Tom Wicker, an exceptional journalist, writer, and thinker, is dead. I doubt my students have heard of him. That’s my fault; I should tell them more about the journalists past as well as present. His obituary in The New York Times recalls his brilliant career.
Wicker wrote good stories and abhorred the practices that produced bad stories. From The Times‘ obit:
Mr. Wicker’s “On Press” (1978) enlarged on complaints he had made for years: the myth of objectivity, reliance on official and anonymous sources. Far from being robust and uninhibited, he wrote, the press was often a toady to government and business.
In his honor, please permit me to revisit a post I wrote about Wicker some months ago. What makes a good news story? Or a bad one?
Nearly a decade ago, my university’s journalism school gave an award to Wicker, whose “In The Nation” column ran in The Times from 1966 through 1992. His columns were sufficiently critical of Richard Nixon to earn Wicker a place on Nixon’s enemies list.
In accepting our modest award, Wicker said, “Find out what you can and tell the people what you know.”
That’s what good journalists are trained (and love) to do — find out stuff. (Other occupations, such as scientists and explorers, do that too, but journalists do it in a hurry, on deadline, hoping sources aren’t lying, and … make mistakes in doing all that.) Wicker, and journalists everywhere, get that: People need accurate information from credible sources — that’s the traditional content of good news stories. But that’s changing, it seems.
In those same remarks, Wicker explained the mission of journalism: “We stand against privilege and we must question power.” Few understood as well as he the necessity of holding the powerful accountable for their words and deeds.
Now, for Wicker and tens of thousands of journalists who began plying this trade before the arrival of the Age of Internet Experts On Everything, this has been our calling. It’s what journalists must do in exchange for First Amendment protection against government interference. It’s why every day, my news editor, David James, wore a button on his leather vest proclaiming “Question Authority.”
Back then, for us, a good story explained to readers why we were telling them this, and why now, and why readers should care. Good stories provided context. That required a sufficient number of carefully chosen words (not merely 140 characters). Even USA Today these days needs several hundred words per story despite its “write tight, write bright” philosophy.
We needed still more carefully considered words to include who, what, when, where, why, how and so what — all by deadline. And, of course, all these stories were “objective” (wink, wink). I’ll return to that in a moment.
But the days of these “good” stories bred over decades of traditional journalistic practices were numbered. Well-written and researched context is suffering the most. Wicker saw this coming before most folks did. In the preface to the 2002 edition of his book “On The Record: An Insider’s Guide to Journalism,” he wrote:
I once thought of naming this book Lost in Cyberspace, and for good reason. The old-fashioned craft of journalism, after all, seemed out of place in the astounding modern world of digital wizardry, global communications, the World Wide Web, e-mail, chips, bauds, dot-com addresses, electronically contrived backgrounds, million-dollar IPOs for techno-firms yet to earn a dollar, nerds too young to vote and too rich to care. In such a new-fashioned world, journalism itself seemed dated and deservedly so, an ill-reputed relic in an e-attic, on the shelf with the rabbit-ear antennae and eight-track audio.
Wicker saw this eight years ago, before most of us realized that the hundreds-of-years-old business model of corporate-owned newspapers had begun to crumble because arrogance prevented recognition of the Internet as a viable business competitor or a credible provider of content — as defined by old-school diehards (you know, like me).
In those eight years, the ability to transmit information has changed in remarkable ways. It can be done instantaneously. An individual with virtually no technical training can toss a factoid into the Internet ether sans editor instantly and with minimal reflection on meaning or context. The technology permitting this is exceedingly small, relatively inexpensive and easy to transport. The big news van from Channel 7 is obsolete. The staff photographer of a newspaper who doesn’t write or cut video is history. One man, one woman, can absorb all the functions that once required several people in a newsroom a mere five years ago.
But technological change has increased the probability that a story will be bad.
Speed kills. Accuracy dies when hordes of people, each with an electronic device capable of transmitting a story, strive to be first to tell the world what they found out — without necessarily checking its veracity.
Context dies. Because speed is the premium of the Internet era, the patience for explaining what this means is vanishing.
Tweets kill. Successive waves of 140-character messages are unlikely to carefully convey context, meaning and depth and breadth of description. It’s ironic that a generation branded with a short-attention span waits breathlessly for a succession of tweets — about what? And why?
Yet technology can also enhance the probability that a story will be good.
