them with something as close to what you and I will call truth as possible.
And then you list the change in editing practices, the change in fact checking processes … all of these things. How do we go on without doing great damage to these chickies?
NAVASKY: Because what you’re calling a change … let’s take The New Yorker magazine …
NAVASKY: … I could take The Nation magazine which I know more about, but I’m going to take The New Yorker because more people get it, see it ands all that.
The fact that The New Yorker online is not … has, I would say lower standards than The New Yorker in print …
HEFFNER: That’s a word that has meaning … “lower” …
NAVASKY: Yeah … no, I use it advisedly and maybe they’ve changed their ways by now, but I don’t know that they have. Doesn’t take away from the fact that The New Yorker in print still exists …
NAVASKY: … not only does it still exist (laugh) … it’s a way to judge the online version of it. Now they have … so you’ve got a plus in the online version of a lot of new things out there, some of which are very good and some of which are not so good.
And … but you also have the old publication that comes out week-in, week-out even though the rhythm of public events has changed.
HEFFNER: Let me interrupt you …
HEFFNER: … and take just that point. Are you so sure, are you certain at all in your own heart and own mind …
HEFFNER: … that we’ll continue to have that old time magazine and that we’ll continue to have, at least, the model of its standards. That’s number one. Number two … who’s reading it?
HEFFNER: How many people are reading it? The major figure in a major publication that we both greatly respect, though we have differences with it … the other day said to me, “No, it won’t be here in 10 years” … he didn’t believe.
HEFFNER: … does he want it be there … here … of course …
NAVASKY: Well, am I sure … no I’m not sure … but I’m not sure of anything, you know. But do I believe? Yes, I do believe …
HEFFNER: You do think …
NAVASKY: Of course …
HEFFNER: … they’ll be here.
NAVASKY: Yeah, I do … and my wife is a stock broker and about ten years ago I told her … maybe it was five years ago … if I were you I’d invest in The New York Times … I would tell my clients to invest in The New York Times … I never tell her what to tell her clients, she knows a lot more than I do about the stock market. But I would tell my clients to invest in The New York Times … their stock was down to about 2 … whatever it was. And, it’s crazy … because of all of the people like you and me, to a lesser extent … who decry the present circumstance and they had made some mistakes about their building and other things like that.
And sure enough the stock went up in the next period … it doubled or something … but will the Times be with us in the way it has been all these years? Who knows? You know, I never believed until recent years that family owned things were never … were the best things to have. But it turns out in the newspaper business … the family has stood up against the worst part of some of these radical changes in the business.
HEFFNER: With many exceptions.
NAVASKY: Yes. With many exceptions. Yes.
HEFFNER: And ah, you know, I’m, I’m puzzled too, Victor … I, I don’t mean to be overly critical …
HEFFNER: … just adequately …
HEFFNER: … critical. I was surprised at your answer about … you, you, you embraced an answer that you were given. You repeated it with pleasure that “look what these new media have provided” is an opportunity for the entrepreneurial in us …
HEFFNER: … to do so well. That doesn’t sound like the old Victor I knew.
NAVASKY: Well, I … you know, I happen not to … I have a FaceBook page, I happen not to use it …
NAVASKY: … that’s a comment on my inability. I think it’s a great thing that FaceBook is out there. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. All of these ways of putting people together have enlarged the opportunity for diverse perspectives, experiences, relationships and other things … in a way that folks who grew up in a particular neighborhood never had available to them before. Especially poor folks. And this changes that in a way that we have to see whether it’s for the better or the worse.
HEFFNER: Well, but what about … you published it … you’re the publisher … kids now get their news in bit and bytes from social media or on their phones …
NAVASKY: Here’s …
HEFFNER: … how will they know what’s true?
NAVASKY: Okay. Here’s what CJR’s … one of CJR’s experiences is … CJR has its own website. CJR’s website has circulation … readership much higher than the magazine. The magazine maybe 18, 20,000 … hundreds of thousands of people see the website.
