08 August 2006

Journalism: The First Draft of What?

I don't feel the need to join all the sharks circulating around the self-inflicted wounds of Reuters and other propaganda facilitators (on whichever side) covering the latest outbreak of hideous warfare in the Middle East, but I would like to take this opportunity to sneer in the general direction of the legacy media and their much vaunted editors.

In keeping with the Far Outliers focus on items that languish in undeserved obscurity, I'd like to highlight a recent letter to the editor headlined Iwo Jima, Revisited on page A17 of Saturday's Washington Post, a newspaper for which I retain more respect than most (a very low threshold, I admit). The letter reads:
Regarding "Next Exit Marine Land; Along I-95, a New Military Museum Goes Up -- And Up" [Style, July 31]:

Philip Kennicott succumbs to the old canard that the famous photo of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945 was "a restaging of an earlier flag-raising on the hill that was not quite so visually dramatic."

The second and larger flag was put up so that it might be more visible to the troops below. The second raising was not staged, and it was serendipitous that Joe Rosenthal was there to snap one of the most famous photos of all time.

I refer those interested to "Flags of Our Fathers," a book by James Bradley and Ron Powers.

-- Terrence Leveck
For 60-something years, this rumored "first draft" of history has been embedded in newsrooms and press clubs around the world (though not in Tokyo's press club, I recently learned). If he really cared about accuracy, culture critic Kennicott didn't need to go to the trouble of consulting the recommended book; he could instead have consulted a source far more accessible and reliable than any piece of fresh news off the wire or cable: Wikipedia. Journalists may wish to think they are writing the first draft of History, but in almost every case they are just writing the 51st draft of (edited!) Conventional Wisdom. (The stench of CW being synchronized is why I can no longer tolerate PBS's Washington Week even though I regularly watch the NewsHour.) Wikipedia on almost any controversial topic is, by contrast, the 51st draft of History, if not the 101st. And Wikipedia's editors are usually volunteers, often specialists in their fields, unlike the paid professionals whose job it is to know even less about more topics than the jack-of-all journalists they supervise.

Did the vaunted editors of the WaPo Style section catch the CW myth that the complacent Mr. Kennicott included in his article? No. It took an agitated reader to bring it to the newspaper's attention. Bloggers and journalists who either provide email addresses or enable comments get the same kind of feedback all the time. What was the difference again?

I'd like to give the last word to a commenter at NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen's thoughtful blog PressThink.
Michael Schrage of MIT’s Media Lab e-mails:

Sorry to come to Nick’s ‘analysis’ so late. Read your comment and Jeff Jarvis’s. May I just add a couple of cents?

In the course of being the Washington Post’s first “tech” correspondent back in the early and mid-80s, I had to cover Detroit and Ross Perot’s acquisition by GM. I learned a lot about the autombile industry (and, frankly, I really hadn’t planned on that or wanted to…)

Forgive the preamble but it leads to my key point: Detroit just sucked at competition. It thought of itself and behaved like a domestic oligopoly and even Chrysler’s near-death experience didn’t change that dynamic.

Competition from Japan? Establish voluntary export restraints and insist on domestic content and greenfield plants.

It took well over a decade—and literally hundreds of thousands of layoffs—before Detroit even began to be a global competitor. To this day we can see that competition more often drew out the worst of Detroit’s executives and employees rather than their best.

I feel this dynamic replayed in the so-called MSM; in 2001, I would have bet real money that competition from the blogs and Google was going to make the New York Times, WSJ, CBS, CNN, Time, LA Times, etc. better and sharper publications.

What I see and read today are so-called ‘professional’ journalists operating from a defensive crouch and the breathtaking (to me) arrogance that competition from ‘amateurs’ and responses by reader/viewers are, net-net, not worthy of their time. It’s astonishing to me.

My political biases and perceptions aside, I am just flat out disappointed by how poorly the MSM competes. And it’s clear to me why Rupert Murdoch—for whom competition is both fuel and goad—has done so well over the past twenty years.

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