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Did The New York Times take a sledge hammer to kill a gnat?
That’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read Daniel Okrent’s column “How Would Jackson Pollock Cover This Campaign?” in Sunday’s paper. Hmmm. I thought. Why the return volley?
Okrent, like a lot of writers is tired, tired, tired to death of the name calling that passes for criticism these days. You can add me to the list. It’s the reason that comments have never been allowed on this site. What passes for political discourse, particularly here in San Francisco is often nothing more than name calling. It’s appalling. And I’m not going to encourage it because it’s one of the many reasons that political involvement has skidded to an all-time low.

But I have a sneaky suspicion Okrent piled on. And in doing so, he cheapened his point a bit. Here’s an excerpt:
But before I turn over the podium, I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,” a limit has been passed.
That’s what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don’t think they’d dare.

So I called Steven Schwenk up and asked him about his email. He’s upset. He’s upset about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He’s upset about the role the Times played in the run-up to the invasion. And he doesn’t seem very media-savvy about how reporters do their jobs and what kind of control he could exert in an exchange with The Times or with me. So I did a quick search and couldn’t find any reason to make me think Schwenk should be media savvy. He doesn’t seem to have ever held elected office, he’s not a reporter or a PR person from what I can tell. In other words, he really doesn’t know how we journalists – stand-alone and otherwise — operate.
That’s why I want to tie Okrent’s comments to something else in today’s Times, the essay that publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and publisher Russell Lewis ran “The Promise of the First Amendment.”
Sulzberger and Lewis took up some precious Sunday op-ed space to ask Congress to pass a federal shield law that would prohibit law enforcement officials from requiring reporters to name their sources. Fat chance. It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen because politicians hate reporters. And this Congress, in particular, hates The New York Times. It’s not going to happen because of guys like Jayson Blair. Because many Americans think we’re at war. Because, many people don’t think the press needs more protection. They think – wrongly, really – they need more protection from the press.
Why? Treatment like Steve Schwenk got. I haven’t seen Schwenk’s email. For all I know it’s an obscenity-filled tirade that questions Adam Nagourney’s manhood, ancestry, intelligence and decency. But Schwenk is entitled – under that precious First Amendment – to vent a little and, too bad for Nagourney, email gives him the power to do so quickly. He may well deserve the treatment that Okrent is dishing out. But as much as I like Daniel Okrent’s critique of the Times – and stone-cold admire his having the stainless steel balls to stand up to those editors and that newsroom at this time – I can’t help but feel he erred here in holding one guy in California up as an example of reader frustration (if you’re kind) or irrational contempt (if you’re not).
See, one reason people rant against newspapers is that they think they’re run by the arrogant, the callous and the power-mad. Having spent 20 years in the business, I’m here to tell you that stereotype isn’t without its truths and the bigger the paper, the more true it is. And as the business has contracted, it’s gotten worse. Readers have fewer alternatives and reporters and editors know it. And when the press folds in on itself — when it circles the wagons as, purposefully or not, it appears Okrent is doing in a sly way — it infuriates readers. Because they know they don’t have a choice. And that makes them angry.
Earlier in his essay on the paper’s coverage, Okrent articulates the frustration that many in Big Media have with their critics, newly armed with email accounts, Internet access and plenty of half-baked opinions about what reporters should and shouldn’t do. Everybody reads a newspaper and some days, when you’re in the business, it seems like everyone thinks they should run one, too. Here’s Okrent again:
Those readers who long for the days of absolutely untinted, nothing-but-the-facts newspapering ought to have an Associated Press ticker installed on the breakfast table. Newspapers today and especially this newspaper are asking their reporters and editors to go deep into a story, and when and where you go deep is itself a matter of judgment. And every judgment, it appears, offends someone.
It is axiomatic that the facts or characterizations a journalist chooses to include can tilt a reader’s impression. So can the choice of articles, the prominence they’re given, the immense weight of the entire, cumulative chronicle of a too-long campaign.

Readers know this. What frustrates them, I think, is not that the paper — any paper — shows its biases. It’s that it refuses – again and again — to acknowledge them and the role they play. It insists that its ability to filter opinions has been elevated to a high art because that is, after all, what reporters do.
But reporters aren’t perfect. And more and more people know this because, more and more, they know what reporters know. The equipment that newspaper reporters and editors use to do their jobs and made their decisions – that AP Wire machine Okrent is talking about — is already at the breakfast table or on a desk or in a briefcase nearby. It sits in every computer that’s hooked up to a phone line and there are more of those every day. With RSS feeds of major newspapers, Google News and Google NewsAlerts as well as the websites of the various wire services and oh, yeah, blogs, news constantly flowing past the average reader. In this world, it is foolish to think that mistakes aren’t going to be spotted as Dan Rather now knows. But when everyone’s getting pretty much the same information, it’s also a mistake to think that errors in judgment aren’t going to be addressed and discussed as part of the news coverage. More than anything else, this is why writers like Dan Gillmor say their readers know more than they do. Often they do. And they’re getting less and less shy about saying so.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:48 PM | Permalink

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