Stenographers, Megaphones, or Journalists?

Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook status:

The New York Times gives us ‘news’ on the CTU strike and includes this:

‘Mayor Rahm Emanuel has focused on trying to improve the quality of public education, with a longer school day and more meaningful teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, meanwhile, has been intent on reinstating a 4 percent pay increase, and protecting those who are laid off when failing schools are closed.’

Yup, this is ‘news’ reporting all right. Just the news.

From: (‘Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund is Running Dry‘, NYT, September 16, 2012)

I hope it is clear what the problem is with the ‘reporting’ above.

And over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the too-cool-for-school endeavors of Mr. Peter Thiel. Today, the good folks at Techdirt have a response, which captures most of my central reactions to it.  ( I have a visceral reaction to showboats like Thiel that I will set aside for now.) To wit, it reads like:

[A] retweet of corporate PR.

In short, the New York Times article–by Caitlin Kelly–flirts with reading like a poorly edited press release. And the piece I linked to above–by Mary Williams Walsh–provides evidence too, of having been copied from Rahm Emanuel‘s manifestos.

We are, folks, seemingly confronted with creatures all too common in today’s journalistic world: the faithful stenographer and the eager megaphone.

A little story before I go any further. Some sixteen or so years ago, a good friend’s cousin came visiting to New York City. I met him a few times at parties and dinners and struck up some light conversation about his work at a pharmaceutical company’s press and public relations department. His job was to write up press releases based on material provided to him by company scientists, and then send them on to media outlets like magazines and newspapers.  This being 1996, he did most of his work the old-fashioned way, faxing one-pagers to a list of numbers every day. Crib a little, write a little, fax a lot. He was good at his work, very prolific in the releases he put out, and he was paid well. All seemed hunky-dory.

But all was not well. For as my new acquaintance confessed to me, he was alarmed at the rate at which his press releases appeared in print. Note, I did not say ‘material from his press releases’; rather, quite simply, all too many ‘journalists’ at the receiving end of his fax blasts were simply taking the press release, removing his name, making some minor cosmetic alterations and then simply the running the release as their article. Job done. On to the next ‘story’.

The New York Times has been honest enough to admit that in the past it was part of the cheerleading crew that failed to flag the Bush administration’s ghastly, criminal, war on Iraq. But the lack of critical appraisal shown then seemingly still afflicts the Grey Lady. And they aren’t alone in this abdication of journalistic responsibility either: as responses to the US administration’s ‘lede’ on the Benghazi attacks show, all too many journalists today are simply uncritical purveyors of whatever nonsense is sent their way from corporate and political sources. The next time you read a debate about the indispensability of the journalist in the context of today’s blog-happy world, keep that in mind. (These ramblings  remind me I need to get back to reviewing David Coady‘s excellent What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012), which provides a spirited and philosophically rigorous defense of the independent blogger.)

19 thoughts on “Stenographers, Megaphones, or Journalists?

  1. There’s an article in the New Yorker this week on Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker, pioneers of the practice your acquaintance described above. It’s not revelatory, but it’s deeply disturbing.

    1. This phenomenon, along with a host of other public relations techniques, is described well in John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s book *Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!*. Some years ago, The Media Education Fund released an eponymous documentary based on the book. I’m told by a PR insider that the VNR (video news release) is now considered a somewhat low-brow marketing technique, but the industry has made the most of social networking technology, such as Twitter. Shocking as it is to see elements of a press release in the New York Times, it’s rife in newspapers down the chain of being.

      1. Ray,

        Thanks for the comment. (And the reference – I’ll check it out.) Indeed, I think at lower levels, this practice is very common. The problem, as seems evident, is that journalists cozy up to much to their sources, relying on them for their stories excessively in the end.

    2. Amanda,

      Thanks for the comment and for the pointer. I’ll chase it down – hopefully, it’s online. I’ve been creeped out for a long time about this kind of planting of stories – part of the slow decline of journalism.

