Snark shakedown victim Ron Burkle writes in today’s Wall Street Journal about bigger lessons from his experience with Jared Paul Soprano and Page Six. I think he’s right about the lesson. But I’ll make other suggestions about the solution. He writes:
At least since the Enron era, business leaders have faced more stringent accountability than ever before. They are versed in the rules of corporate governance, which require care in what is said publicly and demand full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. However, these principles are not just for the boardroom: They must also be practiced in the newsroom. While the vast majority of the media maintain high levels of integrity, the resistance by some newspapers to correcting basic falsehoods is alarming.
He then recounts his attempts to get errors corrected, which is what led to the sit-down with Stern. Though everyone’s complaints with the press don’t result in shakedowns, it’s certainly true that many (most?) people who deal with the press have corrections and clarifications they’d like to make after a printed encounter. Burkle’s view of the impact:
Casual disregard for the facts may be synonymous with tabloid gossip. And it would be satisfying to reach the conclusion that simply holding gossip-writers to the same standards as other journalists will solve the problem. But it won’t. For one thing, gossip and tabloid-style journalism has been spreading rapidly to other spheres of reporting. Gossip coverage that used to be devoted primarily to movie stars now encompasses politicians and business people.
Good point. Another way to look at this is that celebrity has spread and with it, celebrity-style coverage. When CEOs become stars, they get the star treatment, good or bad. He continues:
With the rise of blogs, reality TV, camera phones and other types of instant media, one can see a day when anyone, anywhere could become the subject of salacious journalism. And as gossip journalism spreads, so do the shoddy standards that accompany it….
This appears to be standard operating procedure at Page Six. I was asked repeatedly to pass on secrets about my friends to gain protection against negative stories about myself. I refused to play this game, so I was punished. But this source game is not only played on Page Six. It is also played for high stakes on Wall Street and in Washington. We’ve all read how well-known and respected journalists have readily protected top-ranked officials leaking classified information. It makes one wonder: Where does the political reporter end and the political operative begin?
No doubt the challenge of upholding the highest media standards has never been harder. But institutions that give up will find that the lines between them and bloggers, demi-pundits and rumor-mongers on the Internet will be blurred beyond recognition. Newspapers that continue to go down the road of tabloidism, that adopt the shoddy standards of gossip reporting, and that arrogantly resist correcting their mistakes, risk losing their special role in our democracy.
Well, of course, I’ll quibble with the slap at bloggers and the internet. And I’ll argue instead that the internet provides the best means of dealing with this problem, for now it is possible for any victim of the press to use online to essentially do just what Burkle did to the Post: You can tell your story and post your tape and transcript and expose how the press corrupted the facts, in one sense of the word or the other.
Of course, you’ll argue, that won’t do any good if no one sees it; you may now have a platform online but you don’t have a press and a newsstand, which are still more powerful. True… for now. But for every news outlet today, there are watchdogs who will retell and amplify your story. And soon, you’re not one person demanding accountability, you’re part of a posse demanding accountability.
Still, you argue, how is this technically possible? It could be a matter of approaching one of those watchdogs with your story. Or it could be matter of writing something online and tagging it — e.g., “NYPostwatch” — and the watchdogs can subscribe to feeds of complaints and corrections. Or it could be that the paper provides the means to attach comments to its stories.
But, of course, if reporters don’t read that, then change will not occur. So the real answer is that news outlets themselves should subscribe to those feeds and enable those corrections and display them…. and read them and deal with them. In a first step, The Washington Post does that by posting links to its stories generated by Technorati. If you were interviewed for a story there and misquoted and you write about that on your lowly blog on the teeming internet, that link will show up next to the story on WashingtonPost.com. It’s a start.
Is that enough? No. As uncomfortable as it may make them, news organizations should make reaction to their work — corrections, clarifications, additions, questions — public. I’m not saying that a reporter or news organization can or should respond to every nitpick or argument or criticism. But when the error or sin is serious enough and the din about it loud enough, then it has to be dealt with. Oh, I know, some editors will worry that they’ll spend all day on the defense dealing only with complaints. But I don’t think they will or they should.
And besides, that’s not the issue. The real issue is the truth: If you care about the truth, then you should welcome — embrace — corrections as contributions, just as you should embrace suggestions and help before you write the story.
In the old days, could send a letter to the editor complaining about a story and no one would see it. Now, the world should see it. Dare I point out that that is what a lot of lowly bloggers do? Should I suggest that they lead the way?
It’s about daylight. Here’s where I agree with Burkle: It’s about culture and standards. News organizations have to change their culture, reveal their process, and embrace openness.