W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Keller’

NYT’s Keller and the dearth of viewpoint diversity in newsrooms

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times on June 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I enjoy Bill Keller‘s column in the New York Times Sunday magazine, not so much for strength of argument and depth of reporting as for its tendency to offer grist to Media Myth Alert.

Keller of the Times

Keller’s assertion a few months ago that the Times corrects errors of fact when it detects them prompted me to point out that the Times hadn’t corrected an erroneous reference in January to the Army-McCarthy hearings.

And I’m still waiting for that correction.

In his most recent column, Keller poked at Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who’s flirting with the notion of making a run for president. Ill-fated that would be.

But Keller’s column — especially its opening observation — revealed more about the dearth of intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking in American journalism than it did about the limited appeal of Sarah Palin.

Keller, the Times executive editor, wrote blithely:

“If the 2012 election were held in the newsrooms of America and pitted Sarah Palin against Barack Obama, I doubt Palin would get 10 percent of the vote. However tempting the newsworthy havoc of a Palin presidency, I’m pretty sure most journalists would recoil in horror from the idea.”

Keller’s probably correct.

Ten percent of the U.S. newsroom vote may even be a generous assessment.

But rather than consider the implications of such intellectual lopsidedness, Keller breezily wrote that “watching Palin answer a question is like watching a runaway train struggling to stay on the rails, and fact-checking her is like fishing with dynamite.”

OK, that’s amusing.

But in acknowledging and then sidestepping the larger matter of viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, Keller left a more compelling issue unaddressed.

A broad-based ongoing discussion about the dearth of intellectual diversity in the newsroom — why so few American journalists self-identify as politically conservative — would be beneficial to American journalism.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking are objectives that deserve to be vigorously promoted in American newsrooms.

“It is certainly not inconceivable,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “that a robust newsroom culture that embraces viewpoint diversity, encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassing tales such as the Washington Post’s ‘fighting to the death’ story about Jessica Lynch.”

The Post’s bogus front-page story in 2003 about Lynch’s supposed battlefield heroics in Iraq catapulted her to international fame and celebrity. The newspaper has never fully explained how it botched the Lynch story and has never identified the anonymous sources that led it astray.

To its credit, the Post has raised the issue of limited intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

Notably, Deborah Howell, the newspaper’s former ombudsman, wrote in mid-November 2008 that more “conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two” ways to confront what she termed “the perception of bias” in political coverage. (The week before, Howell had reported a “tilt” in the Post’s 2008 campaign coverage, in Obama’s favor.)

In her column about perception bias, Howell wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Tellingly, Howell quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong.

“But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel called for “more intellectual diversity among journalists” and was further quoted by Howell as saying:

“More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

I wonder what Keller would say to that.

I offer it as grist for one of his columns.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Keller no keeper of the flame on famous NYT motto

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

Keller

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, made clear the other day he doesn’t fully understand the derivation and significance of his newspaper’s famous, 114-year-old motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

And he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the slogan coined (most likely) by Adolph Ochs, who in 1896 acquired the then-beleaguered Times and eventually led the newspaper to preeminence in American journalism.

Ochs, commemorated

Sure, the motto’s smug and overweening, elliptical and easily parodied. But it is the most recognizable motto in American journalism, and it evokes a time now passed when slogans helped define and distinguish U.S. newspapers.

In an appearance not long ago at the National Press Club in Washington, Keller was asked about “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which took a permanent place of prominence on the newspaper’s front page on February 10, 1897.

Keller rather sniffed at it, saying the motto “harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive.”

According to a transcript of his remarks, Keller said that nowadays the Times is “going to tell you maybe only a little bit, but a little bit about everything.

“And I think that slogan describes an aspiration, or a mindset. Now we tend to be more selective, and try to give you more depth, to tell you the stories that are not obvious.”

Actually, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was framed a riposte to activist-oritented yellow journalism that flared in New York City in the closing years of the 19th century.

Ochs clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the  New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the leading exemplars of the yellow press in fin-de-siècle urban America.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto was, and remains, a daily rejection of flamboyant, self-promoting journalism.

And as the Times pointed out in 1935 in its obituary about Ochs, the motto “has been much criticized, but the criticisms deal usually with the phraseology rather than with its practical interpretation, and the phraseology was simply an emphatic announcement that The Times was not and would not be what the nineties called a yellow newspaper.”

I further noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Times, at its 50th anniversary in 1901, “referred to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’ as its ‘covenant.’ One-hundred years later, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal aptly identified the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.'”

So, no, the motto wasn’t an assertion of intent to be comprehensive — although the Times surely carried a lot of news in the late 1890s. Thirty or more articles, many of them a paragraph or two in length, usually found places on its front page back then.

Ochs’ slogan was more than a daily slap at yellow journalism.

