A Nov. 7 Style article failed to provide a time element for staff reductions in the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau. The staff, which once was as large as 15, has been reduced from 10 to seven within the past year. Also, columnist Jules Witcover's departure was mischaracterized as a layoff. His freelance contract was not renewed. (Published 11/9/2005)
New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. says his paper should have corrected its flawed reporting on whether Iraq had illegal weapons far sooner than it did, calling this an "institutional failure."
Judith Miller, accused by Editor Bill Keller of misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Dick Cheney's now-indicted former aide, charges Keller with distributing an "ugly, inaccurate memo" about her.
But for all the anguish among the staff, people at the Times are equally upset that the paper is cutting 45 newsroom jobs, with profits at the parent company dropping by more than half this quarter.
The journalism business is suffering from a double-barreled depression that stretches far beyond the travails of a single paper. If the industry were a person, a shrink would prescribe Prozac.
The methods and ethics of reporters, and their coziness with unnamed sources, are under attack as never before, just as mounting financial woes are prompting top news organizations to agonize over why their audience continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks these trends are unconnected hasn't spent time in a newsroom lately.
The indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby over his you-didn't-get-this-from-me discussions with Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Miller has dramatized the sagging reputation of reporters. Rather than digging out vital information, they are seen as conduits for political sniping and worse. The poster children for the press right now are Miller and Robert Novak, who has refused to discuss why he helped two senior administration officials in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times writes: "The Libby indictment shows that this administration has made monkeys of the Washington press corps by playing on its desire for access, for party chatter, for being on the inside looking out instead of the outside looking in."
The Libby case has also unfolded against the backdrop of the administration's erroneous WMD claims, which led to the biggest collective media failure in recent years. And although the New York Times didn't publish a lengthy editor's note about its inaccurate WMD stories -- a number of them by Miller -- until more than a year after the U.S. invasion, many other news organizations never got around to it.
That may be starting to change. O. Ricardo Pimentel, editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote last week: "Yes, regrettably on the matter of WMD, count us as among the many who were duped."
Liberal columnist Paul Krugman broadens the indictment in the New York Times: "The failures that made the long nightmare possible began much earlier, during the weeks after 9/11, when the media eagerly helped our political leaders build up a completely false picture of who they were."
Some on the left believe that if only the press had done its job -- not that it was easy to challenge murky intelligence about a dictator's arsenal -- there wouldn't have been a war. That view seems to envision an almost all-powerful press corps, given President Bush's determination to topple Saddam Hussein. But the sentiment is fueling the liberal anger at the media, even as some conservatives contend that journalists delight in trumpeting negative news from Iraq, to the point of over-dramatizing the 2,000th American death there. Talk about feeling unloved by both sides.
While this debate rages, the industry's own news has been relentlessly downbeat. The Philadelphia Inquirer just lost 15 percent of its editorial staff to buyouts and isn't guaranteeing that others can keep their beats, prompting veteran reporter Daniel Rubin to write: "We're having so many meetings, it's a wonder we can get the paper out." The Boston Globe is dismantling its national staff. Nearly 12 percent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial staff just accepted buyouts. The Baltimore Sun has closed two of its five foreign bureaus, shrunk its Washington bureau from 15 to seven and laid off columnist Jules Witcover. Knight Ridder's largest shareholder called last week for the sale of the company. Goldman Sachs says this "is shaping up as the industry's worst year" since the 2001 recession.
Of course, most newspapers still make plenty of money, just not enough to satisfy Wall Street. But the net effect is a downsizing wave that will hurt the core product.
Not that belt-tightening is the biggest problem. Although newspapers remain unmatched vehicles for depth, context and investigations, all the excitement these days seems to surround cable news, talk radio and bloggers (one reason papers are investing more online, where younger folks get much of their news). And sometimes they just seem, well, slow. When Bush made 8 a.m. announcements in nominating Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito, the news felt thoroughly chewed over by the time newspapers hit doorsteps the next morning.
As the Columbia Journalism Review asks in its new issue: "Take a look at the front page of your newspaper today. How many stories are on events that the average reader has already heard something about? The Metro section, is it riveting and creative? Or incremental and cramped? Does the paper have strong voices? . . . Does it have any fun? Does the photography speak volumes? Does the Web site offer more than digital newsprint? Can a reader get into the conversation? Do you want to read this newspaper?"
Some magazines are also suffering -- U.S. News & World Report has been decimated by layoffs, including that of chief political reporter Roger Simon -- and network news is suffering from a long-term audience slide. In an effort to dig its morning and evening newscasts out of third place, CBS has just turned over its news division to . . . a sports guy, Sean McManus, with no news experience. Seven months after Dan Rather stepped down in the wake of the botched National Guard story, CBS Chairman Les Moonves keeps rejecting proposed formats and anchor changes for the "Evening News" -- saying he hasn't found the right combination that would lure 40-year-olds, not 60-year-olds, into watching.
ABC is similarly trying to reinvent "Nightline," responding to Ted Koppel's imminent departure with a three-anchor lineup and an abandonment of the single-story format that some programmers now regard as quaint in a channel-surfing universe. Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran and Martin Bashir may be able to jump-start the franchise, but Disney executives were perfectly willing to junk it three years ago in favor of David Letterman. And ABC has yet to settle on a successor to the late Peter Jennings, in part because of concern about pulling Charlie Gibson off the more lucrative "Good Morning America."
Except for an uptick during Hurricane Katrina, the media's stock seems to be in a gradual decline -- journalistically, financially and psychologically. That is unlikely to change as long as journalists keep behaving in ways that alienate their audiences.
* At 86, Andy Rooney still isn't pulling punches. "The emphasis used to be on collecting and then distributing the news," he tells CBS's Public Eye blog. "The emphasis now is on saving money. CBS management is saving money better than the reduced news staff is collecting and distributing the news."
* Before interviewing a Russian journalist, Brooke Gladstone, co-host of National Public Radio's "On the Media," mentioned a Slate article by Fred Kaplan -- who, as it happens, is her husband. Gladstone told NPR's ombudsman that the article deserved credit and "to stop at the point and say, by the way, 'he's my husband,' would have only distracted the listener from the setup for the interview with a piece of trivia." But Acting Vice President Bill Marimow said it was a mistake.
* There was lots of buzz when NBC's Tim Russert, a key figure in the Valerie Plame case, appeared in the federal courthouse last week. Was he being interrogated again? Had a new grand jury been empaneled? Turns out he was just . . . on jury duty. But Russert was more interested in talking about the barrier he broke Friday, becoming the first television journalist ever admitted to the newspaper-dominated Gridiron Club.