It is endearing of Charlie Peters to sponsor a symposium calling for more objective, less opinion-laden journalism. Can this be the same beloved, raccoon-eyed editor who used to hector his editors when they offered up an overly fact-laden piece: “Where’s the gospel?” The same man who infuriated dozens of America’s leading journalists by writing his own opinions into their pieces? The same man who coined the term “rain dance” to describe his efforts to put more of a writer’s heart and soul into a piece?
A chary editor might have suggested to Charlie that, instead of a symposium, this topic might make a good “Tilting” item (long the preferred way to deal with the boss’s momentary obsessions). Or perhaps another volume in Charlie’s autobiography. But as it happens, Charlie has something going for him in this new crusade for “Just the Facts.” He’s right.
Let me begin (inevitably) by defending my own newspaper, The Washington Post. The danger of too much opinion and spin on the front page isn’t something we’ve just discovered. The Post‘s top editors during the ’90s, Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser, tried hard to suppress tendentious writing and gratuitous analysis in news stories. Kaiser, in particular, became exasperated at those introductory clauses that begin so many newspaper stories: “In a move intended to deflect the House impeachment inquiry, President Clinton yesterday announced” Or: “Despite growing criticism of his divisive record as House Speaker, Newt Gingrich yesterday proposed” Such leads had become all too common at the Post. They were a product of the emphasis over the last two decades on interpretive, analytical journalism (encouraged by, let’s be frank, a certain humble West Virginia lawyer and his band of anti-elitist Harvard grads).
Kaiser decided to do something about this trend toward manipulative, opinion-saturated “news” leads. He banned them. Specifically, he enunciated something that came to be known at the Post as the “Kaiser Rule.” Reporters were forbidden to begin a story with any kind of explanatory clause, whatsoever. I’m sure people can find examples of this rule being violated, but on major front-page stories, it stuck. To reporters who complained that their analytical stories had been neutered (“Jeez, Bob, Clinton was deflecting attention,” etc., etc.), Kaiser would answer with a memorable dictum first postulated by the Post‘s editor in the ’50s, J. Russell Wiggins: “The reader deserves one clean shot at the facts.”
That may be a good motto for the new, new journalism. Don’t tell people what to think. Present readers with information, as cleanly and clearly stated as possible, along with context that gives them a chance to make up their own minds what it means.
To be sure (as we used to say when I worked at The Wall Street Journal, where every front-page story was supposed to have a “to-be-sure graph” that allowed the possibility that the thesis of the surrounding story was false), there’s a place for analysis. The front page of any great newspaper needs good analytical writing that helps people make sense of the world. And it needs vivid, colorful writing that brings home the intensity and visceral reality of events to readers.
That’s the business that newspapers are in now – at a time when people usually know the basic facts about a big story before they pick up the paper, from television, radio or the Internet. Our job is explaining the world – providing meaning and context and a way of ordering the world. That’s what a newspaper front page is, essentially – a daily ordering of the world that establishes the seven or eight topics the editors think are most worthy of a reader’s attention. That’s a subjective and interpretive mission, inescapably. But it’s not an excuse for violating the Kaiser Rule. Readers do deserve one clean shot at the facts.
The Post has taken some grief in the profession for Downie’s and Kaiser’s emphasis on traditionalism. The buzz on the street has been that the Post was less experimental, less daring, less open to “personal” writing, less “fun.” Some of this criticism was misplaced; some of it was probably valid. But it’s worth noting that the changes in the Post resulted from Downie’s and Kaiser’s deliberate efforts to steer the ship away from the rocks that Charlie Peters is now sighting. Indeed, I have to ask where Charlie was during all those years the Post was getting drubbed by media gossips for being a little dull.
The biggest danger I encountered in my years as an editor was a reflexive cynicism among some reporters that led them to assume they knew what a story was about, before they had actually done the reporting. They would begin with an assumption of who the good guys and bad guys were, and then organize the facts around that hypothesis. Sometimes, reporters were so confident about their a priori hypotheses that they would make only the most perfunctory, last-minute efforts to contact the “bad guys.” (“Mr. Jones couldn’t be reached for comment.” “Mr. Jones failed to respond to a reporter’s inquiry.”)
This sort of cynicism is so common that it has become a journalistic stereotype. But it’s actually the opposite of the fundamental journalistic values of curiosity and skepticism. The reason you call people for comment (and keep calling them until you get them) is because you want to get it right. A good reporter lives in terror of the possibility that his elaborately constructed hypothesis is wrong – that the last phone call he makes will reveal that the real story is something different from what he had assumed. Interestingly, in my experience, the very best reporters rarely exhibit the stereotypical cynicism and arrogance that people have come to associate with the profession. Bob Woodward isn’t that way. David Broder isn’t; David Remnick isn’t; Kate Boo isn’t; David Maraniss isn’t. These people couldn’t gather the stories they do without being genuinely curious about the world and open to new information.
The reflexive cynics in our business tend to be the burn-outs: the has-beens or never-weres. Most of all, they’re the television people, who affect a world-weary know-it-all-ism that the public has, quite rightly, come to loathe. If ever there was an unearned cynicism, it’s the kind found among these TV celebrities and pundits. Many of them haven’t chased a fire truck, let alone covered a war.
A final impediment to giving readers one clear shot at the facts is the journalistic tendency to keep score – especially in covering the White House. There seems to be an unquenchable need to record, on a daily basis, whether the president is up or down, whether he had a good week or a bad week, whether he continues to be “dogged by scandal” or has “triumphed over his critics.” This running box score is often nonsensical; there is no real event whatsoever being described, only an imaginary battle for influence. And often the scorekeeping obscures what actually is going on – the particular legislative debate or foreign-policy crisis that reporters see as a backdrop for the real issue: Is he up? Is he down?
What reporters really mean when they write this daily form sheet on the presidency is: What do my colleagues in the press corps think? What’s the consensus opinion of the handful of people I talked to today? To call that sort of work “bad journalism” is charitable. It isn’t journalism at all. There isn’t a fact in sight.