What makes Sammy report?

Another in a series of clueless columns from NY Times Public Editor Byron Calame: He wonders what motivates reporters to report and so he asks some Times scribes and accepts what they say to him — anonymously, as if this would be a topic of the slightest controversy — as the truth. He starts by rejecting out of hand the notion that reporters could carry any bias or agenda. What a silly thought.

Some readers are convinced that certain reporters at The New York Times are motivated solely by partisan politics. A New Jersey reader’s March e-mail, for example, described one reporter as a “GOP operative/hack-writer” who “uncritically sounds his party’s theme today in a piece about the 2008 campaign.” But a Florida reader contended in a September e-mail that the anti-Bush political bias of the same Times staffer and a colleague “is in their DNA.”

My reviews of these two stories turned up no bias. More important, however, my stint as The Times’s public editor and my 39 years at a competitor lead me to conclude generally that reporters and editors in the newsrooms of major newspapers are not motivated by a devotion to any political party or cause. It just isn’t in their DNA.

Well, that’s that. Glad Calame has erased that. He then goes on to enumerate seven motives:

1. Being first with new facts or fresh insights. He separates factual scoops from the “intellectual scoops” that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller praises in memos. So he makes the scoop even haughtier than it is: not just ‘I know this before you do’ but now ‘I understand this before you do.’ Says Calame: “As one editor told me in an interview, ‘When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something.’ ” That’s a whole new level of journalistic hubris, I’d say.

2. Pursuing stories that can have impact. In other words: Stories that have an agenda from reporters that have an agenda. That is partisanship of the sort that Calame rejects. I don’t. I just want it made transparent.

3. Winning prizes. I say that reporters and especially editors are all too motivated by prizes, to the sacrifice of simple service to their communities.

4. Impressing sources. Calame acknowledges: ” ‘This, of course, can become dangerous, if it leads reporters to write for their sources rather than for the broader public,’ one editor said to me, but ‘that sometimes happens.’ ” Yes, it’s just the sort of clubby, inside-the-Beltway and inside-City-Hall and inside-the-PR-firm reporting that makes reporters closer to their sources than their public.

5. Figuring out what’s really happening. See above.

6. Telling stories in a compelling way. Says Calame: “Many reporters find themselves motivated to search for the right words. One spoke of finding ‘an unseemly delight’ in simply producing what he felt was ‘a good phrase.’ ” This is the sort of show-off writing that makes us read through five paragraphs, past the jump, to figure out what the hell the reporter is really writing about. It is about ego over service.

7. Getting on the front page. Calame: “While it’s no longer a dominant motivation, the hope of turning up a really big story that will make it to the front page never seems that far from the minds of many reporters.” Bullshit. There is no greater ego gratification — aside from prizes — than the Page 1 scoop, as meaningless as that is becoming.

Mind you, I am not saying that reporters are motivated soley by politics or ego, though both clearly play a role. Reporters report to change the world and have an impact. What’s missing is their clear transparency about that.

  • http://www.xcitybob.com Bob Jones

    Bang on, Jeff. The NYT is a shadow of its former self. But the issues that you raise are the important ones. I went through my career as a journalist and a journalism teacher sticking to the convention that the reporter should seek to keep himself out of the story. But journalists and journalism students need to think a lot about their unconscious biases, including the powerful urge to get a scoop. I will blog on it myself, when I have time, at http://www.xcitybob.com.

  • http://caffeinesoldier.blogspot.com Gray

    What do you mean by greater transparency, Jeff? That reporters state their party registration, maybe even their past votes at the start of the article?

    This kind of transparency will only lead to readers dismissing valuable stories just because they disbelieve the information because they thik it’s triggered by the journalists bias (they’rer already doing that, but your ‘transparency’ would make it worse). Even authors who are putting lots of energy and efforts to write from a neutral point of view won’t be able to overcome thisd hurdle anymore. This is really an awful idea, Jeff!

    And I wonder why you don’t mention the editors in your quest against bias. While the majority of reporters may lean to the liberal side (polls seem to confirm this), this surely isn’t rue of the editors, who are chosen by the media corporation’s management. Those big corporation lean more republican than democrat, and they chose editors that support their interests. And it’s the editors who have much more power than any scribe. You mentioned the struggle for page one, well, you makes those decisions? Who is responsible for reports about a new color for the iPod (just an imaginary example) showing up on A1 and reports about, say, extremist right wingers appointed to lead government agencies, voting problems with Diebold machines, bombings in Iraq, you name it, being relegated to A 10something?

    Instead of simply repeating that oh-so-old right wing talking point of biased reporters, it would be more rewarding if you would analyze the power of the editors in shaping public opinion and what role their bias is playing in it.

  • http://h2otown.info Lisa Williams

    What’s interesting about these motivations is that they’re basically all about impressing reporters’ peers.

    Lots of places where I’ve worked the big motivation is impressing peers, not customers. Customers — and readers — are often remote; they come and go, but peers are, more or less, forever. And it’s the people you work with or for that determine what your average day at work is going to be like. The motivations the reporters listed are likely to give them greater status in the workplace, and that status makes people in the workplace more likely to cooperate with them and less likely to ignore or criticize them.

