One of the last great newspaper rivalries got a boost on Monday with the debut of Margaret Sullivan’s media column in the Washington Post. Sullivan’s first piece was more a preview of coming attractions than an attempt to dig deep. But with Jim Rutenberg having replaced the late, great David Carr at the New York Times earlier this year, our two leading general-interest newspapers now have dueling media critics for the first time in ages.
Compare and contrast. In the New York Times, Senator Ted Cruz whips up the fear regarding the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran:
The mullahs’ policy is, by their own admission, unchanged. It is the same one that inspired the so-called revolutionaries of 1979 to take 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days, and motivated murderous attacks on Israelis and Americans from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Baghdad over the subsequent decades. The only thing that is changing now is the potential scale of this violence, as they seek to replace truck bombs and roadside explosive devices with the most destructive weapons on the planet and the means to deliver them.
In the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer writes that what hardliners in both countries really fear is that the nuclear deal might actually work:
Extremists in the United States and Iran have joined to derail this 10-month-old deal. They share a horror scenario: an Iran that is successfully integrated into the Middle East and the wider world, increasingly free at home and responsible in its neighborhood. Militants in Washington fear that this would give Iran a regional role commensurate with its history, size, and power, while they wish to see it tied down forever. Militants in Tehran fear that cooperating with the outside world will erode their authority and possibly lead to collapse of the Islamic Republic. These are reasonable fears.
Yes, I read all of the New York Times‘ two-parter on Hillary Clinton and Libya. Is it damaging to Clinton? It depends on your perspective regarding the use of force.
On the one hand, the reporting shows that Clinton pushed hard to get us involved despite President Obama’s misgivings, thus helping to create the current disastrous situation. On the other hand, you could argue that the disaster flows directly from Obama’s tentativeness—letting himself be dragged into a conflict he didn’t want and then refusing to do what was needed to ensure stability.
For all the outstanding work the Times has done, I suspect that this won’t move anyone’s needle. If you’re a supporter of Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy, you’ll think this vindicates her. If you’re more inclined toward Obama’s non-interventionism (as I am), you’ll wonder why the president didn’t say no right from the start.
Twenty years ago this month, The New York Times entered the Internet age with a sense of optimism so naive that looking back might break your heart. “With its entry on the Web,” wrote Times reporter Peter H. Lewis, “The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age and to cut costs for newsprint, delivery and labor.”
The Times wasn’t the first major daily newspaper to launch a website. The Boston Globe, then owned by the New York Times Co., had unveiled its Boston.com service—featuring free content from the Globe and other local news organizations—just a few months earlier. But the debut of NYTimes.com sent a clear signal that newspapers were ready to enlist in the digital revolution.
Fast-forward to 2016, and the newspaper business is a shell of its former self. Far from cutting newsprint and delivery costs, newspapers remain utterly reliant on their shrunken print editions for most of their revenues—as we have all been reminded by the Globe’s home-delivery fiasco.
Not only do newspapers remain tethered to 20th-century industrial processes such as massive printing presses, tons of paper, and fleets of delivery trucks, but efforts to develop new sources of digital revenue have largely come to naught.
Craigslist came up with a new model for classified ads—free—with which newspapers could not compete. And there went 40 percent of the ad revenue.
Digital display advertising has become so ubiquitous that its value keeps dropping. Print advertising still pays the bills, but for how much longer? The Internet has shifted the balance of power from publishers to advertisers, who can reach their customers far more efficiently than they could by taking a shot in the dark on expensive print ads. The result, according to the Newspaper Association of America (as reported by the Pew Research Center), is that print ad revenues have fallen from $44.9 billion in 2003 to just $16.4 billion in 2014, while digital ad revenues—$3.5 billion in 2014—have barely budged since 2006.
And it’s getting worse. Last week Richard Tofel, president of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and a former top executive with The Wall Street Journal, wrote an essay for Medium under the harrowing headline “The sky is falling on print newspapers faster than you think.” Tofel took a look at the 25 largest U.S. newspapers and found that their print circulation is continuing to drop at a rapid rate, contrary to predictions that the decline had begun to level off.
There’s a bit of apples-and-oranges confusion in Tofel’s numbers. For instance, he suggests that the 140,000 paid weekday print circulation that the Globe claimed in September 2015 was somehow analogous to the 115,000 it reported during the recent home-delivery crisis. In fact, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Globe had 119,000 home-delivery and mail customers in September 2015. (Another 30,000 or so print newspapers were sold via single-copy sales.)
