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April 15, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Washington Post Edition)

I'm sitting here high above Berkeley in the Lipman Room of Barrows Hall, at a conference on "The Changing Economics of News: Why Will Pay for Excellent Journalism in the Future?" And I'm thinking about another conference report from last month, here Matthew Yglesias reported on a panel in Virginia Beach that he was on along with the Washington Post's Mike Allen--a man who could be a truly great reporter, if only he could understand what the job of a reporter is.

Matthew Yglesias: He Said / She Said: Somebody from the audience asked a question which seemed to take as its premise that there was a strict dichotomy between 'factual' writing, which is what you see on news pages.... I took some issue with that characterization. News pages, I said, aren't so much giving a 'just the facts, ma'am' approach to reporting. Rather, they're trying to act as neutral arbiters between contending parties. Oftentimes this means there will be political controversy about a basically factual subject ('what's the effect of X on the deficit?') that goes unresolved by a news writer. Instead of giving us the facts, the news writer gives us a set of meta-facts -- 'Joe says 'X' but Same says 'Y.''... [Mike] Allen took issue with that characterization of what news writers are doing. He said that news writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the 'he said, she said' quality to it, but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story.

This is, when you think about it, an astonishing admission. Allen says that if you are a careful reader, that if you read past the fold to the end of the story, that if you are already sufficiently familiar with the issue to have the relevant background knowledge, then you can tell which of the "he saids" in the first four paragraphs on page 1 before the jump is a lie.

If not, not. If you read only what's before the jump, you get the political-entertainment cage match, and you get the political-entertainment cage match only. As Jay Hamilton--out here from Duke for this conference with a brand-new very-good book, All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News--said, Mike Allen's interpretation of the job is very convenient for White House Communications, and it also allows him to defend himself against criticism--"you know what I really meant, and I do have to maintain my access," he can say.

Allen's interpretation is very a convenient interpretation for him. It is, however, a lousy way to be a journalist: journalists owe profound obligations to those of their readers who don't read past the jump, don't read carefully, and don't have a lot of background knowledge. Telling an exoteric lie to the many and the esoteric truth to only a few doesn't cut it.

Jay has depressed me about the prospects for organizations like the Post. One of his main points is that organizations like the Post are by-and-large not in the information-for-citizenship business but in the entertainment business: the important thing for the Post's editors is that they print lively political-entertainment cage matches. It's only those organizations that are in the business of selling producer information to those who will then use that information and need it to be accurate--the Financial Times, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, the National Journal (for political and lobbying news: not economics, finance, or business coverage)--that can sustain a culture in which getting the story right before the jump is an important institutional value.

Posted by DeLong at April 15, 2005 11:35 AM