Opinion

Jack Shafer

Does anyone still work at the ‘New York Times’?

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2013 22:21 UTC

Recent defections of talent from the New York Times — Nate Silver, David Pogue, Jeff Zeleny, Richard Berke, Brian Stelter, Matt Bai, et al. — have unjelled the media firmament, according to Politico media columnist Dylan Byers. In a piece this week, Byers called the departures “a brain drain,” “a sucker punch to staff morale,” and an opportunity for the paper to come “face to face with a harsh reality” that in the new media age, its star journalists can no longer be satisfied by the “‘aura’ of the newspaper of record.” In the same day’s Huffington Post, Michael Calderone had the paper fretting about its “retention rate,” adding the names of Don Van Natta Jr., Lisa Tozzi, Judy Battista, Howard Beck, and Eric Wilson to the list of departees.

The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple neutered Byers’s observation by noting that if anybody is suffering a brain drain, it’s Politico, shifting the discussion from the-Times-ain’t-the-ultimate-destination-it-once-was of Byers to the more durable assertion by Wemple that retaining-good-people-has-never-been-easy-for-any-outlet-and-it-ain’t-getting-easier. My view comports more closely to Wemple’s, but that doesn’t mean Byers is full of it. The Times departures mean something. But what?

The exodus of accomplished Times reporters to television has been going on for so long that the exits of Jeff Zeleny to ABC News earlier this year and Brian Stelter to CNN this week barely deserve our notice. For as long as broadcasters have been flush, they’ve had their pick of New York Times newsroom stars. Among the earliest stars to step under the lights was John F. Kieran, the paper’s first sports columnist, who hosted a syndicated TV show in the late 1940s and early 1950s after success in radio. William H. “Bill” Lawrence worked at the Times for 20 years, as White House correspondent and other roles, before joining ABC News in 1961. In 1972, the paper’s Supreme Court reporter, Fred Graham, moved to CBS News where he worked for 15 years, and in 1979, Jim Wooten joined ABC News from the paper. After Hedrick Smith left the Times in 1988, he created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS, also working as a special correspondent for its NewsHour program. Charlayne Hunter-Gault spent 10 years at the Times before going to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978. Terence Smith made the migration to television in 1985, Bill Geist in 1987, Gwen Ifill in 1994, Buster Olney in 2003, and earlier this year, Susan Saulny joined ABC News from the paper.

And that’s just a cursory list. I’m sure other Times reporters have made the predictable transition from well-paid to fabulously paid after the TV people called. With the exception of a few future candidates for the executive editor job and a couple of eccentrics, I’d wager that given the high wages TV pays, the news networks could collect the byline of almost any Times reporter who has a stomach for the cameras and sweat glands for the lights. You could almost define the New York Times as the TV industry’s finishing school.

The flight of a Times reporter to this or that TV channel says almost nothing about any brain drain from the paper or a lost “aura.” I’m certain that before the Stelter goodbye cake has a chance to go stale, the Times business section will have rediscovered whatever morale it misplaced at the top of the week. By January, the folks in the Times newsroom will be saying, “Does anybody remember Brian Stelter?”

Why journalists are like cops and firefighters

Jack Shafer
Sep 13, 2013 21:45 UTC

When some of our friends in academia read the top news about Syria on a website or in a newspaper, they do so through a lens ground by UCLA political scientist John Zaller. In a 2003 paper (pdf), Zaller analyzed two modes of news production that journalists often employ. While working in patrol mode, the press surveys the landscape for trouble and writes up what it finds, like a cop walking a beat and writing the occasional ticket or making the routine arrest. In alarm mode, aroused reporters respond to calls for help by lighting up the gumball, tossing it on the roof, and peeling out for the crime scene, the building afire, or the battleground.

I simplify Zaller here, just as he modified the patrol/alarm idea of two other political scientists on his way to his insight. But the simplification stands: The journalistic transmission knows two basic gears: slow or fast; monitoring from afar or fully entrenched; casual or obsessed. The press has long treated Syria as just another stop on its Middle East patrol, even though it has regarded massacres as legitimate tools of governance for decades, as this BBC timeline indicates. The migration of the two-year-old Syrian civil war from the back pages to the front, where it now amasses acres of newspaper coverage, can be attributed in equal part to the chemical attacks of late August in the western suburbs of Damascus and the puncturing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. There’s nothing like chemical weapons dumped on innocents followed by a U.S. president’s threat to drop bombs to change the location of the loudest alarm.

I’m not disparaging anything that’s alarmed-based, just acknowledging that it best describes contemporary news coverage, a sentiment shared by many of the scholars cited in a new book by University of California, Davis, political scientist Amber E. Boydstun, Making the News: Politics, The Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun argues that in practice, the press follows neither the alarm model nor the patrol model, but oscillates between the two. “[N]ews outlets tend to only patrol those neighborhoods covered by beats or triggered by alarms,” she writes. Woodward and Bernstein responded to a minor alarm story, went into patrol mode, and as other news organizations followed, the patrol coverage escalated to alarm mode again and again.

Why the underwear-bomber leak infuriated the Obama administration

Jack Shafer
May 16, 2013 22:02 UTC

Journalists gasp and growl whenever prosecutors issue lawful subpoenas ordering them to divulge their confidential sources or to turn over potential evidence, such as notes, video outtakes or other records. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, journalists and their lawyers chant. Those chants were heard this week, as it was revealed that Department of Justice prosecutors had seized two months’ worth of records from 20 office, home and cell phone lines used by Associated Press journalists in their investigation into the Yemen underwear-bomber leaks.

