December 12, 2003

Stuck in a Rutten II

Tim Rutten's slamdown of public editor Daniel Okrent's debut column in the New York Times struck a chord - a resounding thwang! I panned Rutten's troglodytic view of journalistic responsibility yesterday. Here's what others are saying:

Jay Rosen finds a celebration of "tough guy" journalism in Rutten's column, reflective, Rosen thinks, of the newsroom machismo - Damn the readers! Full speed ahead! - that seems to have gripped the Los Angeles Times.

Swaggering with this pumped-up (has Gov. Arnold been working out with the Times staff?) self-image, Rutten labels Okrent a narcissist, says Rosen, a sissy term unbefitting a real journalist. Here's an imagined exchange:

"Okrent: Hi, I am the new public editor. Let me introduce myself.
Rutten: Introduce your self? What a narcissist!"

Smart as always, Rosen points to the larger issue - the need for journalists to connect with the public, to, in fact, be members of the public and abandon the charade of professional segregation whose philosophy dictates denial of normal human biases and influences. He writes:

"A good many Americans (and some who comment at PressThink) are ready for the disclosure ethic in political journalism-- waiting for it. But not so they can pounce on bias, which they do not see as some punishable sin.

"Rather, these new wave citizen-critics are accepting of human plurality, conscious of human perspective, confident that, if they know where you're coming from, they can filter what you tell them accordingly. They think a good news organization is an intelligent filter on the world. They don't believe in the view from nowhere. And they tend to react badly to news providers who say: no filter here, just news, facts, truth... the world. If newspapers were truly interested in young people, they would realize that a higher proportion of young people see things this way, especially those who cruise for news on the Net.

" journalists become realer and more believable, not when they claim to have the view from nowhere, not when they let biases show in their work, (who wants that?) but when they describe themselves in ways recognizably human. Which is all Okrent was doing in column one. The theory is not elaborate: disclosure improves credibility." (Emphasis added).

Several First Draft readers commented on my post yesterday. Among them:

 Jonathan Potts: "I found it interesting that Rutten quotes a Times staffer who said he always thought the paper loved its readers. In fact, many papers, consciously or not, view their readers with suspicion. I was guilty of this as well as a reporter--I wanted a lot of people to read my stories, but was less interested in hearing from them if they thought I had done a poor job, or was unfair, or biased. Newspapers think they know what's best for their readers, and what their readers want, without actually bothering to test their assumptions."

 Lex Alexander: "Any Times staffer who believes the paper's relationship with readers is a mutual love fest obviously is out of touch, which suggests that an ombudsman might indeed be necessary, if only as a first step toward permanent change in the newsroom culture."

 Jay Rosen: PressThink Tough Guy Journalism More in Vogue in LA

Posted by Tim Porter at December 12, 2003 08:10 AM

In the past, I've drawn a couple of columns on a whiteboard in my beginning newswriting class and written "reader" at the top of one column, and "reporter" at the top of the other. Then, I put down some basic demographic data about each. Readers are more often married, with children, attend church, are older, work day shift, etc. (for a "smaller" paper than the NYT). Reporters are more often younger, single, don't attend church, work odd hours, etc.

Then I ask: Is it any wonder that readers think reporters are out of touch with their interests?

It seems Rutten is comfortable with maintaining the wall of separation between readers and reporters (and editors), but that's not going to sell in the age of participatory media.

Posted by: b.murley on December 13, 2003 08:44 PM
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