Inside Journalism Baseball: Will AP Survive or Dumb It Down?

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Mort Rosenblum recently wrote an open letter to his former employers at the Associated Press. It is worth reading as a commentary not only on the way the wire service is run, but on more general trends in the industry.

January 31, 2006

Mr. Burl Osborne, Chairman
The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd Street
New York, New York 10001
 
Exerpts:

Inexperienced managers of a “new AP” must understand that however they rearrange the furniture, the wire’s integrity depends on the reporters who actually gather the news upon which billions of people shape their reality.
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AP stands for reliable news, however difficult it may be to gather and whomever it may irritate. After air, water and food, it is the most basic of human needs. 
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Sources who risk dismissal or death for telling the truth depend on anonymity.
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…go find news, not merely react to it in case it wandered across our desk. 
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Your children eat from my camera. To me, you are para-zeet.
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For 21 years, AP paid for a baseball bat, and I hit hard with it. Your new executive editor whittled that down to a toothpick.
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…editors seemed to favor foreign coverage shaped in Washington and New York.
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No school can shape a seasoned correspondent. Young people must work with veterans. Background, vital to any story that matters, depends on long memories.  Any eager neophyte can hop into a hairy situation. Then what? Danger is one thing. Experience saves more lives than flak vests or Centurion courses.  But even in placid situations, it takes practice to find the program, let alone the players. Fresh reporters who prove themselves quickly must feel they have a solid future when they cost more and talk back.
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Much was made over how AP ignored the London Sunday Times’ Downing Street scoop, a smoking gun that revealed how evidence was faked to start a war. AP London did not relay the story, credited to the Times, the simplest of routine tasks. Then editorial inaction in New York let it slip away. In a different AP, a diplomatic reporter like Art Gavshon, or a Mike Goldsmith, or a Steve Miller, would have broken the story first.
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They’ve taken an organic thing and tried to make it into a machine.  It doesn’t work.
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AP should set the agenda and define news rather than follow trends.  Play may suffer if you’re ahead of the pack, but the long run counts. Obsessing over Hermes not opening up late for Oprah Winfrey in Paris was not your finest hour. By one recent poll, American readers clicked most on a newspaper’s story about some guy’s sex act with his horse. The world needs your leadership.
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While some reporters are gentle, lovable souls, many others are cutting tools, with hard edges. This is what enables them to break down doors and get at reality. Allow them to talk back, to argue, to insist on reporting what they see.
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Do not dumb down the report. People who care about news want real background. Just before the Iraq war, the top editor roasted me for mentioning Nasser, saying no one knew who he was. That was the point. You can’t explain this conflict without tracing how, or why, Muslims and Arabs grew radicalized.
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Don’t bury news with false balance. That was why Serbs got away with mass murder for so long ago. For examples, look at Israel v. Palestine. (Can you say Hamas?)
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Don’t let unnamed sources keep real news off the wire. Arab reporters obtain crucial interviews with Iraqi insurgents who can’t be identified. The copy seldom reaches the wire, which carries a flood of stuff about brave U.S. troops. (This is what the Bush administration wants, but not readers, even conservative ones).

Read the full letter here:

Media: “If his breed is not to die …”

Here, here! Editors at The New York Times and every newspaper in the country should also read this and heed the sound advice. Otherwise, they will soon go the way of the jungle drum as a form of communication. That’s OK around here. We’ll take your online traffic and save the trees too.

© 2006, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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