Video reveals. Iranian, Egyptian, and Syrian protests, campus shootings, man-made and natural disasters. A cell phone with an 8-megapixel camera can transmit digital video and audio worldwide. The omnipresence of small devices capable of near-broadcast-quality video has ended the monopoly of broadcast and cable networks on news viewers can see. That’s bred CNN’s world of “iReporters.” (That, and because it costs nothing to put amateur video on the air rather than parachute at great expense a team into the news zone.)
Massive amounts of video reveals more. So much nuance has been brought to millions because so many people in dangerous situations, with little to gain for themselves, pointed a cell phone camera at a riot, a flood, a fire, a protest where police are firing real bullets, a crime scene. With the degraded size of the professional press corps, these many cell phones bring more eyes, minds and hearts to that which is news.
Whether I like it or not, the definition of a good news story is changing because telling news is no longer the exclusive province of professionals produced at journalism schools.
Hundreds of millions of people with blogs are all speaking and shouting and showing video and telling the world that this is what The Truth Really Is. They’re all telling stories. Are those stories good or bad? And by what standards should we assess them?
Again, Tom Wicker:
And since any clever hack can fill the Internet with gossip, propaganda, rumors and lies, what’s the use of trained reporters and editors? In a universe moving inexorably into fakery — the virtual, the simulated, the hyped — who needs an old-world craft devoted, at its infrequent best, to merely reliable information, dispassionately presented?
We all know why the number of good news stories by professional journalists has declined (but not disappeared). In the past few years, tens of thousands of experienced journalists have been turned out on the streets. Mostly the young and less experienced remain. The work load is high: Where a reporter used to be required to seek out four or five sources for nuance, context and cross-checking for source credibility, now he or she may call just one. That produces really bad stories.
There remains the ingrained reflex to be “objective” — the “he said, she said” journalism. That means a reporter will call one representative of millions of people who believe X is True for a comment, and then call one representative of only a hundred people who believe X is False — and treat both reps the same in number of words, column inches, or minutes and (or more likely) seconds of air.
That’s not a good news story. Says ABC’s Christiane Amanpour:
Objectivity means trying to give all sides a hearing. It does not, in my view, mean treating all sides as equal.
Sadly, virtually all sources who provide us information we want and need are subjective, providing information colored by their points of view. Does that mean all news stories whose authors are deliberately subjective are bad?
Not necessarily. If a story’s subjective bias is explained (and I mean fully), then I have a context within which to determine its credibility. After all, the youthful roots of American journalism were deeply infused with the subjective fertilizer of ideology and rampant deceit. Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!
What’s a good story? Credibility and utility of a story lie in the eye (and wisdom) of the beholder. If you’re Jesse Ventura, former pro wrestler and former governor of Minnesota, here’s your opinion of journalists: “They’ve always been dirtbags, and they still are.”
If you’re William E. Schmidt, assistant managing editor of The Times trying to defend your newspaper’s credibility during the Jayson Blair scandal, here’s what a good story does: “Reporting is going out and getting facts and telling stories truthfully.”
Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer-winning columnist and a self-described conservative, after receiving a Tribune Company memo announcing the elimination of 200 jobs in the news division, said American journalism just plain sucks:
Let me be blunt. Newspapers bite. The work isn’t much fun anymore, thanks to the soul-snatching corporate culture that has euthanized newspaper personalities. Most papers reflect that numbers-crunching, cubicle-hunkering mentality. We’re boring, predictable, staid, and out of touch with the folks with quarters.
Yet journalists of all stripes — us old newsroom hacks, freshly minted J-school grads, and bloggers with brains — still have a job to do, and that’s to produce damn good stories.
Need reasons? Iraq. Afghanistan. The legacies of the Bush administration. The many unfulfilled promises of the Obama administration. The hypocrisy of Congress. Occupy Wall Street. The apparent rise of Newt. The ghastly poverty rates and sky-high teen unemployment. The decline of public education in America. Climate change. State budgets billions of dollars in the red, affecting the budgets of your city or town or school system. Energy. Nuclear waste. Racism. Gender inequalities in virtually every aspect of life. Health care. Deficits.
Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large for the San Francisco Chronicle, nailed it:
Governments are in the business of manipulating information to achieve their goals. We are in the business of illuminating reality. Those two objectives are often in conflict.
Now just add “and corporations” after “government” and you’ll see the need for good, really well done news stories.
As for me, I’ll stick with the philosophy of Lazarus Long, a fictional character created by sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, in “Time Enough for Love”:
What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what ‘the stars foretell,’ avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable ‘verdict of history’ … What are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!
So what is a good (meaning well done) news story? My answer revolves around three important concepts: useful information people don’t know, adversarial purpose, and appropriate, meaningful context. That’s the legacy of Tom Wicker.