NYT: Journalism Is Dead — For Now

The lack of reaction to a New York Times report filed by Jeremy Peters on July 15 and found on the front page of the its July 16 print edition has, at least to me, been nothing short of stunning.

Maybe the item’s cutesy title (“Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back”) made potential readers believe that it would be a puff piece. Maybe it was management’s odd decision to print Peters’ piece on a Monday instead of a Sunday where it arguably belonged. Maybe the blowback from President Obama’s painfully revealing “you didn’t build that” statement on July 13 in Roanoke, Virginia, monopolized the attention of those who would otherwise have expressed outrage over what Peters revealed.

Those three explanations border on being plausible excuses. A fourth, that nobody cares about what’s in the Times any more, is clever but obviously unsatisfying, despite the newspaper’s roughly 25 percent daily and 30 percent Sunday print circulation declines, even with more generous definitions of “circulation,” in the past six years. The final alternative — that what Peters reported is so understood to be the way it is in the world of alleged journalism that it wasn’t really noteworthy — is truly disturbing.

What Peters told readers, in essence, is that White House officials, the Obama administration in general, the Obama for America campaign, the campaign of presidential challenger Mitt Romney (though the evidence Peters provided is thin and seems to relate largely to the candidate’s family), and powerful Washington politicians on Capitol Hill are dictating what the press will print concerning their nonpublic statements and remarks — and that the press is, for the most part, acquiescing with little if any objection.

What Peters described has gotten the outraged attention of ideological opposites Joseph Farah and Ellen Ratner at WND.com — and that’s about it.

Consider the following excerpts from Peters’ production:

  • “[T]he (Obama campaign’s) press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”
  • “Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House.”
  • “From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position.”
  • “It was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly.” Ratner believes that the Associated Press and McClatchy are exceptions; I’m less than convinced.
  • “Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them.”

The irony may not have escaped them, but integrity apparently has.

You know, if you’re going to have “the White House and political campaigns cleaning up quotes before reporters are even allowed to publish their stories,” as Ratner aptly describes it, why not just have potential “interview” subjects email what they want to “say” directly to newspaper and broadcast news editors and eliminate the middleman, i.e., the alleged journalists?

The Times itself is among the outfits which has given in to quote approval. A closer look at the particulars of their situation is warranted.

In an irony which should not escape readers, the story quotes Dean Baquet, currently the paper’s managing editor for news, moaning about how “maybe we have to push back harder.” Or maybe not, I guess.

In 2006, Baquet didn’t mind pushing back when he was editor at the Los Angeles Times, manning the ramparts, along with that paper’s publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, against its big, bad new owners at the Chicago-based Tribune Company. Parent company president Scott Smith demanded budget cuts, and gave the pair some time to put together a plan to deal with them. Demonstrating classic passive-aggressive behavior, Baquet and Johnson had Scott fly out to California to discuss their plan — which didn’t exist. Instead, they went public with their complaints and dared their boss to fire them. Three and eight weeks later, Johnson and Baquet, respectively, were shown the door.

If Dean Baquet really felt, as he said at the time, that the proposed cuts went “too far,” and that he couldn’t live with their outcome, he should have turned in his resignation when he learned of their inevitability. Instead, he played childish games of defiance.

The New York Times apparently didn’t mind Baquet’s insubordination, and rehired him in 2007. Perhaps its sympathetic coverage of the L.A. Times controversy sent him a signal that he’d be welcomed back when (not if) things didn’t work out, both steeling his juvenile resolve and arguably harming a competitor at the same time.

In February 2008, Baquet was editor on the John McCain-Vicki Iseman story. Wikipedia correctly notes that the story’s original version alleged “an improper relationship” between the two. AllahPundit at Hot Air described it as “a sex scandal that may not be a scandal tucked inside an ethics scandal that may not be an ethics scandal tucked inside an ethics scandal that was a genuine scandal 20 years ago.” In other words, it was non-story whose sole purpose was to sully the presumptive GOP nominee’s reputation in the minds of relatively disengaged voters.

In the wake of an out-of-court settlement with Ms. Iseman, the current online version of the story claims that “The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients.” Sure, guys; it was only the article’s stupid readers who thought that.

In sum, Baquet, a spoiled brat of an editor who couldn’t tolerate budget cuts and tried to ride out his direct disobedience of corporate orders, failed to put a stop to an obviously false report, and perhaps even actively encouraged it. Now he tolerates the daily insults to his craft engineered primarily by Obama administration and campaign apparatchiks whose only real short-term weapon is denial of access.

If the Times, with what remaining power and influence it has, began to document and report every instance where a sycophantic administration flunky demanded quote approval and it firmly refused, I’ll bet things would change — and quickly. But either Dean Baquet doesn’t have the stones to try, or for the time being would prefer not to.

Perhaps the day he and others in this sadly compromised calling will find the nerve to be journalists again will arrive on about January 21, 2013 — but only if someone other than Barack Obama begins to occupy the White House.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)