Let the Finger-Pointing Begin 

As the fourth estate founders, journalists and their readers alike ask: who can we blame?

If the daily newspaper disappears—an outcome I'm still unwilling to accept—it won't have been done in by its eccentricities.

But that idea is at large, like an opportunistic infection making its way through the intensive care unit. Last week on my blog I posted the news that the Tribune had just laid off John Crewdson and four other members of its Washington bureau. Crewdson, I recalled, had once worked 20 months on a 50,000-word story that ran in a single day in 1989. It made the case that Robert Gallo, the so-called codiscoverer of the HIV virus, had claimed as his own a virus strain that Paris's Pasteur Institute had already isolated and sent Gallo a sample of as a courtesy.

The first few readers to comment on my post focused on either those latest cutbacks or the ancient HIV debate. Had Gallo ultimately been vindicated, or had Crewdson? (A finding by the federal Office of Research Integrity that Gallo had committed scientific misconduct was withdrawn in 1993, but last month two Pasteur scientists received the Nobel Prize for their work on the HIV virus, and Gallo did not.)

Then "Ex-Journo" posted this:

"I think the elephant in the room is the concept of having a reporter spend 20 months and 50K words to document whether Scientist A or Scientist B truly deserved credit. I submit it is that kind of thinking that is a big part of why newspapers are in the trouble they're in today. Newsrooms pursue 'good stories' without thinking through exactly why it is, or isn't, a 'good' story.

"Is it an interesting yarn? I guess. Is it worth putting in the paper? Sure, all things being equal. But things are never equal. Everything comes with opportunity costs. What stories and issues were not covered by Crewdson (or the Tribune) because of the resources committed to the Gallo story?

"Keep in mind, this was not Randy Shilts-type reporting that brought an important public health issue to light and saved lives," Ex-Journo continued. (Shilts wrote the splendid And the Band Played On, about the outbreak of AIDS.) "It is coverage of an academic pissing match. Which most of the public couldn't care less about. And which (sacrilege alert!) isn't particularly necessary or useful information needed to facilitate the functioning of a democratic society. That is the reason we care about the survival of newspapers, isn't it?"

I have no idea who Ex-Journo actually is, but he or she might have worked at either the Sun-Times or the Tribune in the late 80s. Each newsroom harbored reporters who resented Crewdson's project—Sun-Times reporters because they could only dream of their paper having that much time and money to spend, Tribune reporters because they'd wished all that time and money had been spread around.

I think Ex-Journo is wrong in a lot of different ways—beginning with the idea that individual pieces of journalism should be judged according to how they appear to contribute to the functioning of a democratic society. If that's the yardstick, rather than just an elusive ideal, no wonder reporters drink. Newspapers are complicated, messy things, brimming with information only a fraction of their readers care about, and most days they leave democracy no better than they found it. Who can possibly quantify the boost those 50,000 words from John Crewdson gave democracy? It probably wasn't much, but I'm going to guess it was more than democracy will get from the next 50,000 words out of the Soldier Field press box. I lived in Spain under Franco for a time. You couldn't fault the soccer coverage.

Besides, it's easy to say now that Crewdson's subject was just an academic pissing match. Back in 1989 nothing about AIDS seemed inconsequential, and if America's foremost AIDS researcher was making false claims, being told how and why struck a number of readers as something more than a reporter's self-indulgence.

But my biggest problem with Ex-Journo is his suggestion that Crewdson, and the journalistic values that enabled Crewdson, are somehow implicated in the Tribune's failing fortunes. The Tribune did exceptional reporting before Crewdson/Gallo—in 1988 it won a Pulitzer for a multipart investigation of Chicago's City Council—and it would do exceptional reporting after Crewdson/Gallo. For instance, there were its Pulitzer-worthy series on prosecutorial misconduct and the death penalty (Cornelia Grumman's editorials on death penalty reform won a Pulitzer in 2003). There was Paul Salopek's coverage of the Human Genome Diversity Project, which earned him a Pulitzer in 1998, and of war and disease in the Congo, which earned him a second Pulitzer three years later. If facilitation of our democratic society is the way to measure these ambitious projects, I suppose we'd have to say the work on prosecutorial misconduct was a worthy effort and the coverage of the genome project an intriguing digression, but Salopek's reports from the Congo were clearly another huge waste of time and money.

But that's not my measure. I'm a sucker for rich, arrogant newspapers that are willing to spend a lot of money recklessly, and the Tribune that gave Crewdson his marching orders was one of them. If you didn't like what he produced, you could turn the page. (If you're too young to remember, newspapers back then had a lot more pages to turn, and your chances of finding something you approved of on at least one of them were pretty good.)

The first person to respond to Ex-Journo on my blog seconded the notion that newspapers have been laid low by their appetite for the irrelevant. "People should know there are woodenheads in newsrooms around the country engaging in tasks more trivial than 'academic pissing matches,'" wrote "Wenalway." "They obsess about 'the look' of the page down to its hairline rules. If we're going to fire reporters, then these hairline obsession artistes need to be shown the door as well."

Is this where we're at? The enemy is inside the gates, Troy is about to be overrun, and while a few Big Thinkers hatch plans to found Rome, for the rest of us it's a time to settle scores. So round up the perfectionists, all those anal-retentive editors and designers who presumed God was in the details, and string up their carcasses for the birds to feed on! "Wenaway—I agree," responded Ex-Journo. "And it all springs from the same source. Newspapers and newsrooms are full of people doing tasks that are geared more toward what the journalism industry thinks is appropriate or useful, and not what readers and consumers think is appropriate or useful."

You'd think American newspapers were failing for the same reason the Big Three auto manufacturers are—because they've lost touch with their market. But the Tribune isn't losing readers and advertisers to Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun. It's losing them to a paradigm shift.

(Speaking of which, the circulation of the morning Asahi Shimbun is still slightly over eight million, but its sales and profits have dropped in each of the past three years. Things are tough all over.)

Another of my blog posts last week was a response to Ron Rosenbaum, whom I'd spotted in Slate laying into media consultant Jeff Jarvis. "Not only does [Jarvis] blame the victims," said Rosenbaum, the victims being old-media worthies crushed by the shifting paradigm, "he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate—and if they don't know it, he'll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he's virtually dancing on their graves."

From the evidence that Rosenbaum himself provided of Jarvis's perfidy, it seemed to me Rosenbaum had gone seriously over the top. In fact, I was so agitated by what he wrote that I put everything else aside and immediately got down to the urgent business of blaming him for wrongly blaming someone else for wrongly blaming the victim. Blame's the game, and the air is getting toxic.

A reader calling herself "Katie" responded: "Spreading the blame broadly may be cathartic, or something, but it doesn't give you information that you can use to move forward."

I wonder why she thinks it's even cathartic.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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