One of the facts about the CJR website … and I think it’s true of other publications as well, is that the highest traffic they get is for the articles that have already appeared in the magazine. So …
HEFFNER: Go figure.
NAVASKY: … well, go figure … but, but I think there’s … you know, in the end … I mean this is what democratic theory is all about. What is … and it’s what truth questions have to do with. That truth is going to be the idea that survives because it has survived the test of … it survived in the marketplace of ideas. The marketplace of ideas is an imperfect marketplace because money determines too much of what people see and what they get access to, but to the extent that it works the way it’s supposed to work … it … you, you get the benefit of the old standards in processing these articles that are longer than you’re supposed to be able to tolerate … online and yet we see that it works.
And even in the old media it was unthinkable, for example that Time magazine, however many years ago, who have run Steve Brill’s long piece (laugh) about the health care system. It’s great that they ran that long piece about the health care system.
So, we’re, we’re discovering new things about consumers of literature, of news and readers all the time and I think the new media will be vulnerable to the same tests and if it turns out that they’re unreliable, people will stop relying on them.
And, and that goes for our children as well older folks. One of the interesting things though that your questions raised. Is … at the Nation where the demographics are older … one of the business … a couple of the business people said to me a few years ago when I was … when I was the publisher of it … “Listen, why is everyone searching for youth? Why are we happy? We get such a high return from our older readers.”
Well, they’re dying off … well, yes, they’re dying off but new … but young people are going to be old.
HEFFNER: Getting older.
NAVASKY: And that … and they’re going to value it.
HEFFNER: What was your answer?
NAVASKY: And they’re going to value it. I said, “Maybe you’re write. You test it.” I mean that’s what you do in that business and … but no, I believe that because young people will benefit from The Nation that we should keep trying to figure out ways to reach them. And also … but we shouldn’t undervalue our seniors.
HEFFNER: Is there any indication, Victor, that there is any real movement in the direction of righting this wrong. Let’s say one anticipates in time it will work out. That’s what you’re hoping, that’s in a sense what you’re saying.
Is there anything pushing that “working out”? The matter of standards?
NAVASKY: Well, I can tell you what we’re doing at CJR. We got a modest grant to set up a Board of Overseers, to help with fund raising and other things. One of the first things that the Board has taken upon itself to do is to figure out what standards ought to apply in the online world for CJR.
And in figuring out what standards ought to apply, we hope that will be a model for the press writ large. Both online and in the print world. So, for example, in this flight to keep up with the news in order to build traffic … my own view and preference is that you don’t sacrifice accuracy for timeliness and that in the end that’s going to pay off for CJR. And we have yet to adopt our standards, but how does that apply to content … that is adverting paid for content … where there is a question about the line between advertising and editorial.
I started out believing the answer to those things is transparency, that all advertising be identified as such with a big sign so it can’t be confused with editorial content. And … but I don’t object to advertising sponsored content as long as it is seen as an ad rather than disguised as an editorial.
So how those standards find their way into CJR’s proclamation and whether we can perform an educational function for the larger media community … we’ll know … shortly.
HEFFNER: Is there any information about what has happened in specific instances in which, whether in the old media or the new efforts have been made to establish or to re-create or to strengthen standards so that accuracy, for instance rather than time is maintained … is, is, is a primary criterion, but not timeliness or beating the other guy?
NAVASKY: Right, right.
HEFFNER: Is there any information about the degree to which the one has been tried and won or lost?
NAVASKY: There are people out there who will tell you there is … I don’t believe that there is yet an adequate study that has been done that speaks to the question you ask.
You ask the earlier question about truth, but of course, people have been grappling with what is truthful down through the ages, but I do think that’s a cop-out, that it is important to set … to do the best we can and, and there’s not reason to me … there’s no intrinsic reason in setting standards in the media that you can’t, in effect, test the proposition that you’re questioning. So …
HEFFNER: Those who have said we have the answer … what is their answer?
