Reader to Journalists: Apologies not accepted

A journalist friend of mine recently spent a whole day answering calls from readers at her paper. She happened to be on duty on a day where readers were handed a big newspaper booboo: in a tribute to local soldiers who died in Iraq, they forgot a local army man. The newspaper knew this tribute was coming–it was pegged to Memorial Day weekend–so the mistake made them look stupid. Stupid enough to warrant an honest explanation.

But that type of honesty is foreign to most newsrooms, where the attitute is that journalists always know better than those pesky readers. So what did the newspaper have to say? This:

“How did your newspaper make such a mistake? The simple answer is we messed up. We just missed [his] name.”

That’s it. That was the only explanatory line the paper ran in three graphs of chronicling reader complaints. My friend says they decided not to print more about it because they didn’t want to make the reporter look stupid. But the reporter and the other people on the story WERE stupid, and readers certainly deserved more than a dismissive apology.

I am a journalist myself and I believe in the craft. I am often overly (and overtly) optimistic about the role the media can play in our society. But I do believe that the paternalism and disdain we often show the reader will hurt us, and worse, it will hurt the craft we believe in for future generations of journalists.

The cynic in me sometimes views journalists as frustrated men and women who will give their left arm to harm/insult/libel a prominent figure (of any kind) simply because they are bitter and resentful. Journalists are not nearly as glamorous, fascinating and important as the people they cover. This is probably the reason journalists showe themselves with truckloads of awards–if the world at large won’t acknowledge our importance, we’ll just do it ourselves.

The cynic in me was fully awake this week after I heard the New York Times magazine editor pretend that the newspaper has the influence of a pizza restaurant coupon (or even less) when it comes to presidential candidates. I got extra ammo today while reading the Washington Post coverage of the Wen Ho Lee settlement. Lee was the Alamo nuclear scientist that allegedly passed nuclear secrets on to the Chinese. After being cleared of all but one charge (59 total), he sued media organizations to get the names of government officials who leaked his name.

A while back I read a 70-something pages case study of the Lee episode done by the Kennedy School of Government. It was movie-like saga depicting amazing failures from FBI and the Department of Energy agents caught in a blind witch-hunt. The investigations were conducted in such an awful manner that when the charges against Lee were dropped, the judge issued a profound apology from the bench. What was the role of the media? Well, information was leaked to them and they printed it with little independent verification. When the stories, which were ass-heavy on anonymous sources, came out, the investigation intensified and law enforcement officials went gung-ho on getting Lee because their efforts were now in the public eye. (Further proof the New York Times has absolutely no influence on the political world).

Well, it turned out Lee was not their guy. The New York Times had to run a lenghty apology (which didn’t read like an apology, because journalists, remember, are never wrong). Lee sued. In the end, any reasonable person would conclude that the media gave the government a whole lotta help in destroying the reputation of the scientist. The media was more or less the US officials’ executioner in the Lee case (just as they were in the Richard Jewell case in Atlanta).

Lee’s lawsuit went on for years and the media organizations finally settled, reaching a compromise. They wouldn’t disclose their sources, but they’d give Lee $750,000 to bury the hatchet. As a journalist, I’m okay with this compromise. Full disclosure: Personally, I am still wrestling with how far we should go to protect sources (especially misleading ones).

What I’m not okay with is the type of coverage seen in the Post. Oh, the poor media put up another fight against people trying to infringe upon our rights (Which one? The right to be completeley wrong?) and oh what a disturbing precedent we have set.

What’s more, there is little or no mention that the coverage of Lee at the time was wrong–awfully so. The media screwed up. Period. Don’t just apologize. Do it better. Go back and tell readers how the government messed up and how you fell into the trap of taking their word for it. Acknowledge you ruined Lee because you printed information you didn’t, or couldn’t, verify.

Don’t grandstand and victimize yourself for being caught red-handed. And please don’t pretend to be working for the public, when often you are the first to label the public as being narrow minded, stupid and incapable of knowing what’s best for them.

That is the attitude that will bury journalism and the cynic in me takes some pleasure in pointing this out.

The “we know better attitude” won’t work in an age where the gatekeeper metaphor is dead. D-E-A-D. Journalists don’t control much information anymore. That is both good, as citizens have access to more raw information than ever before. It is also bad because much propaganda hits us directly and we’re sometimes unaware of it.

But I prefer to be hit with propaganda and fight it alone than allow a journalist who despises me to process it in my name. I’ve said it before: it’s not the practices that will kill journalism (there is fabulos work being done). It’s the attitude.

One of my favorite things to read on the weekend is the “Free For All” page in Saturday’s Post, where readers take the paper to task for its mistakes. Today’s Post happened to print a letter from a reader that criticized the same paternalistic tactics I just mentioned (it had to do with that “innocent” article on the Clintons’ marriage):

“[F]or [David Broder] to try to justify the column on the fact that the New York Times ‘sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons’ marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One’ only added a rare layer of irrelevant ooze.

Unfortunately, this is part of a disturbing trend in which members of the media listen mostly to each other. Over the past few decades media standards have devolved to the point that reporters and columnists no longer interview newsmakers to discern the news but interview themselves to determine what’s newsworthy. The mainstream media have moved from eschewing rumor and innuendo to reporting on what’s in the tabloids. Now we have a columnist at a major newspaper justifying his coverage of an issue not on its newsworthiness or timeliness but because another mainstream paper addressed it first and created the all-important ‘buzz’

In the real world, just because the New York Times has decided that the state of the Hillary Clinton’s marriage is a hot topic doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

Oh, poor reader. He obviously doesn’t understand journalists know better.

4 Responses to “Reader to Journalists: Apologies not accepted”

  1. I don’t know whether to be offended or flattered by this one 🙂

    In our defense, there really wasn’t that much more of an explanation to give. Jenny Lee (the reporter) went through the archives to find names and missed that guy’s name. 🙁

  2. How far to go to protect legitimate sources with a need for protection? I say all the way to the wall.

    Protect misleading ones? Uh… pretty much not, let ’em hang twisting in the breeze.

    Mebbe it’s good I don’t have a press card.


    Now earlier in the piece, you mentioned where some of your cynicism lies. Mine often found in a different quote:

    And please don’t pretend to be working for the public

    (Of course, there’s a difference between the wide-eyed greenhorn working a local beat and the steely-eyed grayhair chomping a cigar with the rich and famous. Unfortunately, the latter types run circles around most of the former types. A form of training, it seems.)

  3. Also, it’s the steely-eyed once that become the public faces of the profession. And that is not always as good as it may sound.

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