June 1, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

illustration by Karen Barbour

The major US media did a remarkable job
covering the biggest story in a generation,
and excellent work continues apace.

So why do we all feel like
something
isn't quite right?

Michael Elliott, on the state of the American press.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the months following posed the greatest challenge to American journalism in a generation. I believe that writers, reporters and editors have covered the rolling crisis magnificently.

Whether it was the reporting on that late summer day of horror; profiles of those who died and those who tried to save them; analyses of the rage directed against the United States; or old-fashioned foreign correspondent work in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the inky-fingered trade pulled out all the stops.

From the short biographies of those who died in the New York Times; the deep context of the attacks in magazines like Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker; the dangerous work by cameramen and photographers in Afghanistan and the West Bank - those in the media business did work so good I felt proud to be a journalist.

This was not easy to do. The sense of violation on September 11 and the countrywide understanding that America was "at war" placed enormous stress on journalists to continue objectively reporting at a time of both national grief and national cheerleading.



What, beyond the normal sense of torment, has made
journalists so grumpy?

Here's the paradox. While journalists covered one of the biggest stories in their lives - and covered it well - there is an air of unease, almost of crisis, in the media industry. To an extent, of course, there always is: no group of people enjoys anguished navel-gazing quite so much as American journalists. With a constitutional protection for the baseline value of their business (something that no other private industry is afforded), American journalists have always been tempted to take themselves seriously. The extent to which they do so is unmatched not just in any other American business, but also in any other media industry in the world.
Moreover, those now 40 or older (in other words, those who are the key opinion formers in the industry) came into journalism towards the end of a period thought of, somewhat misleadingly, as the Golden Age. The period from 1940 to, say, the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 saw the following: extraordinarily brave foreign reporting from the battlefields of World War II, Korea and Vietnam; the rise of television news and its "TV heroes" like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite; the elevation of a strict separation of news and commentary as a guiding principle; and the development of investigative reporting.

Above all, there was Watergate, a moment when the press seemed alone in challenging the misuse of power at the highest levels, and felt mighty proud (and rightly so) of its performance. A new book that is highly critical of the modern news industry, The News about the News by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, even starts with a description of how the Watergate story was broken. Admittedly, Downie and Kaiser are long-time editors at The Washington Post, but the reflexive sense that Watergate (which took place more than 30 years ago) defines what journalists should aspire to, is deeply revealing.

In other circumstances, I would argue that the constant references back to the values and practices of an earlier time exhibits the American vice of "Golden Ageitis," by which I mean the idea that life, the world and everything was better in some time just past. But it is undeniable that whether for good or reasons or bad, many who now work in the business feel discomfited. In a 2001 book Good Work, world-reknowned psychologists Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon examined the conditions under which two types of professionals, geneticists and journalists, reached for excellence. The authors's findings on journalists were simply extraordinary: "Given the power that today's media workers have been accorded," the authors write, "we might expect to see them enjoying many privileges and high morale … Nothing could be further from the truth…[they] were twice as likely to characterize recent news media changes as negative than as positive." Later, the authors felt compelled to ask, "Is it the worst of times in the news media?" Later they give the not exactly comforting reply, "Not yet."

What, beyond the normal sense of self-important torment, has made journalists so grumpy? The catalogue of grievances is easy to lay out. The crisis broke during a period of intense economic challenge - the sharpest drop in the advertising market for twenty years and the end of the Internet boom, which had promised so much in terms of new models of journalistic excellence.

Throughout 2001, editorial staff were laid off, budgets trimmed. At the same time, the seemingly inexorable concentration of the media industry continued apace, with a handful of giant companies dominating the marketplace. In both television and print, there was a widespread fear that the primacy of a stock price as the signifier of a company's health would lead to pressure on margins - and a reduction in the attention given to the core values of independence and enterprise that ensure great journalism. In a widely quoted remark, Don Hewitt, the veteran producer of CBS' 60 Minutes, said that the journalism work ethos has changed from "Make us proud" to "Make us money."

Well, fair enough. But as one who found himself unemployed when a small new media company went bust, I think I'm entitled to say that without profits, there wouldn't be a news business at all - except ones funded by latter-day philosopher-princes, and I'm not sure that's such a great advance. It would be easy to argue, and many have, that the pursuit of profits has come at the expense of great journalism. Here I fear I may disappoint some readers: I simply do not believe that case is proven. From deep in the belly of the beast - and I work in the recesses of the largest media company on the planet - I have seen my colleagues in both print and electronic media do too much great journalism in the last nine months to reach so neat a conclusion.



Cash matters. Since September 11, those without the resources to play have been squeezed out.

Of course, economics is important. For one thing, we have learned in the last year that competition works. The last nine months, the five "national" newspapers - the New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today - have gone at it hammer and tongs, continually trying to trump each other with new scoops, surprising features or in-depth enterprise pieces. (One point worth stressing parenthetically: USA Today now deserves to be ranked with its older brethren. If the Gulf War of 1991 marked the coming of age of CNN, so the big story this last nine months has done the same for the Gannett flagship.) In much the same vein, Time and Newsweek, old and intense competitors, have thrived on challenging each other with gripping photos and the most originally conceived stories each week.