It also represents “a daily and lasting reminder of the Times’ triumph in a momentous … clash of paradigms that took shape in 1897—a clash that helped define the modern contours of American journalism,” as I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

That clash pitted three rival, incompatible models for the future of American journalism.

“As suggested by its slogan,” I wrote, “the Times offered a detached, impartial, fact-based model that embraced the innovative technologies emergent in the late nineteenth century but eschewed extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance in presenting the news.

“Extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance were features typically associated with yellow journalism, a robust genre which, despite its controversial and self-indulgent ways, seemed to be irresistibly popular in 1897. The leading exemplar of yellow journalism was … Hearst’s New York Journal, which in 1897 claimed to have developed a new kind of journalism, a paradigm infused by a self-activating ethos that sidestepped the inertia of government to ‘get things done.’

“The Journal called its model the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts,’ and declared it represented ‘the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.’

“The third rival paradigm,” I wrote, “was more modest and idiosyncratic than those of the Times and Journal. If improbable, it was nonetheless an imaginative response to the trends of commercialization in journalism. The paradigm was an anti-journalistic literary model devised and promoted by J. Lincoln Steffens, who in late 1897 became city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, then New York’s oldest newspaper.”

That model, Steffens said, was predicated on the notion “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”

The Times ultimately prevailed in the three-sided rivalry that emerged in 1897, and “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as a reminder of the outcome of that momentous clash of paradigms.

WJC

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Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on January 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

'Publish it did'

In an article to be published Sunday, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, rubs shoulders with a tenacious media myth linked to the newspaper’s reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly 50 years ago.

I devote a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth in my latest, mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth has it that the Times, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, suppressed or emasculated its reporting about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, in the 10 days before the ill-fated assault, the Times published several detailed reports on its front page discussing an invasion and exiles’ calls to topple Fidel Castro. And, I note, there is no evidence that Kennedy either asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its pre-invasion reporting.

“The anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship is potent, compelling, instructive, and timeless,” I write in Getting It Wrong . “It also is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.”

Keller, though, repeats the myth in a lengthy article to run in the Times Sunday magazine about his newspaper’s dealings with Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, which not long ago disclosed the contents of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.

Keller invokes the Bay of Pigs as an example of the newspaper’s having erred “on the side of keeping secrets.”

He writes:

“I’m the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the prewar reporting about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) or overly cynical about official claims and motives. We may err on the side of keeping secrets (President Kennedy reportedly wished, after the fact, that The Times had published what it knew about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, which possibly would have helped avert a bloody debacle) or on the side of exposing them. We make the best judgments we can.”

Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.

The invasion failed, and the anti-Castro exiles were mostly killed or captured. The foreign policy debacle came less than three months into Kennedy’s presidency.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article that lies at the heart of this media myth” (see image, above).

The report was filed from Miami by veteran Timesman Tad Szulc who, I write, “pieced together the outline of CIA-backed plans to attempt to topple Castro with an invasion force of Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala.”

The invasion plans, Szulc found, were an open secret in Miami. “It was,” he was later to say, “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

On April 6, 1961, Szulc filed a dispatch to New York, reporting that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had been trained in a plan to overthrow Castro, that invasion plans were in their final stages, and that the operation had been organized and directed by the CIA.

Szulc’s dispatch report ran more than 1,000 words and, I write in Getting It Wrong, “set off a flurry of intense consultations among senior editors.” Their deliberations revolved around three elements: Szulc’s characterization that the invasion was imminent, the reference to the operation being CIA-directed, and the prominence the report should receive on the Times front page.

In the end, the references to the invasion’s imminence were dropped; it was more prediction than fact, as James Reston, the Times Washington bureau chief at time, pointed out. (The invasion was launched April 17, 1961, 11 days after Szulc filed his dispatch.)

The reference to CIA also was dropped, in favor of the more nebulous terms phrases, “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts. The then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that the decision was based on the reality the government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

As for the report’s prominence, the decision was to publish Szulc’s story on the front page, beneath a single-column headline, instead of a four-column headline. Given that the invasion wasn’t deemed imminent, a four-column headline was difficult to justify.

I write in Getting It Wrong that although “the headline size was modified, Szulc’s report hardly can be said to have been played down. It certainly had not been spiked, diluted, or emasculated. Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made ‘perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.'”

As Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

But most important, as Salisbury pointed out, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold.

“Publish it did.”

As for Kennedy’s remark, that he wished the Times “had run everything on Cuba”: The comment was vague and self-serving, an attempt to deflect blame from his administration’s first-rate foreign policy disaster.

Besides, what was it that the Times supposedly held back? The president didn’t specify.

Nor does Keller.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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.[i] Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made “perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.” 


[i] Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and Kennedy adviser, claimed that Szulc’s story had been “emasculated” by Times editors. See “Rebuttal Is Made by Schlesinger,” New York Times (14 June 1966): 15.

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