February 03, 2004

Don Bolles, Bonnie Fuller and the Boob

I spent a couple of hours yesterday talking about journalism and civil liberties with a few people, among whom was a reporter who has won two Pulitzers.

At one point, this reporter mentioned Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic reporter who was murdered by a car bomb in 1976 in retaliation for his investigations into organized crime in that state.

Bolles' assassination provoked a response in the year-old group, Investigative Reporters and Editors, which, under the direction of Bob Greene, then an AME at Newsday, organized the Arizona Project, a cooperative reporting effort by 38 reporters from more than 25 newspapers and TV stations who had one goal: Not to let Bolles' work die with him.

The Arizona Project produced a 23-part series on organized and crime and corruption and cemented IRE's place in the forefront of American investigative journalism.

When I got home yesterday evening, still thinking about the combination of passion, skill and sacrifice that made the Arizona Project possible, I clicked on Romenesko and, lo, there was an item about Bolles. The Newseum has acquired Bolles' bomb-damaged Datsun sedan (which apparently - correct me if this is not right - has been in police impound these last 28 years.)

Above the Bolles item on Romenesko, in the page's lead slot, was a link to a speech by "supermarket tabloid queen" Bonnie Fuller to APME board members reminding them that "celebrities are fun" and that "if you want to publish for the next generations you have to accept that graphics and format are extremely important in relating to them."

I can't say exactly why, but Fuller's presence before the APME made me mad.

Maybe it was the "yeah, duh-ness" of that advice - graphics and format are important, let's remember that - but it was also the comment by one APME board member that Fuller's remarks are "another wake-up call" for newspapers.

Wrong. The alarm you hear ringing is not emanating from Fuller's grad-school guidance (have a dominant element on Page 1, for example), but instead from APME board members, who must feel they, and the newspapers they run, can learn something valuable about journalism from Fuller.

Wrong again. Newspapers need more Bolles, not more Bonnie.

I've got nothing against "celebrity journalism" - although I believe that particular phrase is self-canceling - because newspapers need to entertain as much as inform, but - and this is the important part - what distinguishes newspapers from all other forms of media is their capacity to report and ability to deliver in-depth, contextual news that enables their readers, their communities, to engage responsibly in civic life.

Once I wrote:

Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism. [ Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism ].

I believe the above is more true than ever. I told someone the other day during a similar conversation about civil rights and the role of journalists in guaranteeing their preservation that I thought newspapers are lost, confused, that is, about their civic identities and unsure about which direction to follow to recover that missing purpose.

The road to recovery does not lead by the checkout stand at the supermarket. That route is already jammed with celebrity journalism and celebrated journalists. Sure, reporting on celebrities grabs the attention of readers and enlivens the newspaper, which is a good thing because the only thing worse than a newspaper that is irrelevant is one that is both irrelevant and dull, but editors need to keep in mind that the reputation - and therefore the impact and the relevance - of their newspapers rises and falls on the quality of their own reporting.

Today, the papers are filled with stories, photos and columns about the tempest in a D-cup over Janet Jackson's exposed breast. Where, you're asking, do you play that story?

It depends, I say, on who you've got to write it. If you're the San Francisco Chronicle and you have Tim Goodman, who can snark with the best of them, put it on Page 1 as the Chronicle did. Here's a sampling of Goodman:

"Yes, clearly the boob thing and Nelly's crotch-grabbing didn't fit in with the Super Bowl ads touting long-term erections or Budweiser's guy- friendly misogyny, bestiality and flatulent horses. Somebody has to stand up for standards."

Short of that, give it a tease and save the local ink for something else.

I am not arguing for less celebrity news - less Bonnie - although I do believe that because we as a nation over-consume fluff news with the same voracity that we devote to fast food, our national attention span has been reduced as dramatically as our collective waistband has been widened.

Instead, I say keep some Bonnie, but get more Bolles - more serious work that is unique to each community, more reporting that lets government know someone is watching on behalf of the public, more concern about the quality of schools, the fairness of the judicial system and the responsiveness by the elected to the needs of the electorate. More of all that.

That's journalism. That's all that's left for newspapers.

 AP Mag Maven Fuller Dishes Celebrity News
 San Francisco Chronicle: Tim Goodman FCC inquiry, uproar over Super Bowl halftime peepshow

Posted by Tim Porter at February 3, 2004 09:18 AM

Tim, you should know this: Stories are posted on ROMENESKO and other blogs by time, not importance. Pretty simple.

Posted by: Doesn't matter. on February 3, 2004 10:28 AM

Tim: Bravo for bringing this up ... probably the only thing about journalism that makes me really proud is what they did after Bolles got murdered.

As for Romenesko's choice of stories, it's not merely a matter of timing; he has definite preferences ... New York is the center of the media universe so New York media honchos get the most coverage.

Posted by: tom mangan on February 3, 2004 09:16 PM

I currently live in Montgomery County, Texas and I have been reading your postings to the internet for two days now and am very interested in sharing info regarding Mongomery County official's corruption in land and property deals and taxation (through MCAD)and the very disturbing "trends" that MCAD records reveal. I have been studying the Property tax code and most all the other Texas Statutes for over a year now, after learning last spring (2003) that certain people in the county were doing "suspicious" (and ILLEGAL) things to my homestead property tax accounts! I am OUTRAGED to find all the unethical and illegal acts that the tax records point to........... and so I am trying to decide who to go to with my evidence as I realize that I live in an area where "the good ole boy network" is rife and also a danger to the safety of whistleblowers and their families.

Posted by: linda on June 7, 2004 09:49 AM
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