The sausage ends up on our table. We might feel better if we know where it came from. Or maybe worse. But more informed either way.
Something I've been wondering lately: what role, intentionally or unintentionally, did mass media play in FDR's ability to promote and enact The New Deal? And the obviously related question: can President Biden, especially with a frazzled and divided Congress, realistically expect to gain the country's confidence in his efforts to restore the middle class? Build demand for more infrastructure spending? Maintain American support for Ukraine? I want to live in an America I think Biden has in mind, but I don't see how that can happen when major news outlets prefer to drink the scandal-flavored Kool-Aid that trump indefatigably supplies.
If David Leonhardt isn't reading "Breaking the News," he should be. He recently encouraged readers of NYT The Morning to provide feedback (via a survey that I intended to fill out but never did get back to) to let the staff know "how we are doing." Honestly, I didn't have anything to add that I haven't read from James Fallows. So, NYT The Morning, please tune in!
Press Release on Maine Journalism Foundation securing Maine's independent news outlets
The Maine Journalism Foundation congratulates Masthead Maine’s owner, Reade Brower, on the pending sale of his company to the National Trust for Local News . We are delighted that the largest media company in Maine will convert to a non-profit outlet with a mission to provide independent, nonpartisan local news across the state, bolstering communities large and small.
The Maine Journalism Foundation is grateful beyond measure to our hundreds of donors and supporters whose efforts have made this possible. It was your trust and faith in the future of journalism expressed through your gifts and offers of support that kept this effort moving forward to this incredible outcome. We are thrilled to have collaborated with the National Trust and look forward to continuing to shape the future of journalism in Maine.
Diana Susan Collins’ assurances that the Kavanaugh hearing FBI investigation was above board was just one of various reasons why I wouldn’t want her on my side in a common sense fight over core issues.
For KWheelock (see comment below on local news) and all: Maine local news rescued by coalition of journalists with public support, in partnership with nonprofit. Maine Journalism Foundation rescued 15 news outlets in Maine from being acquired by right-wing Sinclair or others. A model for how to save local news:
July 2023: "The Maine Journalism Foundation congratulates Masthead Maine’s owner, Reade Brower, on the pending sale of his company to the National Trust for Local News . We are delighted that the largest media company in Maine will convert to a non-profit outlet with a mission to provide independent, nonpartisan local news across the state, bolstering communities large and small.
The Maine Journalism Foundation is grateful beyond measure to our hundreds of donors and supporters whose efforts have made this possible. It was your trust and faith in the future of journalism expressed through your gifts and offers of support that kept this effort moving forward to this incredible outcome. We are thrilled to have collaborated with the National Trust and look forward to continuing to shape the future of journalism in Maine. "
Thanks, Jim, for codifying what I've been feeling for some time, with both print and electronic media. The eye-catching headline purports to sum up in very few words, the gist of the article, but often casts a shadow over the neutral or optimistic contents. CNN has seemed to be turning onto the MAGA path, which can affect viewers around the globe who count on that network for balanced coverage.
Is it appropriate to think of editorial visual/verbal choices as undermining the content? I read less of the NYT big stories than I used because they are treated so predictably. This does not seem to be one-sided.
I recall how sausages were made from Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE, which described the entire gruesome process, including a Lithuanian’s wedding ring in the product. [Highly effective account while total fiction—started as article in socialist newspaper, then expanded into book. Included in the historiography of the Muckrakers.]]
From this flowed the maxim: ‘There are two things you don’t want to know—how sausages and laws are made.’ Jim’s article about the innards of the newspaper business for me touches on glorious BBQ as well as ‘Lithuanian sausage.’
At 89 I have observed a broad range of the good, bad, and ugly in newspapers here and abroad. The best has been and remains magnificent. I recall when the Philadelphia Inquirer was receiving Pulitzer Prizes. Alas, today it, like NJ’s Star-Ledger, is best used to wrap fish.
Still, I am breathless at some investigative reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, The Economist, and others, as well as FrontLine. All this occurs within an environment in which news has become entertainment, many hundreds of newspapers, large and small, have disappeared, and advertising [traditionally 70% of a newspaper’s space] has continued to shrink.
