June 8, 2006
The Press' New Paradigm
Ask any veteran reporter or editor what journalism looks (looked?) like when it was at its best, and chances are you’ll get the same answer: Watergate. Our finest hour. Cynical, tough-minded, cigar-chewing editors have teared up at the sight of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford knocking on door after door, never giving up.
Woodward and Bernstein changed the game of journalism. Exposing cover-ups became the highest calling of the press. Since the fall of Nixon, reporters have dreamed of putting their byline on the story that told you what they didn’t want you to know.
But Watergate also changed America, in ways that journalism hasn’t evolved to handle. In the three-and-a-half decades since Woodstein’s stories first began appearing in The Washington Post, while journalists have been busy honing their ability to uncover hidden information, the world has become a place where the scarcity of info isn’t the biggest problem. Its proliferation is. And by and large, journalism organizations don’t have the skills or tools to sort through all the data.
Whether journalists know it or not, we’ve entered a new paradigm while we’ve been clinging to our old ideals. Like Watergate, this paradigm is founded on a national scandal. Unlike Watergate, historians will judge our performance during this scandal to be a failure, not a success.
Welcome to the age of Enron.
In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress significantly strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, ushering in the idea that agencies doing the public’s business should be fully open and accountable to the public. Everything is assumed to be on the record, Congress said. And it should be easy for individuals to acquire that record.
Twenty-five years after Watergate, all the information necessary to realize something was very fishy about Enron’s accounting practices was freely available. But the information was also much more complicated than journalists were equipped to deal with. From Tim Rutten’s L.A. Times column on the matter:
The American press failed badly and generally not only on the Enron story, but also on those of WorldCom, Tyco, Rite Aid, Adelphia, HealthSouth and most of the corporate debacles that followed on the heels of the Houston energy trader’s bankruptcy. …
Why — until the Wall Street Journal began its telling reports on Enron’s final slide toward oblivion — weren’t the investors who lost $60 billion or the more than 5,000 employees who lost their jobs and, in many cases, their life savings, warned about the company’s dubious behavior?
One of the answers has to do with inherent limitations the press often is loath to admit. Today, there are an increasing number of stories of great consequence — like Enron — whose complexity too often simply outstrips the competency of many of the reporters assigned to cover them. (When was the last time you read a hard-hitting and comprehensible story on a hedge fund?)
By and large, the people now running major news operations don’t want to take the time or pay the money that it would take to field suitable reporters.
Let me get on-the-other-hand-y for a moment. First, even forensic accountants — people specially trained to scrutinize financial data for suspicious activity — failed to see through Enron’s obfuscations. This is not a simple matter of “journalists need to learn math.” Second, besides our inability to parse complex data sets, there are plenty of other reasons why we dropped this story — the business press corps’ formerly cozy relationship with the corporati chief among them. Enron clearly works better as an analogy for the current press paradigm than as a straightforward example.
But that analogy is powerful. The press earned its stripes covering a scandal about which information was scarce. The press lost its stripes covering a scandal about which information was plentiful.
The plenitude of information, not its scarcity, defines the world we live in now. And journalism must change to accommodate that fact.
I disagree with Tim Rutten’s quip about the people running major news organizations. Expending copious time and money on recruiting isn’t the only way to develop a corps of journalists with the capacity to handle massive amounts of data. If the journalism industry placed as high a value on the skillset of an Adrian Holovaty as we do on that of a Woodward or a Bernstein, we would find ourselves much better-equipped to handle the age of Enron. Students enter and leave j-schools every year cooing about how great it will be to write the endless twelve-part series that takes down Dollar McMoneybags. But nobody leaves j-school excited about data modeling.
I also don’t believe uncovering corruption is journalism’s absolute highest calling. Aggressive investigative reporting will always be necessary. But purposeful malfeasance will always be less common and less expensive than simple inefficiency or shortsightedness. In the coming age of journalism, we should assign the highest value to reporting that is — above all else — useful. Reporting that identifies problems and suggests solutions. And more often than not, that type of reporting is going to involve a facility with collecting, organizing, filtering and presenting data that’s far outside the skillset of your everyday journalist.
Give me a journalist who tears up when she sees the Chicago Crime API, and I’ll give you the new Woodstein.