Friday, September 18, 2015

Len Downie Has Seen The Future Of Journalism--And It Is NPR...

Former Washington Post Executive Editor (and current Editor-at-Large) Len Downie spoke about his personal history, as well as the future of journalism at Washington, DC's Tenley-Friendship Public Library on September 10th.

It could have been stirring to hear from a news legend. However, while still a vigorous 73, the former Metro desk editor--who supervised Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage--appeared downbeat and dispirited. His wife and two children were in the audience, giving the occasion as well something of the elegiac feel of a memorial service: The News--May She Rest in Peace.

He said he was concerned with the rise of the internet as a competitor to newspapers, and made an allusion to the departure of Washington Post staffers to Politico. Yet Downie's praise of NPR as a future model for newspaper publishers was chilling, since NPR is a government-subsidized propaganda network protected from audience and market forces. NPR is a model for corruption and cronyism that should be anathema to any principled reporter, editor or publisher. That NPR's incestuous "circle-jerk" coverage is apparently held in high esteem by the editor of what was once a far superior competitor is a sad commentary on the state of journalism in the United States of America today.

To quote Glenn Garvin:

And now we've come to the real secret of NPR news: Bad journalism is not just an occupational hazard, the occasional and inevitable accident that occurs in every news organization. Bad journalism happens on the quarter hour at NPR. Bad journalism is, often, policy at NPR. 
How shall we count the ways? 
The dull scripts, so formulaic that even the reporters privately make fun of them. Last year, when NPR was running a long, long, long series of stories on local people shunted aside by development in Latin America, several reporters formed a pool. Recalls one: "We bet on how long each story would go before it cued a strumming guitar, followed by a grandfather mourning his lost son, then singing long-forgotten revolutionary songs."
It was not always thus.

Downie recounted his Horatio Alger career path: from editor of the Wilbur Wright Junior High School newspaper, to helming The Ohio State University newspaper, then rising from intern to Metro Editor of the Washington Post, to Watergate, Buckingham Palace (he covered the wedding of Princess Diana to Prince Charles),  Monica Lewinsky (Drudge forced him to run it) and insider negotiations with President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and CIA Director Porter Goss over his paper's coverage of secret American prisons (they agreed the Post would run the story without naming countries that agreed to host black sites), to a post-Post career as author, professor, novelist, and foundation-funded journalistic sage.

Yet in retrospect, Downie's future world of journalism seemed a bleak one indeed, far from the fun and frolic of Ben Hecht's Front Page or even the romantically crusading reporters of All The President's Men played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (John Devlin played "Metro Editor"--i.e., Downie). Of course, the author of The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril and The Reconstruction of American Journalism was never known as a Pollyanna, but this requiem for a heavyweight session was downright depressing to sit through, as gloomy as the graph below:

This doomsday feeling was especially apparent in the Question and Answer session.

Predictable questions about Iraq war controversies drew predictable apologies (although Downie did somehow mention that Senators  Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, the head of the CIA and all major world leaders believed Saddam Hussein had WMD, as well as Saddam Hussein himself declaring that he possessed WMD, prior to the start of the Iraq war).

Then, when asked to name five major news sources he admired, he could only come up with three: The Washington Post, the New York Times, and NPR. Not a very exciting media landscape, as the Post's paid print circulation has dropped by half, from a high of 800,000 to 400,000 in 2015, and the Times showed a similar slide.

Queried why the Post didn't do more local reporting under Jeff Bezos' ownership, the former Metro boss offered statistics on increased numbers of reporters, yet concluded that the Post would never be able to match reporting by "The Current" (a free local weekly throwaway), because of his company's emphasis on "analysis," national and international news. Considering that Downie just finished telling the audience that Watergate grew out of a local news story, and that Post scoops by local reporters (Woodward & Bernstein) under Downie led to the resignation of a President of the United States, the implication was dismal.

Likewise, when someone who looked like a grizzled ex-newsman asked about the fate of the "beat" system, commenting that he didn't recognize bylines of Post reporters anymore, Downie responded that nowadays young reporters are too busy making videos, writing blogs and sending tweets to cover beats the way that they did in the old days. Which could explain why there are so few scoops in the Post nowadays...the reporters are tweeting, or perhaps twerking.

In the end, Downie avoided mention of the real reason for the decline of newspapers--they no longer do their job. Instead of reporting news, hiring reporters who deliver scoops to, in the words of Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne), "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," they have undergone a perverse transformation into sandboxes for lunatic academic fads and fashions, that bully their readership with crackpot political propaganda, laying off Pulitzer prizewinners to replace them with younger and cheaper "writers" of "narratives" who appear to know nothing, learn nothing, and add nothing to the party line they clip and paste from internet listservs. They just can't break a story that sells papers.

One example of this phenomenon was Downie's words of praise for the work of Ezra Klein, whose "JournoList" group of 400 reporters co-ordinating news stories by email was shut down after The Daily Caller exposed  messages urging journalists to kill reporting on Rev. Jeremiah Wright's relationship with then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The future of news has been a concern of Downie's past written work. Yet, in praising Klein, Downie had exposed precisely the problem with American journalism today--it's not journalism, it's not reporting, it's not muckraking--it's "JournoList."  Klein wasn't a reporter, he was a propagandist.

Downie's  talk confirmed that newspapers have lost their audience not because of a lack of advertising, circulation, or technology; rather because they have surrendered their mission, lost integrity, abandoned subscribers and betrayed advertisers. American journalists no longer "speak truth to power," in the words of the Quaker saying. Rather, more often than not, they speak lies to the powerless.

That is the only real problem facing American journalism today--they don't do their job.

In the words of Mark Steyn, whose epic freedom of the press court trial, Mann v. Steyn, is taking place in a Washington, DC courtroom--curiously without significant Post editorial support or news coverage (although the Washington Post Company joined other media outlets in an amicus curiae  brief,  on Steyn's behalf):

There is nothing worth reading in American newspapers and they entirely deserve to go out of business. An old editor of mine in Fleet Street liked to emphasize the importance of what she called a "f**k-me headline". In the United States, if a story does not fit their ideological needs, the media prefer a sedate-me headline. From The New York Times:
Suspect in Virginia Shooting of News Team Commits Suicide. Not quite passive and enervated enough for you? Try The Boston GlobeSuspected gunman in Virginia TV killings dies at hospital.
Contra Downie, the solution for the problems facing the news media does not lie in more of the same, supported by NPR-style government and foundation funding.

It is this simple: just report the news.