One of the largest newspaper potholes is local reporting. I observed this first hand while serving my local government for 15 years. I only recall one reporter who was aware of the Municipal Land Use Laws, as he reported on complex planning and zoning discussions. Often these local reporters turned over rapidly as the scope of their shallow coverage expanded. They tended to highlight the most strident (and misleading) comments from public meetings in reportage that was distinguished by its inaccuracies.
Good news appears most often in local newspapers—on the sports pages and highlighting some individuals and organizations that deserved recognition. I recall, some years ago, the GOOD NEWS WEEKLY, which disappeared because ‘good news’ doesn’t sell. If you look closely in THE WEEK MAGAZINE, there is a small column of ‘good news’ weekly. The closest to a ‘nice news’ daily was THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, which is no more.
I recall the song Don’t You Bring Me No Bad News.. In journalism today a modern-day rendition could be Don’t You Bring Me No Good News. The economy is an excellent example. Who can tell, from the plethora of ‘Chicken Little’ articles that the Biden economy has been doing surprisingly well? Only those diligent readers who spelunk in Paul Krugman’s columns and The Economist.
I lament the rocky road of newspapers. Still, I applaud those reporters, as reflected by such THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY alumni as Jim Fallows, who are the nobility of their profession. “Social media’ has scant time for serious reporting. Kudos to those reading and thinking subscribers to Jim Fallows and Heather Cox Richardson’s Substacks.
Still, for those who seek good, bad, and ugly news, there are marvelous sources, including some that I have already mentioned, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and (deep breathe), the New York Review of Books.
Despite my laments, I hail those who deserve to be in the Pantheon of Excellent Journalists, of whom Jim Fallows and Charlie Peters are charter members.
Thanks Jim for the article. Depressing. Seems that the NYT has fallen into the same syndrome as CNN, whereby management feels intimidated by the right-wing attack on them so the companies bend over backwards trying to convince the MAGA crowd that they (NYT or CNN) aren't really biased against Trump. With the net result that the MAGA crowd considers these sources of news to be untrustworthy, for the opposite reason why they are in fact showing bias toward the right-wing. Is there any comment or defense by the NYT management team to Jim's comments?
Dan Rather comments on the news:
Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn't block traffic.
“It is important not to confuse “patriotism” with “nationalism.” As I define it, nationalism is a monologue in which you place your country in a position of moral and cultural supremacy over others. Patriotism, while deeply personal, is a dialogue with your fellow citizens, and a larger world, about not only what you love about your country but also how it can be improved.”
― Dan Rather, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism
“I got addicted. News, particularly daily news, is more addictive than crack cocaine, more addictive than heroin, more addictive than cigarettes. ”
“The dream begins, most of the time,with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth”
“We are a nation not only of dreamers, but also of fixers. We have looked at our land and people, and said, time and time again, "This is not good enough; we can be better.”
“Empathy is not only a personal feeling; it can be a potent force for political and social change. And thus the suppression or denial of empathy is a deliberate part of a cynical political calculus. Dividing people and stoking animosity can pave a path to power (and in many recent elections, it has). This has been well known since the time of the ancients. But these divisions inevitably come at the expense of the long-term health and welfare of the nation as a whole.”
To suppress the vote is to make a mockery of democracy. And those who do so are essentially acknowledging that their policies are unpopular. If you can't convince a majority of voters that your ideas are worthy, you try to limit the pool of voters. This reveals a certain irony: Many who are most vocal in championing a free, open, and dynamic economy are the same political factions that suppress these principles when it comes to the currency of ideas.”
It is a great treat to read a journalist on journalism. Thank you for these thoughtful articles at substack!
"Like" all comments, the comments section is great, so more please ! Happy summer to all!
The NYT. It's a business. Having lived in the same freshman dorm as the owner, Art, I can attest that he is thoughtful, and committed, as we all were in the NIxon era, to speaking truth to power.
We're in an age where war is a daily worldwide threat, we have the most major challenges ever to democracy around the world. Climate change cannot be denied as the world burns and floods, blows away.
