Last month, one column shook the media world. It was just one column by one editor in one daily paper, no more than 800 words total, but it had the journalism world afire, shooting out letters to Poynter (a media trade newsite) with the “Indignant Lock” key on faster than the next day’s news copy.
The subject of the column was not as controversial as you would imagine. You’ve probably heard it all before.
Mark Yost, an editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote a column questioning the quality of mainstream media reporting on the War in Iraq. Yost, a Navy veteran himself, was getting a jarringly different picture of the war from friends returning from combat than he was seeing in the pages of his own paper.
Yost’s column set off a wicked firestorm on Poynter. He garnered what could only charitably be called undiplomatic criticism from an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington editor for Knight-Ridder newspapers, which owns the Pioneer Press, and the director of the Knight-Ridder Baghdad bureau, among many others.
This week, the Minnesota-based bloggers at PowerLine, got their hands on a leaked internal memo instructing the staff of the Press to cover more aspects of the war. The paper, the memo states, is strong on covering the deaths of soldiers and weaker on covering the more mundane details of the war, the reconstruction, and how they affect families on the homefront.
Odd, that’s almost exactly what Yost said. His column was called, “Why They Hate Us,” in reference to those servicemen and women who feel they’re unfairly represented by the press corps. The media’s response to “Why They Hate Us” offers many new lessons in that same vein, if the media is willing to listen. Here are the Six Golden Rules I gleaned from it.
1. Listen to reader criticism-- even from conservatives and military personnel.
Americans with conservative values make up about half of a newspaper’s audience. Yost was speaking for many of those folks, but the reflexive shrieking on display at Poynter revealed exactly zero regard for the concerns of those customers. That doesn’t seem like a smart move considering the precipitous drop in newspaper subscriptions over the past couple decades. A newspaper’s coverage cannot and should not be guided entirely by public opinion, but treating the public’s opinions with courtesy can ensure reporters retain a public for which to write.
2. Do not attempt to silence one dissenting voice among your colleagues with insults and veiled threats.
Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, a publication dedicated to the study and critique of news coverage, had this to say about the Yost affair (scroll down a bit):
This poor bastard has become the pinata of the day. … My guess is that by Monday Mr. Yost will be too busy standing in line outside the St. Paul unemployment office to engage in leisurely Internet debates. Which, frankly, is as it should be.
That’s right, a man charged with reviewing journalism thinks Yost should be fired for suggesting news coverage could be better. This type of reaction rather reinforces the media’s image as a philosophical and political monolith. “Step out of line and you’re fired,” is a sentiment to be avoided.
3. Do not suggest you are above criticism simply because you are a reporter.
Yost’s colleague Charles Laszewski at the Press had this gem to add to the debate:
More than 20 reporters have died in Iraq from around the world. You have insulted them and demeaned them, and to a much lesser degree, demeaned the reporters everywhere who have been threatened with bodily harm, who have been screamed at, or denied public records, just because they wanted to present the closest approximation to the truth they could.
I am embarrassed to call you my colleague.
Both Lovelady and Laszewski say that reporters in Iraq are brave men and women doing dangerous work and, therefore, should not be criticized. According to Laszewski, if your local reporter has ever waited for more than 20 minutes with a FOIA request clutched in his battle-hardened hands, he too is beyond reproach. So, he spelled your kid’s name wrong in today’s softball write-up? Sorry, citizen, but that’s a reporter you’re trying to demean and you won’t get away with it.
The uniformed men and women Yost described in his column are also brave men and women doing dangerous work, but the press shows every day that doesn’t make them and their work above criticism.
4. Do not pretend that being a reporter makes you supernatural.
Hannah Allam, Knight-Ridder’s Baghdad bureau chief, is undoubtedly a brave woman doing very hard work. She is right to defend her copy and coworkers, but her line of defense is strange. She invites Yost to come to Baghdad, because as everyone knows, you’re allowed to talk about how bad Iraq is from a distance with complete authority, but once you start suggesting some good things are happening there, you better be swooping in with your legs slung out the door of a Huey, chickenhawk!
She explains that Yost can’t criticize coverage of Iraq because only the press knows the real story. Some folks are “blinded from seeing the real Iraq” because of their politics. A military friend of hers can’t see the real Iraq because the “tall blast wall and miles of concertina wire obscure the view.” Clark Hoyt, Knight-Ridder’s Washington editor seconds Allam’s assessment, saying that news from servicemen and women is “limited and incomplete” because they operate within the Green Zone, and are shielded from the Iraqi public.
So, in case you’re keeping score, the list of people who can’t deliver the real story of Iraq:
• Anyone with pro-war politics
• Anyone in the U.S. who has heard stories from military friends, but not spent a week with Allam in Baghdad
• Anyone who fought in Iraq
Wow, talk about job security. I smell a slogan. Knight-Ridder: Closer to the Fight Than the Marines. Hoyt and Allam would have us believe that no one is capable of delivering truth from Iraq except the press. All others are mere mortals whose perceptions are shaded by politics, motives, and proximity to the Green Zone, but reporters are, of course, impervious to such things.
5. Just admit when you’re wrong.
The only reason we do know that the Pioneer Press is working on its coverage of the Iraq war is because the guys at PowerLine were privy to an internal memo. The memo suggests that some of Yost’s points were valid, but you wouldn’t know it from all the outward blustering, threatening, and name-calling. Yost brought up a problem many media consumers have with the media, and the Press appears to be addressing that problem.
If they would just let their audience know that, they’d gain a lot of points with half of their readership.
6. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I know I’m showing my crazy, fundie Christian side with the Scripture-quoting here, but stick with me. Imagine a company—a dreaded corporation, for instance—that is taking criticism for some of its business practices on a daily basis from about half its shareholders and customers. Imagine that one employee brings the criticism to public attention. Let’s call him a “whistleblower.” Imagine that employee is then called names and threatened with the loss of his job.
Corporate executives then suggest they are immune to criticism simply by virtue of the fact that they are executives doing hard work. They also claim they are the only ones who can discern the real truth and are, therefore, unassailable. The company then tries to fix the problem by issuing a secret, internal memo without ever addressing the criticism publicly. I’d love for someone to show me a reporter who would buy that, because I’m also trying to get rid of some oceanfront property on Capitol Hill.
Liberals are always complaining, especially during wartime, that conservatives wrap themselves in the flag to deflect just criticism of “unjust” policies. If the press doesn’t stop wrapping itself in noble newsprint to deflect criticism of its wartime coverage, wrapping something is about all the paper’s going to be good for anymore.
Mary Katharine Ham is Senior Writer & Associate Editor at Townhall.com