But there’s no disputing Tofel’s bottom line, which is that print circulation plunged between 2013 and 2015 at a far faster rate than had been expected. The Journal is down by 400,000; the Times by 200,000; The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times by 100,000.
“Nearly everyone in publishing with whom I shared the 2015 paid figures found them surprisingly low,” Tofel wrote, adding that “if print circulation is much lower than generally believed, what basis is there for confidence the declines are ending and a plateau lies ahead?”
If advertising is falling off the cliff and print circulation is plummeting, then surely the solution must be to charge readers for digital subscriptions, right? Well, that may be part of the solution. But it’s probably not realistic to think that such a revenue stream will ever amount to much more than a small part of what’s needed to run a major metropolitan newspaper.
Not everyone agrees, of course. The journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill, in a recent interview with Poynter.org, said newspaper executives find themselves in their current straits because they were not nearly as aggressive as they should have been about building paywalls around their content.
“I always had a basic view … that if you weren’t getting revenue from readers, you ultimately weren’t going to put a premium on your journalism,” said Brill, a founder of the paywall company Press Plus, which he later sold. “You couldn’t just rely on advertisers because they would then be your only real customers.”
Brill’s views are not extreme. For instance, he thinks it’s reasonable to give away five to 10 articles a month, as newspapers with metered paywalls such as the Globe and the Times do. But Brill does not mention what I think are by far the two biggest hurdles newspapers face in charging for digital content.
First, customers are already paying hundreds of dollars a month for broadband, cell service, and their various digital devices. It’s not crazy for them to think that the content should come included with that, as it does (for the most part) with their monthly cable bill. Those who wag their fingers that newspapers never should have given away their content overlook the reality that customers had none of those extra expenses back when their only option was to pay for the print edition.
Second, paywalls interfere with the way we now consume news—skipping around the Internet, checking in with multiple sources. To wall off content runs contrary not just to what news consumers want but to the sharing culture of the Internet. The Globe has had quite a bit of success is selling digital subscriptions—about 90,000, according to the September 2015 audit report. But what will happen when the paper ratchets the price up to $1 a day, as the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor recently reported for the website Newsonomics?
As I write this, I am on my way to Philadelphia, where I’ll be learning more about the transfer of that city’s newspapers—The Philadelphia Inquirer and the tabloid Daily News—to a nonprofit foundation. Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, isn’t optimistic: “Sprinkling some nonprofit pixie dust won’t save the newspaper industry. Only new ideas can do that.”
For the beleaguered newspaper business, the walls are closing in and the oxygen is being pumped out of the room. Clay Shirky, who writes about digital culture, once said, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”
Trouble is, 20 years after NYTimes.com staked out its home on the web, newspapers are still the source of most of the public interest journalism we need to govern ourselves in a democracy.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet is blaming an overreliance on anonymous sources for his paper’s monumental screw-up involving San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik’s social-media activities.
“This was a really big mistake,” Baquet told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”
And yes, Baquet has surely identified part of the problem. But I would argue that anonymous sourcing in this case is symptomatic of a larger problem: a failure to vet damaging information as thoroughly as it should have been, compounded, perhaps, by a predilection not to look too closely when it involves alleged wrongdoing by a liberal administration.
Say what? The liberal mainstream media has it in for liberal politicians? The answer to that question, I would argue, is an unambiguous “yes.” There are few things more comforting to journalists—constantly under attack for their alleged liberal bias—than to make life miserable for their supposed allies on the left. Not only do they think it might give their critics pause, but it also feeds into their own sense of even-handedness.
Here’s what happened. On December 12, the Times reported that before the shootings Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” and that government officials—who are supposedly monitoring such activities—missed it.
It turned out that the Times was wrong. Instead, FBI Director James Comey said several days later, Malik had made her views known in private messages, not in public forums. The Times posted an “Editors’ Note” at the bottom of the story and rewrote the lede. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple pointed out, the rewritten version still emitted a strong whiff of governmental malfeasance even though officials had no reason to investigate Malik before she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people at a holiday party on December 2.
The Obama administration’s alleged fecklessness in failing to intercept Malik’s communications before the shootings became an issue at last week’s Republican presidential debate, as moderator Wolf Blitzer cluelessly allowed the candidates to prattle on even though his own network, CNN, had already reported Comey’s statements.