First Amendment radicals — I count myself among them — resist any and all such intrusions: You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams speaks for most journalists when he denounces the “breathtaking scope” of the AP subpoenas. But the press’s reflexive protests can prevent it from seeing the story in full, which I think is the case in the current leaks investigation.

(Disclosure: About 50 news organizations, including my employer, Reuters, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder objecting to the subpoenas.)

The dumb war on political intelligence

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2013 22:01 UTC

For as long as legislative and regulatory acts have moved financial markets, investors and their operatives have scrummed like Komodo dragons for first bites of the fresh laws and orders dispensed by government. The stampede for the timeliest legal and regulatory information has given rise to the “political intelligence” business, which converts Capitol Hill whispers into stock market gains, and which has now attracted the full scrutiny of Congress and the regulatory apparatus.

Although legislators and regulators previously sought to hobble political-intelligence operatives, their efforts were stoked by a Capitol Hill leak about Medicare policy on April 1 that reached Height Securities — a political intelligence outfit — which in turned relayed the information to its clients in a 75-word note about 35 minutes prior to the official announcement. Clients acted on the tip, goosing skyward the price of such health insurance company stocks as Aetna, Health Net and Humana.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued subpoenas about the Height Securities leak, the Government Accountability Office has white-papered the political-intelligence topic, and Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — a legislator who puts the grand into grandstanding — has started his own investigation of Height Securities and aims to introduce a bill to police the political intelligencers. (Grassley’s interest must be amplified by the fact that a former staffer turned lobbyist appears to have ferried the controversial leak to Height Securities. It’s like that horror movie cliché, in which the call is coming from inside your house. Or something like that.)

Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?

Jack Shafer
May 1, 2013 22:44 UTC

The thought of the Koch brothers purchasing the Los Angeles Times so distressed staffers attending a recent in-house award ceremony that half of them raised their hands when asked if they would quit their jobs should the paper — which has come out of bankruptcy court and is very much for sale — fall into the two oil billionaires’ portfolio, the Huffington Post reported recently.

The unscientific show of hands indicated greater newsroom hostility for the Kochs, who have never owned a daily newspaper, than for Rupert Murdoch, journalism’s usual whipping boy, who has owned dozens of papers and rarely shied from using them to advance his business interests: Only a “few people” promised to throw themselves out the window if Murdoch wins the Los Angeles Times.

Murdoch!? The guy whose London tabloids excelled at phone-hacking? The owner of Fox News Channel and the New York Post? The kowtower to the Chinese? Whose newspapers have brought readers such headlines as “Nympho Gets Life for Killing Hubby With Paraquat Gravy,” “Maniac Who Cut Off Mom’s Head to Go Free,” “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” “Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth to Monster Baby,” and “Green-Eyed Sex Fiend Is Hunted.”

Our national pastime: Press criticism

Jack Shafer
Apr 10, 2013 22:17 UTC

In early 1946, Albert Camus emptied into New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling’s ear his plan for a new newspaper.

“It would be a critical newspaper, to be published one hour after the first editions of the other papers, twice a day, morning and evening,” said Camus, who knew a thing or two about journalism, having recently resigned his editorship of the Paris daily Combat.

“It would evaluate the probable element of truth in the other papers’ main stories, with due regard to editorial policies and the past performances of the correspondents. Once equipped with card-indexed dossiers on the correspondents, a critical newspaper could work very fast. After a few weeks the whole tone of the press would conform more closely to reality. An international service,” Camus told Liebling.

Thank the lord the Times isn’t the newspaper of record

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2012 23:50 UTC

The New York Times took a few lumps yesterday from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who seconded the protests of “many readers” who wrote to her complaining that the Times was not paying sufficient attention to the pretrial testimony of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is accused of the wholesale leaking of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. The New Republic has also taken the newspaper to task for its non-coverage of the hearings, during which Manning described inhuman treatment by his captors.

The Times has not subjected Manning to a news blackout, Sullivan acknowledges, writing that the paper ran an Associated Press story about the proceedings last week and repeating Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt’s pretty good excuses that 1) the paper does not ordinarily cover every proceeding in every newsworthy case and 2) the paper previously covered (in 2011!) the charges of Manning’s mistreatment.

Sullivan is not persuaded. She quotes at length from a comment by Times reader David Morf, who states that the Times “is the paper of record” and the place where the Pentagon Papers were published. “It’s unconscionable and sad if the Times sits quietly by saying nothing — even worse, simply running AP wire copy to let the story bury itself,” he writes. Sullivan nods in approval, concluding that the Manning hearings’ news value dictates that the “Times should be there.”

President Obama loses his sense of balance

Jack Shafer
Aug 9, 2012 23:03 UTC

President Barack Obama, like many of us, dislikes much of what he drinks from the news spigot. As the New York Times reported this week:

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Before I continue, I’ll give you just a moment to guess which of the two opposing sides the president thinks is being given “equal weight” but does not deserve it. Need a little more time? Just another second? O.K.…time’s up! The president thinks the press is allowing his unworthy, mendacious Republican opponents to nullify the truths he speaks from the Oval Office. Obama has expressed these views in meetings with columnists on both the left and the right, according to the Times. It peeves him when reporters give equal weight to both sides when one side is factually incorrect and when they blame both parties when one party is to blame. Obama’s specific beef, it seems, is coverage of health insurance legislation and the stimulus package.

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

Jack Shafer
Jun 20, 2012 23:38 UTC

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

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