No one to blame - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 5: Addicted to Celebrity
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Gideon Haigh
COLUMNISTS, TOO, ONCE A BREED APART, ARE NOW PART OF A CONTINUUM of achieving notice. Stories, increasingly, are judged not by how they serve an event, but by how they serve the writer's career. In a wickedly funny memoir of working at The New York Times, Elizabeth Kolbert reminisced of the rivalry that pervaded every activity there: "My colleagues and I worried endlessly over our positions in the hierarchy and had worked out to several decimal places which assignments were to be coveted, based not only on their intrinsic merits but on their status. We rushed to get the early edition of the paper as soon as it appeared on Manhattan newsstands, which in those days was around 11pm. The pleasure of a really great story was usually mixed with envy, while the pleasure of a really awful one was pure and uncomplicated." There has always been competition in newsrooms but it now has a disturbingly self-seeking edge. The reporter who returns from an assignment with the considered advice that a story may be worth covering in future but is not worth writing yet is performing more of a service to publication and public than the one who creates a bogus conflict out of exaggeration and distortion – but there is no doubt about the one who will rise in the news desk's estimation. The emphasis of this ethos falls not on how well or badly a story serves an event, but how it serves one's career. Some journalists, Chris Masters has commented dryly, become "like jockeys who insist on riding nothing but the favourite. They approach every story calculating whether it might win them an award. They are not saying: ‘How can I get to the bottom of this?' They are saying: ‘How can I use this information to enhance my reputation?' " (If you become senior enough in a newspaper now, you don't even set foot in the newsroom: you become a ‘contributor', filing from home. Of course, offering merely your work, and none of your influence, experience or example, ‘contributor' is exactly what you are not.)
An emergent theory of media management sees the by-line as a sub-brand to the overall brand of the masthead. The relationship between journalist and publication now takes the form of a Faustian bargain: the journalist is allowed to develop his/her own reputation and visibility on the understanding that it enhances the value of his/her employer's media property. Notice how newspapers cover their industry's annual orgy of onanism, the Walkleys, proudly promoting their successful nominees. Good for us. Good for them. A great story these days is not a truly great story unless it is recognised, don't you know? Hurry up and fill out the entry form, will you?
TIT-FOR-TATISM LIKE THIS SEEMS TO HAVE UNDERLAIN JOURNALISM'S most recent scandal: the rise and fall of Jack Kelley, star foreign correspondent of USA Today, revealed in March to have been a compulsive fantasist and plagiarist for the duration of his career. A report published by an independent investigatory commission depicts a spiral of deceit and self-deceit: the more Kelley lied, the better he became known, the more credit he reflected on USA Today, the more he was protected. Internal criticism was viewed as treason, on the grounds that by impugning him the critics damaged "the brand"; the newspaper's executives even used performance reviews to ensure silent obedience. This was not simply a case of a rogue journalist, but a rogue system. "Jack Kelley thrived as a dishonest journalist for a dozen years," says the report. "Every executive that served during the years he betrayed readers shares USA Today's embarrassment." Readers, indeed, are the very reason this pact for mutual parasitism between journalist and employer is so flawed. There are interests at stake other than the journalist's career and the media property's market value. So where does the public rank in the modern newspaper's priorities?
I still remember the very first time I heard the word "reader" dropped in a newspaper office; it was during my interview for a cadetship at The Age. All of 17, I was asked whether I had a view on how the newspaper could be improved. Momentarily at a loss, I suggested scrapping the section then called "Melbourne Living"; there never seemed anything worth reading in it. The panel – wise old heads – laughed indulgently. "You might think that," I was told, "but the readers like it" – so much, it turned out, that it wasn't so long before it had become two sections, "Home" and "Epicure". That was only the beginning. For 20 years, The Age has been dividing and combining so energetically that it sometimes resembles "The Daily Former Yugoslavia" – although it would be unfair to single it out because it is far from alone. Tabloids, too, have picked up the bug, subdividing like amoeba into chunks of health, food, travel, food, entertainment, food, more food and television, television, television. And I will wager that each and every initiative has been justified with a bromide about the "readers" liking it.
The inky density of hard news does, of course, benefit from leavening. As with so many features of the modern newspaper, the self-contained "lifestyle" supplement was pioneered by London's tabloid Daily Mirror. "Mirrorscope", a pull-out "paper-within-a-paper" lifestyle section, was conceived in the early 1960s. What's forgotten, ironically, is that Mirrorscope was a disaster; as Chris Horrie records in his new Mirror history, Tabloid Nation (Deutsch, 2003): "It was patronising and it irritated the readers, as though they were being told: ‘This is the important bit – the rest, all the things you are actually interested in, is rubbish'." The Washington Post did better when it initiated its "Style" section in January 1969. It had until then, its famous editor Ben Bradlee recalls, been a weighty, rather ponderous paper: "There was no feature section really. No place for profiles of interesting people. No place for wit or humour. No place to look at social trends beyond the seasonal change of fashion. We covered television the way we covered congressional hearings, long on process, short on people, judgement and motive." It is the mix of features and fuzz in "Style" on which most such sections since have been unconsciously modelled.