We need worldwide leadership, let the man work. I mean the President, who, despite the constant drumbeat of nattering nabobs of negativity, is leading just fine. But, we also see the need for a Corey Booker, Deval Patrick, Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, as President. Those are really exciting candidates.
But also, Art has a really difficult job to do and he probably just wants to sit at the beach like the rest of us. In school, he was the most generous and compassionate, very down to earth, then he experienced the protest and Nixon years first hand at college. So perhaps some of us from the 60's and 70's can still believe in the dream of world peace, but in the capitalist world, newspapers have to make money. Until Star Trek values are finally adopted, we have to wait for a Gene Roddenberry world.
"Money? No, we don't use money anymore. Everyone has everything they need, and if they want to go to university, they just go. We got rid of money long ago." Patrick Stewart as Captain of the USS Enterprise, STNG
Ok I went to college in the protest and nixon era years when America's college students stopped a devastating, terrible war and got rid of an entire corrupt presidential cabinet. Art was part of that so I think he understands.
We should empower the next generation like we were empowered to bring down the president for good. But, we couldn't stop war and we couldn't stop nuclear proliferation as hard as we tried.
Starting in the 1970's, the fossil fuel giants - to make a lot of money - knowingly burned down the planet while persecuting environmental activists. Karen Silkwood ended up dead. Many other activists around the world are dying now, as they try to save their forests. All of this happens for money, so the superrich can fly high above us and stay in castles in the air. But their world is burning too.
" We honor the capitalists that are planning to go live in their underground volcano shelters when the climate turns deadly" Werner Herzog
What if paper were discovered right now? Wow! You could put digital info into a solid form that you could do lots of productive things with! And would last longer than the digital world! And that would allow us (to James's points) see a larger perspective as a gestalt.
Here's another example that's been pointed out on Twitter countless times over the years: a person of color is assaulted or killed by a police officer. The officer is arrested and/or convicted. From beginning to end, the coverage includes a mugshot of the victim. If provided at all, the mugshot is next to a professional headshot of the police officer, in uniform, American flag draped in the background.
A Times managing editor of the 1920s, Frederick Birchall, once said, more elegantly than I am doing here, that if he controlled the headlines, what the editorial page said meant nothing. He might have added, the news stories themselves.
I did send this wonderful piece to several Timespeople. Once upon a time Dean Baquet would take the time to write back and insult me. Joseph Kahn is too busy posing for magazines, and A.G. Sulzberger is too busy destroying the lives of the people he doesn't care about in his sports department.
By the way, I also have accused a few people there of trying to give The Pitchbot material. He is a genius. Now, one of my best friends and I text each other possible Maureen Dowd columns. The fact that she was not fired for her column on Biden's grandchild is a sign of how hopeless that department is, as if hiring Bret Stephens, Pamela Paul, and David French to embarrass the opinion section on a regular basis wasn't enough.
The NYTimes sure could use that Public Editor again. This is a fascinating article, really about the psychology of news presentation, what the paper/producers want you to see and hope you understand. Thanks, James!
Mr. Fallows: The presence of the ‘black box’ is evident, but its output always seems to reflect ‘masthead’ values. That is, the end result is to increase conflict/storytelling/engagement strategies. These are not organic to reporting, but executives believe that they increase readership, and so income.
It is important to evaluate hard news and soft news separately, but for hard news, a good model would be an open-source intelligence version of the President’s Daily Brief. Imagine trying to ‘bothsides’ an intelligence issue in front of the president! The sound of the door slamming behind your ejected rear end would be very loud!
This approach would align with reader goals, since we just want to know what’s going on, without the overlay of manipulation.
P.S. You properly note the importance of photographs, but this should be emphasized even more. As an example, in your illustration “5) ‘free speech’ vs lies”, look at the four photographs and ask yourself: which is the crackpot? The normal answer would be ‘none’, while the correct answer is ‘all of them’. The pose of the bodies, the lighting, the facial expressions, all lend gravitas to the subjects, making them seem like important public figures.