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The Media's Good Cop

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 5, 2005

Every generation thinks that what it's doing is entirely novel and innovative, that it's smarter and so much more self-aware than the clowns who came before.

That's certainly the case with the burgeoning business of media criticism. You'd think that the current batch of media judges and executioners invented their trade. Bloggers catch errors in minutes. Web sites go after the media from the right and the left.

But I ask all who are engaged in these enterprises to stop clicking that mouse for a moment and acknowledge their debt to David Shaw, a Los Angeles Times writer who was a pioneer in the business of media self-criticism. Shaw died Monday of a brain tumor at age 62.

Shaw's approach was rooted not in ideological bias but in hard work. He would spend ages gathering material and interviewing everyone he could find before putting words -- usually thousands of them -- into print. His choice of targets was unpredictable, meaning he annoyed just about everyone at one point or other.

One of his last pieces, at the end of May, attacked the Bush administration for its ideological assault on the Public Broadcasting Service and suggested that it was perhaps time to discontinue PBS altogether.

He criticized coverage of the nuclear power industry as focusing too much on risk. But he also criticized negative coverage of Bill Clinton's first months in office. White House reporters, he wrote, "seemed committed to proving that they were smarter than he was and knew more about the White House than he did."

Poking at our self-importance, Shaw reminded us that "the first syllable of 'media' is ME ."

Shaw proved that self-criticism by media institutions enhances their credibility. In 1999 the Los Angeles Times entered into a deal to split the profits with the Staples Center on the sale of ads in a special issue of the newspaper's magazine devoted to the new facility. The paper's reporters were furious over an arrangement that seemed to trade coverage for money. Shaw was given absolute independence to produce a tough, 37,000-word report on the episode that was spread over 14 pages of the paper. The Times's willingness to let Shaw rip saved its reputation.

He was celebrated by many and derided by some for a lengthy 1990 report showing -- conclusively, I think -- that "the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates."

Shaw showed that abortion rights advocates "are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents." His conclusion "that abortion is essentially a class issue in the United States" and that reporters reflected an upper-middle-class bias applies across a broad range of other questions. I'd argue that this bias points the media to the right on economic issues. What matters here is that Shaw had the essential trait of the best press critics: He could almost always see through his own biases.

Shaw took a lot of grief for his abortion series, but don't think he was somehow "anti-feminist." In 1991 he wrote a series on how the gender of editors affected coverage of stories on sex. Women, he found, tended to favor greater candor in reports on rape, AIDS and the private lives of politicians -- and he pointed to a shortage of female editors.

Are you reading this on the Web? On June 2, 1991, Shaw prophesied: "Twenty years from now -- give or take a decade -- you may get your news each morning from a fancy machine, a multimedia home information appliance with a dazzling array of personalized, interactive features, all of which will be as easy to use as opening a newspaper and none of which will leave ink on your hands."

Shaw was so dispassionate that he would cast a critical eye on this column. He would point out that he wrote a very generous sentence about me a decade ago, and that I have long been a fan of Lucy Stille, his wife. Bias, bias, bias.

I would point Shaw to one of his books, "The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking All the Fun Out of Life," and tell him not to be so bluenose. His early death is a terrible thing, and one joy left is to savor the achievement of a press critic who didn't mind infuriating the left or the right or the center -- or his colleagues or his editors. Yes, the press can police itself. But it takes a special cop to do it right.

postchat@aol.com


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