Posts about frontline

They fiddle while papers burn

I once worked for a top editor of the Chicago Tribune who would write the headline for an investigation before a bit of reporting was done. Fresh out of journalism school, I was shocked, as well I should have been. Does journalism spring from reporting and information or from marketing scripts? This guy wanted to sell his views and his papers; he was always in search of a victim he could exploit for marketing. The paper wasn’t tabloid sized but it might as well have been. Ironic that that came at Tribune Company, for now we have Frontline committing similar acts of premeditated journalism about Tribune Company and its paper, the LA Times.

The Frontline documentary News Wars was, in my opinion, suspect in many ways, making cheap shots to fits its preformed agenda and narrative of the war between bloggers and professional journalists, between journalists and big, bad business people, all supported with visually rhetorical blunderbussing (e.g., mention online people and personify them with the geek who lipsyncs rather than the people who do good work online… make the publisher of the LA Times, a Tribune company executive, look like a dork while lionizing the departed editors without questioning their stewardship….).

But the reaction from the LA Times is equally warped. The current editor dissed an investor quoted on the show, saying that he couldn’t know what high-and-mighty journalism is (I happen to agree with the investor over the editor; the LA Times should be serving LA, damnit). And now LA Times media writer Tim Rutten chimes in with his agenda chorus. Rutten complains, “The paper’s editorial and business staffs have been substantially reduced, as has the amount of space allocated to journalism.” Was it all journalism? Was any of it fluff or commodity news or stock tables or TV listings or just plain inefficiency? Journalism is such a nicely haughty word. He continues:

The documentary also introduced its viewers to a guy who pretty much personifies the forces that are undermining American newspapers owned by publicly traded corporations. In this case, the voice belonged to Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman and director of research for Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based money management firm whose 6% stake in Tribune makes it the company’s fourth-largest stockholder.

According to the transcript of Bobrinskoy’s interview, which is posted on “Frontline’s” website, he believes the “problem” with the Los Angeles Times is that its editors and writers only care about being read by their “peers across the country, by politicians in New York and Washington, by people who give away Pulitzer Prizes.” The Times’ editors, he told Bergman, have “decided that they have to be a national newspaper with international coverage. They’ve got over 20 foreign bureaus, including bureaus in Istanbul and Cairo. Nobody is reading the L.A. Times wanting to find out what’s happening in Istanbul….

“The demand is for a very strong, high-quality, local newspaper, focused on the things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration…. All of the Mexican American immigration issues should be front and center in the L.A. Times.”

Worst of all, according to Bobrinskoy, the Los Angeles Times has been wasting its time trying to explain to you “why Bush went to war in Iraq,” when all you wanted to know was what to wear to the next premiere and how many points Kobe scored last night. That’s because at Ariel Capital, “we’re saying that’s a role for probably three national newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. Each has its own niche. All three are national newspapers. We don’t think there’s any demand for a fourth.”

Those of you who were hoping to find out about the world and the rest of the United States by reading the Los Angeles Times will be just as happy when you realize that what you really want is to be well dressed.

For the sake of his clients, one can only hope Bobrinskoy knows more about picking stocks than he does about L.A. and Southern California.

Meow. Scratch. Meow. Well, I’d say that Brobinskoy is not who “personifies the forces that are undermining American newspapers.” Newspapers are quite neatly doing themselves in, thank you very much, by serving ego over communities.

All this fingerpointing from Frontline to journalism’s enemies and then from the Times to the Times’ enemies is just so damned wasteful. The world has changed, people, and bitching about it won’t change that or stop the change.

This was the main complaint I had with the Frontline crew. They utterly missed the story. They wanted the story they wanted: NEWS WARS! They were as presumptively tabloidy as that Tribune editor I used to work for. And their subjects at the LA Times were all too willing to play victims.

Bullshit. It’s a business. It’s a new media world. Wake up and figure out what to do about it. Stop whining and moaning and mewlling and meowing.

Rutten also complains, properly, that editor O’Shea was not included in the Frontline finished product. Go read the partial transcripts of interviews that Frontline quite transparently put up and you’ll find lots of people and views that were sliced out of the documentary (my friend Jay Rosen, who can always be guaranteed to deliver a new and intellectually stimulating view got in for a sentence, I think; lots of other views were cut when the Frontline people could have found new ways to draw attention to what they had to contribute). Frontline over-reported in the field and then under-reported on the screen. They used what they wanted to use to sell their agenda, just like that Tribune editor.

This is why the news business is in a mess, in a microcosm.

What I wish we’d seen — from both Frontline and from the LA Times — is creative solutions to the news industry’s problems and innovative uses of new opportunities. Instead, all we get is a chorus of complaint.

: LATER: Here’s a thought for Frontline: It’s laudable that they made transcripts available. But what would be truly innovative would be to make all their footage available — something I challenged to do when I was intereviewed — so we can remix it and show them the different story that exists right under their nose,


I’m supposed to be on part III of Frontline’s News War tonight on PBS. They were insistent on finding a war in media and I kept arguing with their premise, so I’m not sure how this will turn out. We’ll see.

Frontline interview

Frontline, to their credit, put up the first part of their three-part News War series online. Haven’t watched it yet; will soon. I’m in Part II. Here’s a clip of the interview they put up as well. The way I captured it, the thing isn’t letterboxed, and so I’m even more frighteningly skinny than in reality; will fix later.