By the 1990s, however, the section-making instinct had caught on to a degree that bordered on compulsion, and decisions were no longer being driven by the editorial departments of the newspaper, but by the boffins of advertising and marketing. A new executive layer established itself: the "publisher" blended corporate and creative responsibilities, which had previously mixed like oil and water. And a duality developed; like Plato's distinction between ideals and forms, there became readers and "readers". Real readers, of course, seldom know exactly what they want. Just as consumers struggle to articulate their future needs – their thinking tending simply to shinier, cheaper versions of what they already have – so readers imagine their media in terms of what already exists. What has emerged instead is the "reader", a product of marketing voodoo, onto whom is projected whatever is the latest vogueish social theory, and in which the faith is as obstinate as the faith in anything essentially phony tends to be.
It is easy enough to see how this happened. Journalists, frankly, have little contact with those who consume their work and are actually a little afraid of them – these mysterious, capricious folk, to be wooed with a mixture of gentle entreaties and outright bribes. They are, accordingly, acutely vulnerable to any clipboard-wielding charlatan who announces: "I know what the readers want!" Nature abhorring a vacuum, the place is soon filled with their received wisdom. The most startling feature of this genuflection to fad and fashion is that they are graven idols. Circulations are flat or falling. In pandering to "readers" who never existed, newspapers antagonised readers who did. But, of course, it was always a fake. When newspaper executives said "readers", they meant not readers but advertisers, whose loyalty was so much easier to win, whose needs were so much simpler to address, whose money was so much more congenial. The multiplication of sections has left the modern newspaper divided against itself – and it is getting worse. A recent wheeze at Fairfax has involved the consolidation of individual sections as stand-alone cost centres, their resources calibrated by the advertising revenue they can generate. The implications of this are obvious. Those sections whose content is most conducive to farming advertisements can expect to reap benefits in the form of bigger budgets, additional pages and staff. Those that fail will steadily atrophy and wither. The probable winners will be those dedicated to the extension of celebrity franchises. The likeliest losers will be the serious news and feature sections that embody, as Griffith REVIEW editor Julianne Schultz has written, the "journalism that enables the press to continue to claim a quasi-institutional status, unapologetically exercise influence and claim special privileges".
IN THE 1990S, THE BALKANISING OF NEWSPAPERS began infiltrating the news pages, too. A whole layer of management in the modern metropolitan daily is now dedicated to the production of "packages": slickly presented pages devoted to exploring a story or theme from every angle imaginable, whether this be a new tollway or a disgraced footballer. Never mind that many of these angles are so oblique as to add nothing to comprehension. In a straight fight, the priorities of the story will always lose out to the imperatives of presentation. The page must be made busy and cosmetically appealing: complex, studded with lists, digests, timelines, quotes in bold, reaction, reaction to the reaction, all of it superficially comprehensive and interconnected, like a Barry Jones diagram with pictures.
A torchbearer for this approach, and perhaps its ablest exponent, was Howell Raines while executive editor of The New York Times. In his watch, Raines perfected what was called the "flood the zone" strategy: smothering important stories with scores of reporters. In his recent 21,000-word mega culpa in The Atlantic, Raines contends that the newsroom's enhanced "competitive metabolism" was an antidote to "smug complacency"; he sought "a richer, deeper read and a more gratifying visual treat day after day". Raines's design had a certain epic grandeur. The New York Times during his regency was an architectural if not a journalistic triumph; the paper won prize after prize with monster specials such as "How Race is Lived in America". But they were secured at the cost of the newspaper's integrity. A kind of spurious activity for activity's sake developed. Journalists, famously, would write stories, then undertake "toe-touches": trips to specified destinations to give the impression that the reporters were filing from the field. For all the monomania of his autobiography, this is something Jayson Blair describes well. Over the period of a few months, Blair filed stories from 20 cities in six states – or claimed to have done so. And "flooding the zone" was honoured more often in the breach:
Howell wanted the paper to read as if the Times had been everywhere imaginable on any given day. National stories without datelines were frowned upon ... I had seen correspondents perform toe-touch and no-touch datelines, and watched some write stories hundreds of miles away from where they were supposed to have been. I had partaken in some element of these deceptions, ones that were wholeheartedly sanctioned by the newsroom in an effort to make the Times seem omnipresent.
No newspaper in Australia, thankfully, has been revealed as going to similar lengths, but the accent on the presentation of news grows broader every year. And it's a wonder we complain so bitterly about "spin" given that we tend to impart so much of our own. The urge to make the newspaper look attractive and impressive can hardly be deplored; the question, rather, is whether it has not become an end in itself, whether it is not corrupting the newspaper's principal purpose of reporting what happened. This is a demanding enough task at the best of times. Yet it seems, increasingly, a task we regard as beneath us, at least on its own. As The Age's veteran Canberra correspondent Michelle Grattan wrote recently: "Design is used to try to attract readers, especially the young, who want their newspapers to look more like magazines. It has become another tyranny on newspapers. The imperatives of design, sometimes in the hands of non-journalists, has complicated their construction and made deadlines more important than flexibility. They are often lacking in detail, and journalists lacking in expertise, just when it can be argued that many of the people who buy newspapers are likely to want more of it."