Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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All the News that's Fit to Spin?

Mark Steyn posts a fasciating 1994 speech from Punch Sulzberger, the father of the current publisher of the NY Times.  Reflecting upon the rise of the internet, Suzlberger commented:

When you buy a newspaper, you aren't buying news - you're buying judgment. Already in this low tech world of instant communications there is too much news. That's the problem. Raw news will do just fine if you're a computer buff and want to play editor. But I, for one, would rather let a professional take the first raw cut at history and spend my leisure time fishing.

Judgment, serendipity and something left over to wrap the fish, all neatly folded, in living color, and thrown at no extra cost into the bushes. All for just a few cents a day. It's called a newspaper. And when you add a wee bit of ink for your hands and top it with a snappy editorial to exercise your blood pressure, who needs that elusive interactive information superhighway of communications.

As I read Sulzberger, he's saying that the job is not simply to report the news, but rather to digest and shape it, informing readers about what is and is not important.  That's an aristocratic or technocratic view of the newspaper business--experts judge what is and it not news, and manage how it is reported.  (The cynical bit about the purpose of an editorial being to "exercise your blood pressure" is similar. It is not about providing quality analysis. It is about moving the emotions).  Personally, I prefer a more democratic view of the news business--the job of reporters is to present information to readers so that they may think about the issues for themselves, and the job of editorials is to provide informed judgment.

For quite some time, I have found it frustrating that articles about important pieces of legislation usually present opinions about the legislation, rather than quoting the proposed bill at length, and talking about the actual meaning of the actual bill.  I always assumed it was because reporters would rather call up a couple of Democrats and Republicans, or liberal and conservative think take guys, and quote them, rather than spending the time actally to read pending legislation.  Perhaps my judgment was too charitable.  Perhaps the Times trains reporters to think that the common citizen ought not to worry his pretty little head with such things.

Categories > Journalism

Discussions - 12 Comments

No, Sulzberger is saying that the job of newspapers is to use the resources they have to cull the news, printing what is important because everything available is just too much. In context, the judgment he is talking about is in considering the scarce resource of the pages of a daily paper and filling it with just the good and important stuff. Say a discussion of that bill you mention, and not even all of the bill as on a federal level those seem to be something of a massive hash, but only those parts judged to be important. He is saying that a paper should bring forward from the mess of the raw news of the day the news a reader might actually wish to read and by printing it make it part of the history of the world. That requires judgment, he says. Do you think all of what might be considered news is fit to print?

He says, "In a world filled with information and almost unlimited reader and advertiser options, one can no longer rely on customer understanding and goodwill (to allow) for poor quality or early deadlines and incomplete stories."

That's true, but of course, that is not all. Poor judgment about what is news, political bias that pulls the wrong way from a reader base, and the inconvenience of dealing with paper when electronic media is cheaper and easier for the consumer to manage and probably other things I am not thinking about now all contribute to the current failure of newspapers.

What's the difference, really, between what Sulzberger said and what you are asking for? Newspaper writers do talk about the actual meaning of the actual bill -- as they see it. I agree, they often get that wrong, but that is poor judgment or even just foolishness or sometimes, as you put it, just what he gets from calling someone to see what that guy says. They have no choice but to cull for print. Lengthy quotes from bills would be nice, but in choosing which lengthy parts to print the reporter is exercising judgment. In your mode, to be completely democratic, something like the health care bill would have to be printed in its entirety in the newspapers, which would leave room for nothing else and no one would buy the paper.

Even on the Internet I cannot find all of the news of the world every day. Someone is selecting the news, even on the news feeds, since someone has to have taken the time to make a report and not everything is going to be reported on. That’s the kind of judgment Sulzberger is talking about. His political judgment and that of his newspapers is another matter.

I'm not sure I agree. My complaint was not that reporters quote the wrong parts of bills, but rather that they don't quote them at all. Of course judgment must be exercised.

Sulzberger suggests that there is such a thing as a professional news selector that can be trained in Journalism schools and by working at top newspapers. Nonsense! The perspective needed to create an informed citizenry is different. It begins with a consideration of what citizenship is by nature and works from there. And it is by definition a political business.

Sulzerberger's model is Progressive and technocratic. He believes, on one hand, that there is a science of selecting news and, on the other hand, that certified, professional journalists are the experts in that field. It replaces the goal of helping citizens be informed so that we can do our job as citizens with the goal of shaping the news. He uses the word "judgment" but he has merged it with the idea of a "professional" new selector. Those two ideas don't fit together. A professional is an expert practitioner of a profession. In that context, he uses judgment. Judgment, tout court, implies wisdom and prudence--a very differen tthing from technical competence.

The proper criterion for deciding what is newsworthy, in other words, is the ideas of the Declaration.

