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.