Newspapers are very good at what they do when they do it by rote. News breaks and reporters are assigned, photographers are dispatched, space is allocated, headlines are written, and the miraculous convulsion that is the production of a newspaper takes place routinely every 24 hours.
For journalists, the critical qualification is not the brilliant turn of phrase, the incisive interviewing skill, or the size of the Rolodex. Instead, it is news judgment. It is news judgment that enables an editor to know what to assign; a reporter what to write; a news editor where to place it in the paper; and a whole process of production to move ahead quickly without delay, debate or second thoughts. It is news judgment that allows the idea to exist that journalists conspire to produce similar coverage. If you want to test the news judgment theory, you can do so by watching a political debate, a major speech, or the Sunday morning talk shows. All the major newspapers will cover the same items the next day, as though their reporters had consulted with each other. The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times in isolation will have selected the same newsworthy utterances to display.
This smooth operation of the news machine grinds to a halt when too many editors are involved, when editorial managers inject themselves, and when the publisher’s office is intercedes. Take the current humiliation of The New York Times over its story that intimated that Sen. John McCain might have had an affair with a lobbyist. For all of the talent at The New York Times, the story when it was published had all of the signs that it had been manhandled by a committee. It began by hinting at sexual impropriety by the senator, and went on to a much more valid analysis of how McCain’s confidence in his own rectitude blinds him to ethical challenges.
In most newspapers, this story would have been spiked at the first level of editors. They would have said to the reporter, “This is a story about how you didn’t get the story,” or “This just doesn’t stand up.”
But a strange ethos dominates The New York Times. Long ago, it read its own notices and decided that it was the greatest newspaper in the world. That has made it hard to be self-critical. When it has suspended normal news judgment and fairness, it has gotten into huge trouble–as it did with reporting by Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. When The Times was edited by Abe Rosenthal, he took it upon himself to be the ultimate arbiter; and, in hindsight, he was an excellent editor of The Times. Since his departure, there has been pusillanimity in the editor’s office. In a double blow, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, a fine publisher, retired in favor of his son.
I have seen big newspapers get it wrong and get it right.
In the early 1960s London’s Sunday Mirror, where I worked, got it wrong. It had the biggest story of the decade: the scandal involving party-girl Christine Keeler, war minister John Profumo, and a Soviet military attache. Fearing libel suits, the paper declined to publish. Too many people got involved in the decision; managers, financiers and lawyers overruled the editor.
In sharp contrast, a decade later, I was at The Washington Post when Watergate broke. The editor, the wily Ben Bradlee, took charge of the story with the direct and unequivocal support of his publisher, Katherine Graham.
In both cases the result was the same. In England, the story came out and the war minister was forced from office and members of the aristocracy were disgraced; as was the newspaper that had not had the courage to publish. In Washington Bradlee, Graham, and reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein entered the pantheon of journalistic excellence.
When a major government-shaking story is in the works in newspapers, politics is irrelevant. There is adrenalin in news. Are newspapers politicized? It is an open question. In England, the left constantly rails against the Tory press. In America, conservatives rail against the liberal press. It is probably true that a majority, though far from all, journalists lean to the left. But politics is not a preoccupation of newsrooms: news is.