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October 07, 2005

all the news that's fit to print

Jay Rosen captures one's attention with the lead to his latest post: "Just one man's opinion, but now is a good time to say it: The New York Times is not any longer--in my mind--the greatest newspaper in the land. Nor is it the base line for the public narrative that it once was. Some time in the least year or so I moved the Washington Post into that position." (And this from a quintessential New Yorker!)

Here is what I take away from Jay's argument. First, the Times represents a traditional conception of the daily newspaper as an institution that tries to extract significant information from politically powerful people and present it to a judicious public. This is not the only valid conception of a newspaper's role; I have defended a rival view (that journalism exists to promote public participation). However, if the Times has a claim to excellence, it is the conventional one.

Jay cites a series of disturbing recent cases in which the accuracy of the Times' news coverage has been found wanting: the "breakdown in controls in reporting Weapons of Mass Destruction, ... Jayson Blair, Wen Ho Lee, Paul Krugman’s correction trauma." But everyone makes mistakes, and an outsider could imagine that the Times must now be tightening its internal controls.

The Judith Miller story reflects a deeper problem than mere error. As she investigated the Valerie Plame case and faced a subpoena for her information, Miller became part of a classic Washington story about the secret behavior of powerful people. The extraordinary list of her visitors in jail (John Bolton, Bob Dole, Tom Brokaw) illustrates how close she has come to power, and how tightly linked are our media leaders and politicos. Jay notes that "Miller is a longtime friend of the [Times] publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. They socialize. It’s not a scandal, but it is a fact." Indeed, it is the Times' traditional role to get close to the powerful; to offer coveted space in its news columns in return for information. Thus Sulzberger, Brokaw, Bolton, Dole, and others like them move in similar circles, as do reporters like Judith Miller. Readers potentially benefit from those connections, when the Times presses to reveal as much as possible from its exalted sources. That, after all, is the heroic story of the Pentagon Papers and Times v Sullivan.

Miller, however, became a newsmaker, a decision-maker, someone with information that she could deploy strategically. She did not choose that role: a subpoena dragged her into it. However, her contacts, her friendships, and all of her tactical choices underlined her close connections to insiders and "newsmakers." This impression presented a challenge to the Times, whose role is to explain what decision-makers are up to. We want to assume that some have power and others gather independent knowledge about them; the state and the press do not mix. But here, through no deliberate choice of Miller's, the lines were blended.

It was then the responsibility of the Times to show that it was a trustworthy explainer. Every instinct should have pressed the newspaper's editors and staff to extract information about its own reporter and to explain what she had done. Instead, the Times' coverage of Miller's legal predicament has been confusing, low-key, half-hearted, and passive. Its columnists have been virtually silent. And it is has issued no meaningful public statements or press releases.

The implicit deal that the Times offers is this: We will cozy up to the power-brokers, but we will do it in your interests, so that we can keep you informed about their wheeling and dealing. When the Times becomes a power-broker itself, the deal comes into question. At that moment, the editors should understand that their whole justification is at stake, and they should rush to serve the public's "right to know." Failure to do so raises fundamental questions about the value of the New York Times that go far beyond any cases of misreporting or run-of-the-mill bias.

Posted by peterlevine at October 7, 2005 10:55 AM



Thanks, Peter.

Posted by: Jay Rosen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 7, 2005 10:20 PM

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