I thought last night’s installment of “Frontline”‘s excellent “News War” series was the strongest yet. The first two parts focused on the so-called reporter’s privilege — the rapidly eroding right of journalists not to disclose their confidential sources or turn over their notes, photos, video footage and the like if called before a grand jury or a judge. Important stuff, but a little esoteric. Last night’s 90-minute installment, by contrast, was about the future.
My only complaint is that it rambled. Framing the story as some sort of dual narrative encompassing both the rise of new media and the fate of the Los Angeles Times was awkward, though both tales are worth telling. Especially good was Dean Baquet, who left as editor of the LA Times last November rather than follow orders from his budget-slashing overlords at the Tribune Co. Baquet, recently hired as Washington bureau chief at the New York Times, came across as a real human being — unlike the LA Times’ bloodless new publisher, David Hiller. (Check out Hiller’s attempt at pre-broadcast spin, reported by Kevin Roderick in LA Observed.)
Baquet’s predecessor in Los Angeles, John Carroll, pointed out a crucial fact: Most of the serious reporting in this country is done by newspaper journalists. If the newspaper business is in trouble, who will do the kind of public-service journalism that we need to govern ourselves?
Though it rambled, it rambled at a sprightly pace. Reporter/producer Lowell Bergman isn’t afraid to use silence to his advantage, forcing his interview subjects to fill the empty space. At times, it seems, Bergman is able to squeeze out good stuff simply by raising a reproachful eyebrow.
I do wish the new-media story hadn’t been subsumed by the drama over the LA Times. Bloggerman Jeff Jarvis was his usual pugnacious self in countering Nicholas Lemann‘s dismissal of blogs as “church newsletters,” telling Lemann (through Bergman) that the future will be marked by professional and amateur journalists working together. It’s a crucial point, but Bergman didn’t follow up. I doubt anyone who isn’t already following the rise of “open-source journalism” would have even known what Jarvis was talking about.
The bottom line, according to Bergman and the folks he interviewed, is the bottom line. Though newspapers remain profitable, they are being gutted because of Wall Street’s ever-rising demands for even greater profits. Combined with a belief among financial analysts that the Web will kill off the print side in the not-too-distant future, the newspaper business has become engulfed by a sense of crisis even as it continues to crank out annual profits in the range of 20 percent.
Bergman was unable to suggest much of a solution other than to highlight a few well-known alternatives, such as the St. Petersburg Times (owned by a nonprofit foundation, the Poynter Institute), and National Public Radio (a nonprofit funded mainly through listener contributions, corporate underwriting and the late Joan Kroc).
But he was certainly asking the right questions.
Update: Jeff Jarvis reacts in his usual laid-back manner, writing that Bergman and company “played the themes we have heard again and again, as if on a Top 40 radio station: tsk-tsking the tackiness, fretting about the news that the big guys are sure we need, evil Wall Street, looney citizens. I could sit down and fisk, as we say, all its cheap shots and lazy analysis and incomplete reporting but, frankly, I don’t find it worth the effort.”