Margaret Sullivan, in her characteristically unstinting post-mortem, noted that two of the three reporters who wrote the Malik story, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, were also the bylines behind a disaster earlier this summer in which the Times reported, falsely, that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for how she used her celebrated private email account. As Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum put it, “In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”
And now you’re beginning to see the contours of the larger issue I mentioned at the top: the frequency with which the mainstream media unfairly go after liberal politicians in order to create the narrative that they are equally tough on both sides. The Times, in particular, has a record of being susceptible to this phenomenon (for instance, see Gene Lyons’s article“The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again,” at The National Memo.)
Consider the paper’s obsession with the so-called Whitewater scandal in the 1990s—a tangled affair involving the Clintons and Arkansas real estate that never went anywhere. Or its indulgence of then-Times reporter Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or columnist Maureen Dowd’s endless mockery of a claim that Al Gore never made (that he’d “invented the Internet”) and her fabrication of a pretentious John Kerry soundbite that he never actually said (“Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?”).
As a liberal commentator myself, I’ll confess that I’m not immune to the allure of dishing it out to liberal politicians I usually agree with. In 2012, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” I stand behind every word that I wrote about the president’s contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. But I’ve also cited it on a number of occasions when I’ve been criticized for being pro-Obama.
What often leads the media astray in these situations is that they are responding to what the liberal media critic Eric Alterman calls “working the refs”—that is, media-bashing by conservatives aimed at getting eliciting better treatment. It goes back (at least) to Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who declared war on the press in his famous speech deriding the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The way to deal with those complaints, though, is through fairness and fearless truth-telling, not through false balance.
Did the Tashfeen Malik social-media story make it onto page one without proper vetting because, institutionally, the Times benefits from beating up on a liberal administration? Probably not—at least not directly. But there’s an attitude at the Times and within the mainstream media generally that goes back so many years and has manifested itself in so many ways that you can’t help but ask the question.
The New York Times has walked back an explosive claim: that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” As Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple reports, FBI Director James Comey said earlier this week that there was no evidence for that particular morsel, which the Republican presidential candidates chewed over at Tuesday night’s debate.
Wemple also notes that the Times‘ revised story now makes it clear that Malik had actually discussed her views on violent jihadism privately. The result is a story about social media that’s not really about social media, with the Times “attempting to preserve the structure and feel of a story about federal government misfeasance” even though there is zero reason to believe federal officials should have been aware of her private communications.
An earlier Wemple post provides more details about what went wrong at the Times, as well as some less-than-adroit handling of the information by the Los Angeles Times and by CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer allowed the candidates to trash the Obama administration on the basis of the Times story even though it had already been contradicted by CNN’s own reporting. (#slatepitches: “Wolf Blitzer Actually Did a Good Job Moderating the Debate. Good Job, Wolf!”)
And as Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum notes, two of the three Times reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, “were also the authors of July’s epic fail claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system. In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”
The Times has a problem. We’ll see how executive editor Dean Baquet handles it in the days ahead.
Journalism’s toughest assignment?
Being The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief is right up there when the same story gets you called both a self-hating Jew and a Zionist mouthpiece.
After three and a half years in the hot seat, Jodi Rudoren leaves more concerned than ever about the “dueling narratives” that prevent Israelis and Palestinians from understanding each other.
“There’s a growing sense of hopelessness on both sides,” she told a Northeastern University audience last week, and “very few agreed-upon facts.”
She analyzed that political situation recently in the Times.
Rudoren, who will become a deputy editor on the Times’ foreign desk, is no news novice. She’s been the paper’s education editor, deputy metropolitan editor, and Chicago bureau chief after six years at the Los Angeles Times.
But she still finds it “bizarre” to be excoriated for writing too much about people who commit acts of violence. “This is myopic,” she said. “We have to know their motivations. We humanize them. We don’t glorify them.” Referring to the shooter in the recent Colorado Springs attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic, she asked, “Don’t you want to know who Robert Dear was?”
She called empathy a key to being a journalist—and being a human being: “If empathy’s only for one side we’re in big trouble.”
Rudoren rebutted critiques of Times stories that are based on numbers or the ratio of victims to attackers. She called it “simplistic. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” She said it’s more important to write about the few who perpetrate violence than about their many random victims.
One of her stories drawing intensive fire from both sides profiled a family of Palestinian stone throwers.
“Children have hobbies, and my hobby is throwing stones,” she quoted one as saying.
Some pro-Israeli readers mistakenly thought that she thought it was a hobby, Rudoren said.
But not to worry: Palestinians hated the story too, she said.
Reporters are routinely chastised for not doing the impossible: putting a complicated story into full context.
Recalling critiques for not going back in Middle Eastern history every time she’s on a tight deadline and word count, she quipped that every 800-word story should note, “Abraham had two sons.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.