Jul 13

You can no more take opinion and judgement out of journalism than take clouds out of the sky

Does any media person in New York and Washington ever read any history? Viewed from the English side of the Atlantic, there is a weird debate going on in the United States over journalism and partisanship. Irrespective of the opinions, the really peculiar thing is that the disagreement is happening at all.

The electronic spying revelations made by Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian have spawned a side-exchange of fire among American journalists in which Greenwald is accused of partisanship. His strong opinions, it is implied or said, disqualify him from the status of reporter and should place his stories under suspicion. This is poor logic and wilful ignorance of the past. Much better to ask: is this stuff true?

Jack Shafer, the inimitable US media critic, does read history and here he collects the American material to rebut the idea that you should or can have journalism without strong ideas and passions. Here also is an interview given by Nick Lemann reminding us that, once, all journalism was opinion.

I find the American discussion of this very odd to read, not least because I’ve been looking at what the changes of the last two decades (digital technology, the internet) do to journalism for a book which comes out in the UK and US in September. My perspective is more Anglo and European than the strictly stateside Greenwald debate, but the conclusion is the same. Journalism is not a branch of mechanical science.

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May 12

The economic history of newspapers according to the Sage of Omaha

For many years, Slate has been one of the best sites for commentary in America. One of the stupidest things that intelligent team ever did was to sack their media columnist Jack Shafer, who now writes at Reuters.

His trenchant style hasn’t yet quite recovered from the transfer, but he continues stubbornly to refuse to think with the herd. For this alone he is required reading.

As evidence, here is Shafer’s column on Warren Buffet (left), the uber-guru of counter-intuitive investors everywhere, and newspapers. Buffet has owned newspapers on and off over the years and his commentary on their profitability or otherwise happens to write the twentieth-century history of printed media pretty well. And not just in America either. Once upon a time, newspapers could price their advertising space pretty much as they wished because their position in their markets was strong, bolstered by lack of competition and brand loyalty. Now that “franchise” has weakened. A cold-eyed view? Yes, but that is no bad way occasionally to look at newspapers which have more often been seen through rose-tinted spectacles of sentiment.

Journalists like to think that they are above grubby matters of business. But if you don’t understand what went wrong in the business model for printed news media, how are you going to figure out what will work in the future?


May 11

Demystifying the Fox News bogeyman

Long-suffering readers of this blog will know that it celebrates not only counter-suggestive thinking but also counter-herd reporting. Here’s an example from the splendid Jack Shafer of Slate.

You may have been seeing a small shower of tweets and soundbites from large pieces of reportage about Fox News and its much-loathed mastermind, Roger Ailes. Two huge takeouts have just appeared: one in Rolling Stone and the other in New York magazine. This piece by Shafer links to both, recommends one over the other and pours a little light scepticism over the idea that everybody needs to be terrified by the political power of Fox News. A weekend shakeup for one’s prejudices.

Update 6/6/11: Michael Wolff, knowledgeable provocateur on News Corp topics, disagrees.


Nov 10

Making eloquent mischief: Mencken, Murdoch and Dannythefink

Do you ever reach the end of the week gasping to read something counter-intuitive, counter to the trend or just mischevously subversive? I do. Writing stuff which takes you places that you don’t expect to go is one of journalism’s contributions to making better sense of the world and stuff.

Here are the pieces I read this week and which made me sit up.
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Sep 10

Downie vs Huffington: the parasite debate is back

Ex-Washington Post editor Len Downie came to City University last night to deliver the James Cameron lecture and inserted just one sting in the tail of his text, but a sharp one. Downie is not impressed, not impressed at all, by the Huffington Post.

The Huffposties are “parasites” he said, adding that much of the site’s “highly touted” web-traffic statistics were boosted by celebrity gossip. “They attract audiences by aggregating  journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum,  along with titillating gossip  and sex.”

This was the punch line: “It is not yet clear whether many – or any – of the aggregators will become profitable – or,  more importantly, whether  any of them will become sources of original,  credible journalism.” Downie’s lecture is in full here.

This barb triggered a cross response from the Huffington Post’s founder Arianna Huffington who defended the amount of original journalism on the site and said that they stick to “fair use” rules in giving only excerpts and links.

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Jul 10

Judt on words, Shafer on bogusity

People prattle on about the supposed rivalry of print and online. This supposed competition will fade away as portable screens become gradually get closer and closer to being like paper, as tablets and iPad-like devices slim down and become more robust and optically easier on the eye.

This artificially-enhanced “battle” is much less significant than the threat posed to words as a medium of information in the public sphere. The web is a carrier of words, audio and video. Is there a risk that words, which can encode more complex and many-layered meanings than sound and picture, will get drowned out? I fervently hope not. This blog is partisan for words.

Sadly, we may not have too many words to come from Tony Judt, the British-born historian who wrote Postwar, the brilliant history of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. As he writes from his wheelchair, “in the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them”. So cherish Judt’s hymn to words while we still can.

Trend-spotting tends to turn up new words or at least neologisms. Jack Shafer of Slate has developed a strong line in fake-spotting in trend-spotting. Here he sticks it to the New York Times for its “bogusity”. Yes, my dictionary offers “bogusness” as well, but who cares. Bogusity might just be a good enough invention to take over.