Reporter, report thyself

Reporter, report thyself

: On the current On the Media, former CBS Correspondent Tom Fenton promotes his new book, Bad News, and complains that he couldn’t complain about the news business while he was still in it because journalism is, oddly, so thin-skinned.

But, of course, it’s about more than just complaining. And it’s about more than just complaining about your own institution.

This is about the press recognizing the press is a story now.

The press usually tries to duck being the story. The old argument — filled with self-serving false humility — was that stories about the press were inside-baseball and boring (though, of course, that is also often true). But the truth is that reporters are usually smart enough to know that they don’t want any reporters dogging them. Reporters are smart enough to know that when a reporter calls, it’s usually bad news. So the press hasn’t covered itself.

But now the press is a story because of all the controversy about it, because of the upheaval in the medium, and because bloggers have made the press the story.

So it is time for the press to criticize itself.

The usual reaction to this is to appoint an ombudsman who criticizes and mediates complaints about his or her own institution. I don’t think that’s the right approach, for it still makes that institution the center of the story; it’s still a form of institutional ego.

I say the press needs to get used to covering and criticizing not only its own product but those of its colleagues and competitors.

Dan Okrent is, in my view, doing a great job as The Times ombudsman, but he is best when he’s not writing about The Times but instead about the business, about the practices of the press, about how things do and should happen. I suggest that Dan’s successor should be not just an ombudsman but a press critic free to criticize any end of the media — and not just institutions but also citizens practicing the craft and officials trying to spin the news (see Frank Rich’s column and Jay Rosen’s post this weekend).

Another good response is to open up the process: Show people how the sausage is made. We’ve discussed that before.

And finally, you know I’ll put in a plug for having the journalists blog because it opens up a conversation and lifts the veil. I don’t expect those journalists to be the best at criticizing their own institutions. In other words, would Fenton have said what he said in his book on a blog? No, probably not; there are obvious conflicts of interest. But talking about how stories get on the air and what works and what doesn’t, being a little self-critical and listening to the reaction of the public you serve — that’s to the good.