Stairs down from the pedestal

Jay Rosen declares that The New York Times is no longer America’s greatest newspaper; The Washington Post is. Of course, I should recuse myself from this jury.

Jay is actually covering three discussions. First, what he’s really talking about here is The Times’ inability to tell its own story, again. He and I do not blame Kit Seelye’s account of Judy Miller’s homecoming to the newsroom; she covered what was there, which was nothing, in the business’ most thankless assignment this side of doing Katie Couric’s hair. (Maybe this is one case in which anonymous sources are OK: Wouldn’t you like to hear the real thought bubbles from reporters in that newsrooom at that hour?) Jay and Howard Kurtz and most reporters are eagerly awaiting The Times’ story on Miller… and wondering why they have to wait.

Second, he is talking about the rise of The Post and I’ve seen the same impressive velocity. It’s not just media coverage (I’m a Kurtz fan) and Washington tales in their backyard but also the way they’ve attacked big stories.

But third, what Jay doesn’t explore yet — and I hope he does — is the question of what makes a great newspaper today. What is that definition? Has it changed? Should it?

I do think that there are two miles-apart leagues at play: the national and the local. The Times, The Post, and The Journal are Jay’s best three papers — and I think he hints that renewed competition among them will be healthy — but that is, in part, because they are the only real candidates to be national papers.

A great local paper must be local. That’s why I was appalled when I read Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story about the clash of church and state at the LA Times (no, it’s not online, but you can’t blame me for that anymore). Aulette says that LAT editor John Carroll, who resigned in a budget snit, and Dean Baquet, his successor, cut the Orange County bureau from 200 to fewer than 20 and expanded the Washington Bureau and spent a fortune covering Iraq and opened more foreign bureaus than The Post. Screw what’s happening in Washington: we can find that out anywhere. What’s happening in Anaheim? “Carroll and Baquet’s obession with matching America’s best newspapers came at the expense of local coverage,” Auletta says.

So I’ll ask Jay: What is the proper ambition for a newspaper today? What makes a paper great?

  • Jeff Daniels

    Why am I not suprised Mr. Jarvis is a Kurtz fan. Sorry, but Howard Kurtz is a walking conflict of interest and a shill for the right wing. Kurtz’s wife is a right wing campaign manager. Kurtz is a great example of the chummy, wealthy, media reporting that ignores how media conglomerations are creating an uneducated, entertainment-saturated public.
    I was speaking with a german schoolteacher and she told me that the american media did a poor job of informing the public. I agreed with her.
    Perhaps Mr. Jarvis (creator of Entertainment Weekly!!) can inform me why Kurtz is an asset to the press?

  • MIke K

    The LA Times was losing its shirt in Orange County to the Register. The Register is conservative (really libertarian with a capital L) and does local coverage very well. I understand that the Valley News did the same thing to the north of LA and the Times, instead of trying to compete, packed its bags and moved out. Their circulation has crashed. I get a phone every day (every day!) from the Times asking me to subscribe. I was a subscriber for 40 years but quit over the steady leftward slant. The late hit on Arnold was a last straw. Los Angeles is a tough sell for newspapers but they have really lost it. At least I can read the Sports section online. That’s the only section still worthwhile.

  • Angelos

    The Post is nothing but a WH water-carrier. Printing out-right lies from administration spinners, then hiding them behind the “anonymous source” wall.

  • The NY Times is still a “great” paper in the demented sense that its agitprop is very well written.

    And it is still “great” because it shapes the news coverage of all the little wannabe commi-papers.

    Yet the “great” NY Times remains on an expressway to irrelevance because of bloggers, web media, poor business sense, intellectual arrogance,, and young people who don’t need a literary laxative to poop.

  • David

    >Jarvis is a great example of the chummy, wealthy, media reporting that
    >ignores how media conglomerations are creating an uneducated,
    >entertainment-saturated public.

  • Ronbo

    Jeff –

    I don’t agree that great papers must be great locally. In fact, I think national newspapers such as the NYT, WaPo and WSJ should leave local reporting to local papers. Sports, too (remember Tom Lehrer’s song “Fight Fiercely Harvard”? That’s the NYT). Besides, both of New York’s tabloids do a much better job; why not read ’em all?

    To your question: I believe that the appropriate metrics of “greatness” for a national newspaper are breadth of scope; depth of resources; and an editorial mission to document what Jay calls the “public narrative.”

    A broad scope, or perspective, is vital because a national paper should be relevant, interesting and informative to readers outside its footprint. A parochial point of view will inevitably cost a paper readers, and rightly so. Every story is local to someone, but the national papers add value by placing the story into its larger context. That’s in the DNA of the NYT, WaPo and WSJ. On the other hand, USA Today doesn’t generally provide much context, which is one reason it isn’t really a national paper.

    Depth of resources speaks to the paper’s ability to effectively cover every material aspect of every major story. “Flooding the zone” is a mind-numbing way to put it, but in fact a national paper is promising its readers coverage in full, whatever that takes. All three national papers do this well, although the Times seems to have the deepest bench. I think it’s great that the LAT wants to compete at the national level, but it isn’t clear whether ownership can or will devote sufficient resources.

    Finally, a paper with national pretensions should be a reliable resource, both in real time and archivally, for the complete and accurate presentation of the nation’s ongoing story. This is a difficult mission, because it requires the paper to scrupulously, and consciously, adhere to the highest standards of fairness. Editors must be fanatical about maintaining a wall between reportage and commentary and must insist that this standard be a fundamental value for everyone in the newsroom. Tomorrow’s scholars will look back to today’s newspapers for facts and insight about terrorism, Iraq, the Supreme Court, and many other issues and events. A paper that whose coverage is not both full and fair is unworthy of being part of the national record.