To put it more simply: Sulzberger's newspaper is treating citizens like spectators of, not participants in American politics. Editorial judgment is designed to replace, not to inform, judgment by we the people.

The idea that journalists are "professionals" in any sense of that word is bothersome to me. What training, exactly, turns a good writer into a "professional?"

I work in the computer industry; have for 26 years now. I have risen quite far in my company, and done quite well.

Do I have a PhD in computer science? No. I have a masters in "Materials and Logistics Management" with a focus on trucking and warehousing.

By Sulzberger's logic I should never have been permitted to ply my craft.

There is a tendency in the human spirit to elevate one's affinity group into a kind of priesthood; protecting power and controlling access. That's certainly true of my industry, where unnecessary jargon is used to keep relatively simple things looking complex and unapproachable. That's true in the world of "journalism" where they insist it takes special training to do what they do.

Bah ... one look at local news at 6:00pm tells a different story.

This is what Steyn quotes from and I don't see Sculzberger talking about professionals handling the news in it at all. He was writing in 1994 about the new challenge to the daily newspaper, which he and anyone could see was the computer in a way TV was not. The man came from an era before newspapers hired on the basis of journalism degrees. I really do not see him insisting on Progressive style "experts" in journalism. His reference to nepotism indicates rather the opposite. From Wikipedia: "Sulzberger graduated from the Loomis Institute and then enlisted into the United States Marine Corps during World War II serving from 1944 to 1946, in the Pacific Theater. He earned a B.A. degree in English and History in 1951 at Columbia University. As a Marine Forces Reserve he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. Following completion of officer training, he saw duty in Korea and then in Washington, D.C., before being inactivated." The guy was veteran with a BA who inherited a newspaper: "He became publisher of The Times in 1963, after the death of his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos."

He might have progressive politics, but he certainly got his position in a non-Progressive way. The guy was no expert, except that he was expert at delivering news. Like Don and like me, he was not credentialed in his field, but he was good at what he did. I extrapolate from his career description that for him a professional was simply someone who made his living at his job.

I think he is saying that we need a middle-man between those gather the news and those who read it to separate the wheat from the chaff and that newspapers, even when they are not paper, can do that job for us.

The speech was given in 1994 and I remember what the Internet was like back then. Now, we have newspapers firmly on the Internet, though floundering because they are delivering free or virtually free content and may or may not be able to make a living at it. The free-wheeling days of Sculzberger's youth in newspapers are gone and those purveying news on the Internet are trying to blend traditional newspaper journalism and TV style journalism. Paying for it is the current dilemma.

I am and have been since before he gave that speech (which I vaguely remember) one of the computer/Internet news grazers he was talking about, though I do not think myself in "udder confusion". I like to search Internet for original documents like congressional bills and executive orders to see what the wording is, because I think that matters. Not that it matters in a larger context. If I were not on here wasting my time blogging no one but family and friends would ever know that I go digging to understand what goes on in a world around me that I am powerless to affect.

Because for the most part citizens are spectators in the news, though we are in an era when the news is a form of popular entertainment, like sports.

At one time in America newspapers were all about taking sides in politics, as I know you know. I agree that the Internet and personal computers opened up the news for many of us. Cable TV did the same for those who are viewers and not readers. However, the plenitude of information does become confusing for most people and therefore people tend to tune it out. If people were more well-informed in 1963 than they are now it was because the news was better selected for them and delivered more concisely. I would suggest that journalism, print and TV, felt its power then. Folks like Walter Cronkite and newspapermen like Sculzberger's editors felt free to direct the understanding of the news just as you say, thinking themselves in service of the country.

Sculzberger may have been for that for all I know. However, that is not what he is talking about in that particular speech. He knew, we know, that the great tradition of American newspapers is to move the emotions of the reader. From Benjamin Franklin Bache and even his grandfather that has been the purpose of newspapers in our country. Prior to the opening of the Internet it was just about impossible to find out information "democratically" as our democracy meant with the bias of the writer and politically directed and selected news. This is a new era and the problem with it, as mentioned, is the question of who is willing to pay for the delivery of the kind of unbiased news you are asking for?

Fair enough. Punch inherited Publisher's job when the Unions broke his brother-in-law (or was it his cousin-in-law? It is hard to keep track of the family connctions). I am not sure how that's relevant to how he understands the job of newspapers. If I inherited an oil company, I could still believe that it is the job of experts to tell me where the oil probably is.