NAVASKY: Well, I, I gave one type of answer they give … so online they say that fact-checking after the fact is as good as fact-checking before the fact because it can be remedied so quickly and that … and they talk about “crowd” and “cloud” and things like that, so you have these millions of eye balls who come in and see what you put out there. And, and you can fix it.
Of course, there isn’t an agreed upon protocol for doing that. Some places change the original and you don’t know that it’s been changed and you don’t know that that people who only saw the first version, which had the wrong fact, will ever get the truth of the … to the … the accurate fact.
So, there will be verticals in my view develop and I think we can play a role in helping to develop them, to deal with that issue so that if you change something, the original should be … should still be there whether it’s done by asterisk or done by color or done … however it’s done. So that … and it should be noted when it was changed and you have to have criteria to decide when you … who is right and who is wrong … and all of those are not easy issues. But that’s what journalism and life is all about.
HEFFNER: Well, certainly life is all about …
HEFFNER: … that. National News Council. I promised myself …
HEFFNER: … that I would not let this program end and we have four to five minutes … without asking you about your experience over the years …what has it led you to conclude about Ombudspersons, Public Editors, National News Council. What … where, where do you end … not end up because you’ve got so many years to go. But where are you now?
NAVASKY: Yeah. A National News Council is such a particular thing. I was not there when it was there, but CJR, as it happened used to run the proceedings of the National News Council and for viewers who don’t know what it was, some people would come in with a complaint about what happened and then there would be an investigation. And …
HEFFNER: What would … had happened in the press …
HEFFNER: … misstatements …
NAVASKY: Yes. And the … yes, that then there would be a judgment rendered on it … like the Supreme Court or something.
Who were the people who were making those judgments … did they do a good job or not … is there anything intrinsically wrong with that format? I’m not against it. But I didn’t think that it, it’s the answer …
I am all for Ombudsmen … in all these organizations. Ten years ago … not ten years ago … many more than ten years ago … I worked at The New York Times in the 1970’s and Harrison Salisbury was then running the Op-Ed Page.
And the paper went through an experiment and every section was instructed to make a plan for where they wanted to be 10 years from, from that day … in the early 1970’s and the head of each section was free to invite anyone from elsewhere on the paper to join a team that would help plan the, the future of that section.
And I was asked by Harrison to join his team. Another person on that team was Hilton Kramer. Hilton and I had very different politics. I admired Hilton’s intellect and all that. Hilton became the Editor of The New Criterion … subsequently at the Times … at the time he was the Times Art Critic.
And I said in … as an idea for the Op-Ed page at that point … “Why don’t we have an Ombudsman?”. And the only newspaper at that point that had an Ombudsman that I knew about was The Washington Post.
And Hilton piped up and said, “That is the stupidest idea …
NAVASKY: … that I have ever heard of”. The New York Times is clearly … you know, the best paper in the world … and why should we waste our space on criticizing ourselves … everyone is out to get us anyway. He made a pretty good case why is was a stupid (laugh) idea. And it was dropped and they forgot about it until many years later along came the Public Editor and it was Danny Okrent and he did a great job, I thought.
And I think the current Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan is terrific. And I learn from her. And I read and she raises questions that I’ve never thought of myself. And they go beyond The New York Times. They go to journalism itself and she does things that I hope CJR is able to do.
HEFFNER: You say you hope CJR is …
NAVASKY: Is able to do.
HEFFNER: … is there a movement in that direction?
NAVASKY: Ah, CJR is, is one hopes an Ombudsman for the press … writ large by press I mean online and print and I mean worldwide and I mean globally so … and CJR actually has to face a lot of these issues because we have begun to have licensing editions in China, in Cyprus and in Brazil. And each one poses a different set (laugh) of challenges and questions and it’s an educational experience for us.
HEFFNER: We’ll have to discuss them at another time.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me to discuss this educational experience …
NAVASKY: Thank you.
HEFFNER: I appreciate it a lot, Victor.
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 thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/open mind.