Newspaper readership continues to decline in the USofA, with online readership not even beginning to make up the staggering losses in print. The most recent study I could find was by the Pew Research Center in 2006, which shows that from 1993-2006 the percent of people in the USofA who read a newspaper, in print or online, declined from 58% to 40%.
Clearly, the relevance of newspapers as a source of news has to be questioned now that it has slipped so far, so fast. But what can you do about it if you run one of these former titans of media?
The short answer is that you get more competitive, but that only begs the question as to how you get competitive with something as omnipresent as “news”. Do you raise your standards with more investigative hard-hitting news, or do you race to be the first with the story no matter what?
Sadly, the latter is always the most sensational and simpler way to do it. This trend has hit not just local papers around the nation, but the “Gray Lady” with the strongest journalistic cred, the New York Times. Increasingly, it has become obvious that the reputation that the Times earned over many years is no longer deserved. Witness two recent political stories that should give all of us good reason to question their status as an unimpeachable news source.
I’ll start with the allegations that John McCain had something like an affair with a lobbyist. “Something like” an affair, because it’s hard to see what the article is actually reporting other than rumors attributed to un-named sources:
How does this meet the basic standards of journalism? The short answer is that it clearly doesn’t. What’s more interesting is the story in the New Republic outlining how this story finally made its way to print, which I’ll give you without comment:
Democrats like myself might not care about the finer points of journalism here, since it is interesting to have fire open up on McCain just as he started to move into the clear. Yet this isn’t the first time in the last week that the Times printed something that brought into question its lofty reputation; the last time, however, the target was a Democrat.
The charge of “plagiarism” leveled at Barack Obama was a nasty punch out of nowhere in more ways than one. It had some legs last week for the simple reason that it appeared in the Times under a bold headline and opening paragraph:
An Obama Refrain Bears Echoes of a Governor’s Speeches
By JEFF ZELENY
Published: February 18, 2008
CHICAGO – Senator Barack Obama adapted one of his signature arguments – that his oratory amounts to more than inspiring words – from speeches given by Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts during his 2006 campaign.
Not until we get to paragraph 6 do we see that they interviewed Governor Patrick, and we have to read two more paragraphs before we learn that Gov. Patrick was more than happy with the use of these lines, and even personally suggested them. To be fair, this meets the minimum standards for journalism, as they did interview the other side. The reputation of the Times is that it is more than the minimum, however. It also appears that an editor at the paper agrees with that assessment. The very next day, the same reporter filed the same story completely revised to tell a very different story:
Clinton Camp Says Obama Plagiarized in Speech
By JEFF ZELENY
Published: February 19, 2008
NILES, Ohio – With the next round of voters set to weigh in on the Democratic presidential race, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign on Monday accused Senator Barack Obama of committing plagiarism in a weekend speech. Mr. Obama dismissed the charge as absurd and desperate.
While this isn’t a retraction, it’s just one step short of it. This second story was an admission that the Times was fed a story by one political campaign and simply ran with it. While it is good that they made a point of correcting their error, reporting on the real nature of the story, the point is that the Times can be fed stories for political gain and therefore cannot be trusted – even if you are a Democrat and like what you see.
How did we get to the point where the New York Times simply can’t be trusted? I think it has a lot to do with the need to get attention in a world where readership continues to decline. The problem is that their desperation is driving their reaction to the situation and they are always looking for the next big scoop. That’s what a tabloid does, not a reputable newspaper. Readership will continue to decline if they keep behaving this way, and that’s just as well. There’s not much point in reading the New York Times if you can get the same story with the same quality from the New York Post.