When Rosemary Goudreau, the editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune, started wondering about an anonymous e-mail message she had received a dozen times in the past year, she did an astonishing thing. The message said, “Did you know that 47 countries have re-established their embassies in Iraq? Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated? Of course we didn’t know! Our media doesn’t tell us!”
The e-mail has been blasted out to most newspaper editors in America. It seems to have originated on Frontpagemag.com’s Department of Defense website, where it appears with the note, “Send this to your Brigade.” I have quoted a few brief excerpts.
The astonishing thing Goudreau did? As described in an August 15 story by Kathryn Seelye in the New York Times’ business section, “Ms. Goudreau’s newspaper, like most dailies in America, relies largely on The Associated Press for its coverage of the Iraq war. So she finally forwarded the e-mail message to Mike Silverman, managing editor of the AP, asking if there was a way to check these assertions…”
FROM THIS POINT ON, the Seelye story, which opinionjournal.com’s James Taranto called “a heartening piece of metajournalism” in the next day’s “Best of the Web Today,” gets funnier and funnier (“The Good News Is, the Good News May Get Reported”). Surely, you think, someone will tumble to the gag. But no. It just goes on and on:
The AP raises the issue of the e-mail at a regular monthly meeting of AP-affiliated editors in New York. Goudreau says that “people” (her readers, I suppose) want to know “if we’re making progress in Iraq.” She feels “uncomfortable” questioning the AP.
Silverman tells Seelye that many editors said readers call them about the disconnect between what returning soldiers tell them and what they see in the news. He acknowledges that newspapers generally render a “gloomy portrayal” of Iraq goings-on.
Still the bell doesn’t go off. Not for Silverman, not for Seelye.
Silverman concludes, “I was glad to have that discussion with the editors because they have to deal with the perception that the media is emphasizing the negative.”
Suki Dardarian, deputy managing editor of the Seattle Times and vice president of the board of the Associated Press Managing Editors: “One of the things the editors felt was that as much context as you can bring, the better,” Ms. Dardarian said.
“They wanted them to get beyond the breaking news to ‘What does this mean?’ “
Oh. That’s clear now.
EDITORS PONDER A LOT these days. Just stick “Editors ponder” into the Times’ own search engine, or into Google, and see how many entries you get. Newspapering has grown so pondersome, the editors, it seems, never leave the office or pick up the phone to find out anything. They’ve turned into the kind of people, in Fred Reed’s memorable metaphor, who hire other people to put the air in their tires.
Goudreau herself has to ask her own boss “if there was any way to check these assertions” (in the e-mail). Pick up the phone, Ms. Goudreau! Turn to your own back files of “returning soldiers” profiles and — what? The Tampa Tribune hasn’t done any profiles of returning soldiers? Well, call the local VFW posts and churches and start finding some. Then arrange for interviews and ask questions. Assign your reporters to dig at the topic. If your reporters find out something, print it.
If you’re out in the world, it falls right in your lap. At our church a few weeks back, one of our service men, home on leave, stood up to say that we shouldn’t believe what we saw on TV or in the newspapers, that it was nothing like what was going on in Iraq. After church, he told me, “You don’t know anything if you’re not reading the blogs.”
No one in the Seelye story gets the point, not Goudreau, not Silverman, not Dardarian, and certainly not Seelye herself. They’ve turned news into a product, like toothpaste. But it’s worse. A real toothpaste manufacturer, faced with customer complaints, would find out what’s wrong with the toothpaste. The AP-ers never even consider there might be something wrong with their reporting. At best, they are willing only to work on how their readers “perceive” their reporting.
Ponder this, editors. There is something wrong with your product, and your readers have stopped buying it.
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