Monday, June 23, 2008

Classic Profile

Janet Macolm's classic New Yorker essay "The Journalist and the Murderer" begins: ""Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

A bit strong, but there's an important point. Journalists are out to get their story, and will often do it at the expense of the people they report on.

I thought of that when reading this in a New York Times Magazine profile of Mad Men and its creator, Matthew Weiner:

After my first day on the set, I met Weiner for dinner at L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, AMC’s base for out-of-towners. He was outside finishing a cigarette. Earlier in the day he commanded, “Don’t say I smoke!” Why not? His face changed, and he seemed about 12 years old. “My parents don’t know.” I found that appealing, though I could see him wince once he said it.

This is a good detail, the kind that spices up a piece. It's also a betrayal, but one so common in journalism that I'm not sure writer Alex Witchel even sees it as such. I'm not even sure if readers notice it either.

Do I have a bigger point? Not really. I guess you should think twice before agreeing to be the center of a big article in a magazine read by millions. At least remember your parents are bound to see it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course try the flip side- mislead or betray a journalist and you'll be branded publicly as a lying manipulator- they after all control the media (at least to a greater extent than most objects of news stories) and look after their own. (Political maxim still true if dated- never fight with someone who buys ink in bulk)

To wit view the hagiographies on St. Russert- he seemed liked a pleasant enough and was the face and voice of the CW for the MSM- but he got more more airtime than any dead monarch- because his buddies and insider cronies controlled the cameras and the scheduling. Remember also 10 years ago when the press treated Katie Couric with kid gloves after her husband died- fine and humane for sure... until you remember how she perkily skewered victims of tragedy on weekday mornings and saw this was a courtesy that would never be extended to ordinary folks.

Not to in any way diminish the need and usefulness of a free press, but we'd be better served if they had less group feeling

5:30 AM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous karl k said...

The state of journalism is pathetic. Think Dan Rather and the National Guard memos, The NYT Duff Wilson and Duke lacross. And there are the business journalists! Good God, innumerate, illogical, demagogic. Think Gretchen Morgensen, also of the times, who shouldn't even be writing for a high school paper.

And then we have the bobbleheads on CNBC! Between the bitter Mark Haines and his tanking GE stock and the bland Bill Griffeth who will never be able to understand what the VIX really measures...well, it's just appalling beyond belief.

Business blogs like Jeff's and Barry Ritzhold's, analytical work done by sites like Bespoke or CXO are simply so far superior to what passes for business journalism to today.

2:10 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the reasons why I read about the miseries of the journalism business and smile. They can't lose their jobs fast enough for me.

Peg C.

2:26 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, you'll note that none in the media have told us whether or not Barack Obama's been smoking in the last year. ... though he later suggested he had week moments.

2:27 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah but the National Guard story was true..... Dan Rather like Mark Fuhrman just got sloppy

2:36 PM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger AST said...

I view the attraction of journalism to be the power trip that Woodward and Bernstein went on, being seen as having bagged a president. Watergate attracted all kinds of young people to J-school and law school, neither of which seem to know how to teach ordinary ethics very well.

The mission of serving the public by giving them the objective facts they need to participate in democracy has become a game of writing for Pulitzers, reflexively targeting public officials or promoting your own politics. Most of the journalists who earned that name in the past learned their craft on the job. I view the creation of college journalism departments as a harmful phenomenon to the political diversity and objectivity of our media.

2:40 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous charles austin said...

Isn't this just a variant of Connie Chung's, "Just between you and me...," with Newt Gingrich's mom?

2:50 PM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Is there a "bigger point?" Of course there is. Remember the Peter Jennings/Mike Wallace panel in 1987. The hypothetical situation: if you were in the field doing war reporting, and you found yourself in possession of information about an ambush on US troops, would you warn them about it, even though you would lose the story?

Mike Wallace's answer: "No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"

Then it becomes clear, as Marine Colonel George Connell mentioned -- American journalists would let American soldiers die, but American soldiers would put their own lives at risk to save American journalists, no matter what.

Sometimes, "neutrality" is a logical impossibility; even inaction and omission is the same as "choosing" a side. Thus, if you have no "higher duty" than the story -- the "bottom line," so to speak -- what's the moral difference between postmodern journalists and the worst types of war profiteers?

3:39 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous buzz said...

"Yeah but the National Guard story was true..... Dan Rather like Mark Fuhrman just got sloppy"

Interesting comment considering the national guard story has never been remotely substantiated. Not sure what you mean by Mark Fehrman got sloppy. His work on that case was fine, the prosecutor got sloppy with the presentation and allowed the defense to run over Fehrman. Do you have any factually based comments?

3:40 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good news! Journalism is dying even faster than before.

Still not quite fast enough, but getting there.

3:44 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder who's going to cover the news when the newspapers are gone. I hope we can depend on government to give us the straight dope, otherwise bloggers will have to leave their homes and offices to do the job.

3:50 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do millions still read the NY Times Magazine?

3:58 PM, June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the noble journalists who didn't report the bad stuff about Saddam because they didn't want to lose access.

7:03 PM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger New England Guy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:42 AM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Facts?- This is the blogosphere- we don't need no stinkin' facts. Both Rather and Fuhrman "knew" their perps were guilty and concocted/interpreted the evidence in such a way as to to confirm their suspicions (pretty much reflexive human nature - the confirmation prejudice according to scientists of the human brain- but we have the right to expect more from both cops and national news figures nonetheless).
While relief from punishment is an appropriate sanction for overzealous and/or untruthful investigators and prosecutors, from this independent bad act, it doesn't automatically follow that the target did not do the thing of which he was accused.

7:54 AM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous njoriole said...

"Both Rather and Fuhrman "knew" their perps were guilty and concocted/interpreted the evidence in such a way as to to confirm their suspicions"??? The big difference is, Fuhrman "knew" OJ was guilty because ... OJ was guilty! A jury voting based on race and determined to "send a message" let a mass-murderer walk. The TANG story, on the other hand, was a complete fabrication from beginning to end; just a minor detail to the Kool Aid kids, I know, but important nonetheless.

1:21 PM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember what General Sherman said nearly 150 years ago: "I hate newspapermen.... I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast."

1:23 PM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fail to see how the smoking ancedote quoted in the story counts as a betrayal. If the subject admits to something, its fair game. Now I can definitely see the point that its not really news worthy, but to say that its a betrayal implies that the subject excercises some sort of editorial control over the story, or that the reporter owes the subject something other than or more than the truth.

3:56 PM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the comment above proves Janet Malcolm's point. If anybody else gave away your secret, especially after you asked them not to, it'd be a betrayal, but if a reporter does, it's just business as usual.

4:53 PM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're leaving out a much bigger betrayal at the New York Times. They recently revealed the name of the main CIA interrogator of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. I thought they were against outing CIA agents.

5:26 PM, June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems like there is plenty of Kool Aid going around.

9:23 AM, June 26, 2008  

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