You know, Richard and Kate, you're both right. I think bristling at even the hint of paternalism in journalism is healthy, but we are talking about a function which is unavoidable, viz., judgment. When one takes that fact seriously one sees just how political the media necesarily are. One has to pick out of innumerable items in the complex political universe and emphasize what, in your judgment, the most important or interesting. That requires what Strauss called in reference to social science "criteria of relevance.". There is no such thing as a non-political newspaper or broadcasting network because we are all citizens. And as in all matters, some have better judgment than others. It is our job as citizen readers, listeners and viewers to exercise judgment about news judgments, and we should discount any claims to some sort of technical competence which ranks with engineering or doctoring. The purpose of disseminating news is to give citizens a basis for informed consent, but it is not best done by technicians (or idealists for that matter) but by sane, sober people who understand the meaning and implication of the principles articulated in the Declaration of Indendence. Jefferson himself said that a good newspaper restricts itself to "true facts & sound priniciples," meaning that news judgment is a function of good citizenship.

We have reason to suspect the Sulzbergers of this world, for the gray lady has so often disappointed us and it is due to what James Reston, in a different context, called the "cult" of objectivity. It is a fancy word for good intentions concerning which, as Samuel Johnson actually said, "Hell is paved with good intentions."

I taught journalism classes a few times and my experience is that the best were deeply interested in politics or sports. They were not indifferent spectators or mere fact gatherers. The challenge is to educate their judgment, not to eviscerate it.

Richard Reeb, -- We can love the intent to be objective; at least I can. We can also loathe the pretension of objectivity when someone like Jefferson speaks of true facts and sound principles in newspapers. He certainly knew how to use a newspaper to influence the politics of his day. His "true facts and sound principles" were not always the same as Hamilton's, for example. We must all know that "true facts and sound principles" are in the eye of the beholder as surely as beauty is.

That cult of objectivity can leave us positively panting for good old honest yellow journalism. I have deplored the tendency of my students to get their "news" from television shows like Jon Stewart's or Steven Colbert's, or even radio, like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But at least the bias of those sources is obvious to the viewer/listener. Maybe it is easier to have judgment about the news when the "red or blue" of the journalism is most obvious. Supposedly objective news can be colored and once you are attuned to that coloration it is hard to see. This is not really a matter of the facts in news, but about the use of the news facts -- there we are back to judgment.

Richard Adams -- No, he got the job when his brother-in-law died two years after taking over from Punch Sulzberger's father. Punch was the one who had union trouble. That family, one guy or another, has controlled the NYT since 1896. The Wikipedia entry about paper is actually an entertaining read. I read some history of the paper many years ago and that history is simply a good story since it is also about a family. Families are always more interesting than corporations, though a corporation that helped direct what has come to us as the history of the world is bound to be interesting.

Anyway, it began as a conservative paper in 1851 and I think you are quite right about what happens when such entities get to being directed by "experts" in the Progressive way of thinking about that term. I meant that Sulzberger cannot strictly think that university journalism graduates are the only people who can effectively judge what the news is because of his own history and because the newspapermen of the past who worked for the NYT. Do oil engineers have more success in their field than wildcatters? I don't know, but they surely do get regular paychecks whether they are right or not. They have reduced risk in the oil business for themselves at any rate if not for anyone else.

Surely "true facts & sound principles" are, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, for they cannot be anywhere else. It takes a human being with judgment to grasp these things, a privilege not granted to any other living creature. Even if we assume the worst about Jefferson, that makes his advice no less true. The cult of (nihilistic) objectivity teaches the false notion that facts alone suffice to render political events intelligible, but reporters and editors have long since equivocated on that claim because they know it is untenable--and not just at times in conflict with their political opinions, or their desire to give credit to them. Jefferson also held slaves, which according to his critics, renders his bold assertion "that all men are created equal" hypocritical, if not false. Facts never explain themselves, and they are best illuminated in the light of the relevant principles. In a free republic, those are articulated in the Declaration of Indendence. Those with good intentions but no judgment are worse than those with bad intentions, for they are deceiving themselves and others about what it takes to get the story straight. Maybe that last statement was hyperbole, but Madison's strictures against "theoretic politicians" (who have the best of intentions, to hear them tell it) comprehend journalistic politics no less than governmental politics.

Looks like we pretty much agree about the nature of newspapers and of their job in a republic like ours. The only question is whether I'm reading too much into Punch's comments.

The usual story is that the strike of 1962-3 is what did Dreyfoos in, as WIkipedia, among others, notes:

Yes, we do agree, if we are also agreeing that choice and judgment in the selection of news is inevitable. The Internet performs this valuable function of enabling us to investigate that which makes up the news somewhat beyond the judgment of those who had control of our news before. Of course, this brings us to a position where individuals must exercise judgment, yes, based on principle, which was what Sulzberger thought such a waste of effort for us. Although maybe what we actually have is a nice variety of choosers and we can choose among them.

Yes, too, we forgive Jefferson all his sins, gratefully, for the good he did, especially in succinctly expounding a national philosophy for us.

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