  2. Dear Shamir,
    A little story from my period as an activist (and latterly a local campaign manager) for a Left Wing party in in New Zealand. When I began in politics I had naively supposed that if you wanted to get your candidate’s speech in the paper you would get the reporters to come along . Or maybe send them a copy of the speech. Not so. Both of these strategies require rather too much of the average reporter. What you do is this. You send them a ‘press-release’ which is in fact a REPORT of the speech either done into indirect speech or written as a series of ‘quotes’.

    ‘At a meeting in Port Chalmers last night Alliance candidate Quentin Findlay said that …

    ‘It’s disgrace’ Mr Findlay said. ‘Our party would put money into Xs financed by a tax on Ys…

    ‘As ever’ Mr Findlay concluded ‘our party stands for policies that would benefit the vast majority of New Zealanders’

    Half the time the ‘press release’ would appear unaltered under some reporter’s byline, and in the other half the only change would be a few half-witted deletions so that the speech made less sense. [For these poor duffers politics is a matter of assertion and counter-assertion not argument and counterargument.] Old hands assured me that any other strategy would mean either that speech would not appear at all or that it would be butchered far worse as many reporters are pig-ignorant of politics and have no understanding of the issues. It’s nice to know that the Otago Daily Times (our local paper) is a cut above the mighty New York Times. When it comes to ‘copy-and-paste’ journalism they were willing (though less willing) to do it for the Left as well as the Right.

  3. Dear Charles,

    Thanks for the comment. (BTW, it’s ‘Samir’ not ‘Shamir’!) Great story, even though alarming in its own way.

    The New York Times has a very inflated opinion of itself, but then, so do most members of the media, convinced as they are of their unimpeachable moral rectitude, while remaining resolutely unaware of their rapid movement on the road to perdition.

    1. Sorry about the ‘Shamir’ I posted late at night and realized my mistake the when I checked again the following morning.

  4. Interesting analysis.

    My NYT story did not come from a press release, as you incorrectly assume, nor was it ever my intent to shill for Thiel, as you suggest. It’s so easy to slag the writer. Times pieces are subject, typical of much legacy media, to many layers of editing. Bloggers are not.

    Instead of simply attacking another writer, why not try something truly old-school and contact them first for their comment or their input? You may well have written the same post, but you would at least have offered the chance for fairness or balance. Maybe next time?

    1. Caitlin,

      Thanks for the comment. Actually, I did not say it was from a press release but rather that it read like one that was based on a press release because of its uncritical tone. I am aware of the fact that Times pieces are subject to much editing, which makes the uncritical tone all the more disappointing. Bloggers like me get 100 views on a very good day. My power, on this platform, is extremely restricted. Your pieces are visible on one of the world’s most visible platforms, backed up by the name of the New York Times. You get 100 views in a few minutes. The Spiderman quote applies here methinks.

      Thanks for the offer to contact and clarify – my experience with journalists is that when I do try and contact them, they blow me off because, well, they work for the New York Times or the Atlantic or some other big media outlet, and they can’t be bothered with a minnow like me. Now that I have your permission to contact you, I will be in touch the next time something comes up.

      Also, may I ask if you intend to address the criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece?

      best,
      Samir

    2. Wow, a reaction from Her Bland Gray Ladyship herself! Certainly, the people who refused to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture, who have a history of checking with the US government before they publish embarrassing information, who consistently take the concept of “courtier journalism” to new depths, and whose notion of “fair and balanced reporting” is synonymous with “tell both sides of the story and disturb nothing,” are the proper source of lectures on editorial propriety. Thank God for the Independent, Matt Taibbi and Wikileaks.

      S. Sen

  5. Well said Satadru. The idea that one writer is obliged to contact another writer before criticising something he or she said is obviously ridiculous. This is the mentality that leads “journalists” to grant quote approval to the politicians they cover.

  6. It seems to me that a New York Times writer is not just “another writer,” just like a college or university professor is not just some guy or woman “talking about stuff” — there are certain professional and ethical standards, and, frankly, expectations, that are not only appropriate, but necessary. I think that holding oneself to this higher standard ought to be a part of the job — uncontroversially so.

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