Judy Miller is The Times’ Dan Rather and she will — or should — force an era of reexamination and reinvention on the paper just as Rather brought it on his network.
She should be the slap that comes before the slapped says, ‘Thanks, I needed that.’
Jayson Blair wasn’t The Times’ Rather, only a coincidental scandal that led to just more silly rules about datelines and such that won’t stop liars from lying.
But Miller, like Rather, had the support of her editors and her institution — and no small proportion of her profession — and it is that blind, deaf, and dumb stubborn support that now must cause them to change their worldview, their relationship with the public, their pressthink. Listen to CBS’ Andrew Heyward, who now recognizes, post-Rather, that the age of omniscience is over, that there is no single truth from the mountaintop, that we must reveal the perspectives we already have, that journalism must change its voice (read: its relationship with its public). That is step one: reexamination. Now Heyward must embark on the harder work: reinvention.
How should The Times undertake this? I made a few suggestions below (and keep in mind that I do not consult to the paper or the newsroom; this is free advice and will be taken as such) but let me add:
If the paper is having trouble reporting on itself — and it is — then invite others in to report on it: even competitors, even bloggers, those you most dread if you think you own the pedestal. So let Howard Kurtz and Jay Rosen and, yes, Arianna Huffington in the door or welcome them in when they come knocking (whom else do you nominate?). Don’t create a selected, stuffed-shirt, spineless commission, as CBS did. Don’t just dissect the past but the present and the future and why we think like we think and how we can and should change that. Tell everyone on the paper that they may not hide behind anonymity and are expected to speak to these people because they represent the public and you must not hide from them. Make it clear that no one will suffer for this. Breed openness. Value honesty.
Next, recognize the Gillmorism that your public knows more than you do and demonstrate that. In fact, that would be good business. The public served by The Times is, indeed, a smart and powerful bunch. So make it a goal to gather and share that wisdom. This was a start. But do more: Make your staff continue that dialogue with the few proxies invited in; open it up to the world. When those darned bloggers question your WMD stories, get into a conversation about it. Don’t sit and wait and stonewall as if you can. We journalists, of all people, should remember that it’s the coverup that gets you and silence in the face of questions is a coverup. So, yes, you can guess what I’ll suggest: Have reporters blog so they can enter that conversation. Find a new voice that is authentic by talking with the people you serve. Take the questions and facts and words of the public and find more ways to put that in the paper. Don’t just be a pile of dead words on paper; try to put yourself back into the town square, into the center of the community, into the conversation that’s happening around you, if you can.
Next, above all, recognize that you are not perfect (how could you be?) and you are not the record (for the record is never done recording). This is not about admitting mistakes when forced to. It goes so far as to admit mistakes before you make them so you think to ask for help from your wise public to get stories right: What should we ask the mayor because we get the chance? What are the politicians and pundits missing in their nonefforts to fix health care? What did we miss in that story we just wrote.
We forgot that journalism is about learning, not teaching. We go out to try to learn what’s happening and why. We are supposed to listen, not lecture. We should be part of the community, not apart from it. So don’t look upon this as prosecution but as a lesson. Learn it in public. Make this your Dan Rather moment. Make this your opportunity to learn and change.