Not for a moment do I doubt that cash matters. Since September 11, those without the resources to play in the big leagues have been squeezed out. When the prizes and nominations for coverage of the crisis were totted up, it was clear that publications with deep pockets and big budgets had done best. Maintaining a substantial newsgathering operation in Afghanistan was not for the faint of heart or those with thin pocket books. Like it or not, this reality feeds directly into the sense in the industry that a concentration on the bottom line will have an impact on coverage.

Many of the best journalists have always wanted to gravitate to the biggest titles, and there's nothing wrong with such ambition. But the sheer cost of covering a big story makes it more likely than ever that the leading papers, magazines and the national TV networks will suck up an even greater share of the talent pool. Most of America's local TV stations long ago gave up any pretension of running quality news services. There is a distinct risk that local newspapers with medium-sized circulations, even if they are serving quite substantial local markets, may follow that doleful path.

One consequence of these developments has been surprising. For the last ten years, "fragmentation" has been an axiom of media business commentary. The audience for news, we were told, was splitting into ever smaller bite-sized pieces, and with the advent of new technology - satellite phones, lightweight cameras, and above all the Internet - news outlets were multiplying.

But since September 11, it hasn't felt as if we lived in a fragmented market. The New York Times has established itself - to an extent that it has perhaps never done before - as the national paper of record. At the same time, newsmagazines, whose future it has long been fashionable to write off, have seen the sharpest circulation growth in decades. Their traditional combination of long-form text, graphics, and great photography has proven to be as compelling now as it was in the 1950s. The newsmagazines, remember, are a truly national media: since September 11, they have been able to tap into a commonality of sentiment among all Americans.

The great question mark, of course, lies over network TV news. The networks did a remarkable job in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and continue to be able to offer high quality programming and analysis of developments around the world. But their share of the market continues to shrink, and the scale of their international operations is much smaller now than it was, say, during the Vietnam War. For many, all-news cable services have become the TV news of choice, whether it's Fox's high-pitched analysis or CNN's excellent breaking news. In contrast, all three anchors of the evening newscasts are, to put this in the nicest possible way, veterans. Whether the evening news can ever again function as it did from the 1950s to the 1970s - bringing the nation together to watch the same images, the same stories, presented in the same way - is now in real doubt.

If the network news operations have been a "loser" in the coverage of the big story since September 11, so, in my judgment, has been the Internet. It is hard to think of one net-based operation that has really become a must-read in the last nine months.



The war in Afghanistan and the continuing crisis in the Middle East
can not be covered without reliance on foreign correspondents of the old school...

This should not be surprising. A big story depends for its impact on deep reporting, often in long-form, and on compelling, emotion-laden pictures. So far, the Internet has not developed the tools to do this, and pure web-plays have not been able to afford the costly investments in people that would enable them to compete with the best of print. So the Internet news sites have had to rely on analysis - which, in a story this big, will only get you so far. On the other hand, sites that are offshoots of news operations, whether derived from newspapers, magazines or cable channels, have done well. But merely functioning as a sort of breaking-news wire service is a fate substantially less grand than Internet pioneers like me dreamed for the medium just a year or so ago.

I've argued that a big story like September 11 and its aftermath require great reporting and tremendous art work, especially photographs. One consequence, however, is that pure commentary has suffered. However brilliant a commentator's analysis on events in Afghanistan, it will rarely be able to compete with the emotional heft that comes from on-the-ground reporting and camerawork. It's a lesson for all of the industry to follow: deliver top-quality journalism on big stories in an increasingly globalized environment. Papers, magazines, TV networks and Internet sites need great foreign correspondents, experienced foreign editors and brave photographers.

In the last ten years, the media outlets that have not cut their foreign budgets have tended to concentrate on what I once called the "new foreign news," which stressed not wars and politics but business, technology and lifestyle. Foreign news came to mean less an analysis of French politics or war coverage in the Congo and more the rise of Nokia or the death of Princess Diana.

The new foreign news will continue to demand much of the media industry. The global agenda continues to be set very largely by economic and technological forces, and media outlets that do not have reporters and editors with expertise in such areas will suffer. But it is now plain that those of us who spent the 1990s proselytizing for the new foreign news oversold our case.

The war in Afghanistan and the continuing crisis in the Middle East can not be covered without reliance on foreign correspondents of the old school who ask tough questions, take risks, are willing to sleep on rough ground and stomach the smell of cordite.

One of the most promising of all developments since September 11 has been the wave of very young correspondents who have flocked to the war zones, desperate to make their name in journalism. As an editor based for a national newsmagazine based in New York, I've been proud to work with some of them. More than anything else, their commitment to get the big story right has convinced me that the future of American journalism remains a lot more bright than much of the gloomy commentary today would have you believe.

Michael Elliott is Global Affairs Editor for Time magazine.



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