    Of the three, The New York Times stands alone in having compromised – or at least altered – its editorial mission. Credulous reporting and tendentious editing have become common in every section of the paper (except Metro, go figure). Coverage of antiwar rallies, probing Roberts’ kids’ adoptions, citation of obviously biased anonymous sources; you don’t need me to recite the list. I don’t believe that this results from laziness or incompetence, since virtually everyone at the Times is both talented and hard working. It can only come, I believe, from a conscious decision by ownership to use the paper as a force for social change.

    There is ample precedent for a “crusading” newspaper, and if that is Times’ mission, so be it. In most countries papers wear their politics like fans wear team jerseys and the US need be no different. But even a reliable bias degrades the reliability of the paper as a record. Does the Independent provide a reliable record of, say, the conflict in the middle east? I wouldn’t consider it either full or fair, and I hope that future scholars will agree. But the Washington Post? On the whole I think they play it pretty straight on the news pages, as does the WSJ.

    Ultimately, The New York Times needs to decide, at the highest levels, whether it wants to record history or make it. It can’t do both.


    PS – Sorry for the long post.

  • owl 1

    Ditto to 90% of Ron’s post. Nice. My 10% is against the giving the WaPo a free pass. They are still in the “opinion shaping” but their one redeeming grace seems to be that they at least are willing to cut down on The Silences. Example is today’s article about the Media making the disaster response so much worse. If you look, they quote the Governor’s spokesman. Question is why? They quote the office that bears the most responsibility. I say they are still carrying a bus load of water in that article.

    JJ mentions Miller saga. What does the NYTs say and how can they say it to be believable? Impossible when they are agenda driven.

    #1. They launched more CIA bullets than anyone. Even if you put Miller in the pro-war group, does anyone believe that the NYT is pro-war? Pro-Bush? Pro-Republican?
    #2. They helped launch Wilson. Average wingnut out here recognized Wilson on his first day out and labeled it Campaign #000,000. Could not have recognized Wilson if it had been Campaign #20.
    #3. Media wants special shields while they speak their truth to power. EXCEPT when that shield is on the opposite side from their agenda. How long did it take Time to fold? How long did it take all of the Media to talk, talk, talk, and talk?
    #4. Fine example of Media’s agenda vs Miller. Sandy Berger. It is one of those things that will live forever. Why? Average idiot knows that a Berger does not do what he did, for the reason given. Now if you don’t believe the Nat papers are political bullets, go back and look at the Headers and descriptions used……..anything was used to keep from printing the words “Democrat or Sandy Berger”. All those resources but they still never even attempted to find out the WHY and WHAT. This was a real story and their national readers deserved at least as much attention to this as to their ridiculous AWOL or anti-American Abu Ghraib coverage.

    Do I believe for one minute that the NYT, Time or WaPo is covering for Rove or Libbey? If they are, someone really needs to buy each of them a role of duct tape because I have never seem so much “ratting”. This stuff goes on in Wa every day………they know it……..but they don’t seem to realize it yet, that ……..we all know it.

    They are trying to sell their product under false advertising. They would be better off to just admit it since their secret has been “outed”. You do not vote Democratic and write any pro-Republican. You can’t even sell it as wearing their “professional” suits, because just thumbing through news vs editorials, you can still count. If it is unfavorable to Pubs, the name, subject, etc is labeled with a Pub such and such. If it is unfavorable to Dems, the word Democrat will be eliminated from the article and just the facts, mam.

  • Jeff Daniels

    Ya’all seem to read a different NY Times than I do. I remember reading a piece by Bill Keller (before he took over) in the Magazine about Bush and there was not a single critical statement directed toward Bush or any of his actions. Reading these comments, one would think the Times has editorials for living wage every other day. Yeesh.

  • What did Bill O’Reilly report the other night?

    It was something like 53 negative columns in the NYT on Bush since Katrina.

    Maybe that was in the “different” NY Times.

  • John

    Admittedly, the New York Times looks more ideologically balanced for the past two weeks, since their new Times Select essenitally stuffed their op-ed columnists and Gali Collins’ editorial writers into the digital closet. Meanwhile, the Post has the ability right now not only to have their op-eds and editorials circulate to a wider audience, but the fact that they manage to draw brickbats from both the left and right means they’re in all probabiliy doing a decent job offering up both sides of the issue, or at the very least, better than the overall efforts on West 43rd Street.

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  • owl 1

    No, Jay just wrote a snit over the NYT not making O’Reilly’s dump #54. So disappointed it moved WaPo, right to the top of the list. And I almost fell down laughing over his 60/40 favorable opinion for Miller, which she squandered. In which world? I can’t remember reading a favorable opinion of Miller from a Democrat or “professional” journalist since they could ridicule her on no WMDs.

    JJ wonders what makes a paper great. Judgement. If something is really important, report it. I mention Berger above so you can compare Berger vs Plame. Who in their right mind cares about a bunch of spin doctor journos turning on spin doctors about a front door CIA whose husband just loves to yak and hide behind her skirt while firing bullets? Get real. Sandy Berger steals documents, that is a Story. Why, Why, Why? It has to be a doozy because he risked all………….ALL. So why did the media protect him with The Silence? Compare. That’s what makes a great paper.

    Some of us love America and the military. The surest way I know of NOT being a great American paper, is to publish Abu Ghraib pictures, day after day, after day after day, after day….. They think it is cute and really exposing the evil administration. Torture again today, yippee!! No, they expose that they do not either understand the rest of us or do not care. We take it to heart that a paper would rather promote a political agenda than give American military a fair shake. When they write and promote things like flushing Korans at Gitmo, we think they have to be writing for some other reader………overseas. Judgement.

  • I ended up disagreeing with Derek, and agreeing with Jay and I explained why in this media analysis piece at Blog Critics.

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