December 15, 2003

The Journalism of Complacency

Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations.

He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.

Rutten is on solid ground when he writes about the creeping cultural conservatism - in a non-political sense - among a class or journalists who are among the comfortable and therefore not among those who wish the afflict the comfortable. He writes:

"To the extent any bias is generally operative in the news media today, it is the middle-class quietism that the majority of reporters and editors share with other Americans. They are the suburban voters who now cast the majority of ballots in our presidential elections - mildly libertarian on social issues, mildly conservative on fiscal matters, preoccupied with issues of personal and financial security. They are suspicious of ideology with its sweaty urgency and wearying demands for consistency."(Emphasis added.)

Rutten bases his column on the observations of retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker, who wrote in a letter to the New York Review of Books that:

"Washington news people are part of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite; they belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well. … Most probably passed childhood in economically sheltered times, came to adulthood in the years of plenty, went to good colleges where they developed conventionally progressive social consciences, and have now inherited the comforting benefits that 60 years of liberal government have created for the middle class.

"This is not a background likely to produce angry reporters and aggressive editors. If few made much fuss about President Bush's granting boons to those already rolling in money, their silence may not have been because they feared the vengeance of bosses, but only because the capacity for outrage had been bred out of them…."(Emphasis added.)

Later, in a conversation, Baker tells Rutten: "These are not adventuresome people. How could they be? Most have been to college and then have gone directly into journalism. What can you expect with that sort of background?"

The result, says Rutten - and here we agree- is "rather conventional careerism."

Rutten leaves it at that, however, and doesn't bother to explore or explain why this is not a good thing for the news media other than to rely on Baker's comments that the news media - and by that he means the "top-drawer" Washington news media - lack "empathy for the rest of the country."

I'll interpret for Rutten - and then tell you the part he's forgotten. There are two points: the lack of empathy and conventionalism.

First, Baker is correct, at least within the boundaries of his narrow definition of news media. Affluent editors and reporters from the "rather elite group of journalists" with whom he has first-hand familiarity are out of touch with Middle America, partly from an economic stance and partly from a geographic location. The vast reaches of fly-over country share little salary-wise or culturally with the media elite of New York and Washington, who, because of their prominence, have a disproportionate influence on what newspapers print and broadcasters air throughout the country.

Washington news media, in fact, are so self-involved that the president is routinely asked at his rare press conferences to comment on an editorial in one newspaper or another. (How silly. As if it matters what Bush thinks of the New York Times. Given the few opportunities reporters have to publicly question the president, aren't there more important issues?)

Lack of empathy, in other words, means lack of connection, and it is this gap between reporter and reader that causes many in the public to distrust mainstream news media and to increasingly doubt its credibility.

Conventionalism - Rutten's second point - leads to what I call journalism of complacency, the acceptance of "good enough" as a standard of excellence [ Read: The Quality Manifesto. ] and the reliance on conventional thinking in a time when innovation is demanded, particularly in the world of newspapers.

As regular readers of First Draft know, I believe this type of risk-adverse behavior underlies all other newspaper and newsroom issues. It is endemic, self-reinforcing and extends beyond the well-paid elite of Russell's peers.

Conventionalism afflicts even the under-salaried journalists who comprise the bulk of America's press corps because it is bred into each succeeding cohort of reporters and editors under the guise of tradition, hidden in the cloak of "this is how things are done" and deified by tough-guy media critics who sneer at efforts to change.

Where did Rutten go wrong in his column? When he leaps from the specifics of Russell's comments, which are clearly directed at the Washington press, to the generalization that all journalists are effete, over-compensated insiders who lack the capacity to connect with the greater unwashed.

In this case, it is surely Rutten's own sizable salary that keeps him from mentioning - or maybe even from realizing - that, as I said in October when Gerald Boyd tried to dispense with his own misjudgments in the Jayson Blair affair by stating that journalists were "losing touch with real people" because of their fat paychecks, the median reporter's salary in the United States in 2000 was $31,256, meaning half of the 55,000 journalists in America's newsroom made more and half made less.

Lack of empathy? For those reporters making $600 a week or less, I don't think so. Rutten needs a reality check. He should get out of Spring Street and talk to the journalists working on these other papers in California, some of whom earn in a year what Rutten likely makes in a quarter.

Cathy Seipp, a Southern California freelancer, puts Rutten's comments in perspective:

"I really began to notice newsroom insularism in the 2000 election, when the school vouchers initiative was on the ballet here in California and roundly lost. What I constantly heard from staff employees at the L.A. Times and similar institutions was an airy dismissal that a $2,000 (or was it $4,000?) credit would make any difference, because of course private school tuition at places like Marlborough and Crossroads and Buckley is at least $18,000 per year. Not at inner-city Catholic schools it's not, which is the real alternative for inner-city kids, but of course this world is invisible to the typical newspaper employee. … The voucher initiative would have been a big help to me and other single mom journalists I know whose kids are also in non westside private schools."(Emphasis added.)

As I've said before, this is not about the money. I don't begrudge Rutten, Boyd or any journalist making as much as the market will offer, but trying to explain away the growing gap between news media and the public with a lame argument about inflated newsroom salaries is nothing but hot air - and it won't fly with me.

 Los Angeles Times: Tim Rutten Affluence remakes the newsroom

Posted by Tim Porter at December 15, 2003 09:24 AM

Tim: thanks for nailing him on the salary issue. Ihad the same thought.

There's another way big-media newsies are out of it: many are married to spouses who also make the big bucks, so between them they make plenty of money to live in expensive cities like New York, L.A., & D.C.

Posted by: tom mangan on December 15, 2003 03:08 PM
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