    What’s often the case in newspapers and companies alike is that the group that the organization has been created to serve isn’t very real to the people who work there (think Dell).

  • http://caffeinesoldier.blogspot.com Gray

    A comment by Micah Sifry on the Glover NYT oped supports my point:

    “Glover admitted to me that the Times’ editors removed a column from his chart that would have shown how each blogger made their disclosure”

    See? Author’s bias, my a**! What about the editor’s bias???

  • http://www.conversationsmatter.net Jesse Ciccone

    Wait, did I miss the answer to this, Jeff?

    A New Jersey reader’s March e-mail, for example, described one reporter as a “GOP operative/hack-writer” who “uncritically sounds his party’s theme today in a piece about the 2008 campaign.” But a Florida reader contended in a September e-mail that the anti-Bush political bias of the same Times staffer and a colleague “is in their DNA.”

    Admittedly, I’ve not researched this at all, but taking the fact of those two e-mails existing at face value still leaves me with question about reporters’ bias. Clearly, you don’t buy Calame’s assertion that this disproves the notion of a bias. But can you explain WHY you don’t buy it? How do you account for these two facts (one reader is seeing a pro-Dem and one a pro-GOP bias) co-existing?

  • Andy Freeman

    > How do you account for these two facts (one reader is seeing a pro-Dem and one a pro-GOP bias) co-existing?

    Since there’s no contradiction, why shouldn’t they co-exist?

    One, or both, could be wrong.

    More likely, each is saying “pro-other side” from their point of view. That just tells us that what they’re seeing is between them, which doesn’t tell us where it actually is.

    BTW – Journalists seem to be fond of saying things like “if both sides are mad at me, I must have done a good job”. That conclusion doesn’t actually follow, but the confidence with which they assert it does tell us about their critical thinking skills, or lack thereof.

  • http://www.conversationsmatter.net Jesse Ciccone

    OK, since bias is solely in the eye of the beholder, isn’t all this angst about disclosing it pointless?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m for transparency when it comes to facts (ownership of a company being reported on, personal relationships about the subject of a story, etc.) But it’s unrealistic to ask for an accurate disclosure of political leanings. What’s the value of a reporter declaring him/herself “liberal” or “conservative” since those terms are totally relative to any given reader?

    Of course reporters are bias – they are human (insert joke here). Often, though, we are not fully and consciously aware of our own bias or agenda.

    There are journalistic standards about accuracy, fact-checking, etc. that are worth getting upset about. I just don’t think bias is one of them.

    Anybody reading NY Times political writings (or this blog) shouldn’t need ‘safe harbor language’. Bias exists. Readers beware.

  • http://caffeinesoldier.blogspot.com Gray

    “What’s the value of a reporter declaring him/herself “liberal” or “conservative” since those terms are totally relative to any given reader?”

    Exactly! Evidence: Liberals Andrew Sullivan, John Cole (BalloonJuice) and others. They only look a bit left wing when you watch from the extreme right.

  • Guy Love

    Journalists (including editors) seem to be wrestling with why no one considers them relevant anymore. I guess the day-to-day downsizing of several media organizations is finally beginning to alert them to the fact that the shrinking customer base is on a downward death spiral. They seem to have exhausted their external reasons for their failure, and they are finally beginning to question the value of the product that they provide. They are actually considering that they might somehow be part of the problem. A little late, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

    Customers tell us we are biased, obsessed with trivial issues, to politicized, to focused on trying to lecture and shape public opinion, and to monolithic to represent a variety of opinions intelligently. After taking an internal anonymous survey, we have decided the customers are obviously misinformed dolts. Exactly how hard is it to scientifically and systematically quantify what it is that people want and then deliver it to them? If this wasn’t so painful to watch it would make a great comedy skit.

    When businesses consistently shrink, rarely do they blame the customer for their failure to appreciate what a great product they are rejecting. They also rarely outright reject the remaining customer’s feedback on how to fix the sinking ship. Arrogance, insulated group think, the fish that can’t identify the water because it breathes it daily, seem to still be in place even at this point in time.

  • Pingback: The Daily Novel » Blog Archive » What motivates journalists and their teachers?

  • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

    I believe, with all my heart, that the NYT cares about fly-over country rubes, capitalists, Christians, SUV drivers, and unborn fetuses just as much as they care about the heathen socialists.

  • Garbanzo

    Only six more months before Calame is replaced by someone effective. Maybe you should hold a contest on who will poke The Times with an intellectually sharp stick, instead of the seat-warming lifer who got the job.

  • Pingback: Hoystory » Blog Archive » For the record

  • http://www.thegeneric-cialis.net/ Site

    I believe, with all my heart, that the NYT cares about fly-over country rubes, capitalists, Christians.
    Maybe you should hold a contest on who will poke The Times with an intellectually sharp stick, instead of the seat-warming lifer who got the job.