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When Everyone Writes, Everyone Needs an Editor

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 3rd, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
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Is it over? I don't know. My deadline preceded the vote count. Even so, let's be candid.

Did you burn out on repetitive news stories and photo ops, insultingly deceptive ads, stenographic reporting of misleading or false accusations and the sheer nastiness of the presidential campaign?

When did you begin avoiding vitriolic swift boat veterans' ads or stories about W's service in the National Guard? How soon did you turn off the cacophony of sound bites and erect firewalls against even facts that might have proved material to your decision?

Do you wonder why the news media generally failed to probe such nonpartisan issues, ducked by Bush and Kerry, as our impoverished futures on Medicare and Medicaid?

Can you recall how Jim Condit Jr. and the Cincinnatus Party raised the specter of partisan tampering with vote-counting computers in the 1980s? This is not the first time a minor party's prescient concern has become mainstream.

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That said, this central, quadrennial rite of civil religion also invites a reconsideration of the role of our daily papers beyond political coverage and endorsements.

Basic tasks are unchanged: deliver an audience to advertisers and build those audiences through news choices.

However, the Internet has changed everything. Everyone can be his/her own reporter, editor and publisher. Today, no one warns, "Don't pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel." No one complains, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Rather, people ask how long it took to chase the Drudge Report on Monica's blue dress or the swift boat veterans' Internet questions about Kerry's service.

Not long ago dailies told us what to think, as did clergy, politicians and parents. Now anyone with Internet access or fax has a virtual press and is telling us what they think.

Yet dailies remain uniquely able to gather, assess, condense and present news; they still can set agendas, tell us what to think about and debunk Internet excretions even as the drive for short-term profits and competition for ads and audiences affect revenues, reporting staffs and news holes.

Tom Callinan, editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, puts it this way: "Blogs and talk radio have provided more forums for people to participate in the public debate. But their audiences are relatively fragmented and newspapers still have a leading role as a clearinghouse for community views. Newspapers should respect that role by being inclusive of diverse opinions. While our editorials still have a degree of influence, what we publish from readers in print and online is becoming more important."

That's a tectonic shift from Enquirer traditions when unsigned editorials and columnists seemed to channel some higher Republican power.

"We're being much more of a conduit than an opinion leader, a platform for opinions," explains David Wells, The Enquirer editorial page editor. "Our biggest thing is interaction instead of punditry."

Wells says the editorial page and neighboring op-ed page are a "platform for the variety of readers' opinions, and we let them know there is a variety of opinions out there."

Cincinnati Post Editor Mike Philipps worries the proliferation of news sources and fragmentation of ad revenue for Web sites and bloggers will mean "there is not enough to support critical news operations that provide quality journalism." In short, bloggers don't do what dailies do.

Philipps says this is more of a national than local problem and readers cope with myriad media by becoming their own editors. Too often they eschew critical thinking and neutral news media for sources that agree with them, he says.

"They're breathing their own exhaust," Philipps says.

Bob White, The Post's editorial page editor, adds, "More people are embracing the opportunity to go beyond being passive consumers of opinion. To a considerable extent I think this has been healthy. Good for the democracy, good for the pencil press -- it keeps us on our toes and forces us to work harder and smarter -- good for the type of analytical thought that expressing an opinion requires."

But "negatives" include "financial pressures on traditional print media," White says. Moreover, "Bloggers, the Internet, etc., coupled with the rise of talk radio and the television shock jocks, has coarsened the debate considerably. I've never seen as much vicious name-calling in an election cycle as I've seen in this one. Nor as many attempts at deception and manipulation.

"Finally, I think there will be, if there hasn't been already, something of a rebound. There's just so much out there in terms of volume that thinking people with limited time really do want an editor -- someone to cull through everything and present a thoughtful, nuanced array of offerings. I think the same holds true for editorials. There is and I hope will be a place for responsible, careful opinion writing and a market for journalists who've been around long enough to know their community and who know what they're talking about when they express an opinion or endeavor to set an agenda."

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Curmudgeon notes:
· Where were editors when The Enquirer's Greg Korte needed protection? A page 1 story began, "Conservative activists fighting to keep Article 12 of Cincinnati's charter -- which prevents city council from passing a gay-rights ordinance -- are looking for support in an unexpected place: African-American voters."

Many African Americans long have been unsympathetic to gay/lesbian claims to equality, and some black clergy were vocal supporters of Article 12. It's in the clips.

· Didn't anyone at The Enquirer notice the embarrassing body language in the photo of Fanon Rucker shaking hands with Joe Deters before their debate at XU? Deters' posture suggests someone accustomed to receiving tribute and Rucker humbly offering it.

· How accurate and balanced is news from Iraq when it can be lethal for Western reporters to even leave their Baghdad hotels? How does it affect their stories when Iraqi colleagues bring in the news that reporters rewrite, transmit and byline?



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.
 
 
 
 

 

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