Commentary

Halkias: End of the objective press?

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Portland Daily Sun.

In the past decade, with the folding of such major regional newspapers as the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, talk of the decline of print news media is at a fever pitch.

Just a few years ago, the New York Times borrowed $250 million at 14 percent interest from Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim to help it stay solvent.

In 2012, here in New England, the Portland Press-Herald survived its own cash and labor crisis under media executive Richard L. Connor. This was through a majority sale — originally structured as a working capital loan — to hedge fund mogul S. Donald Sussman.

Conventional wisdom suggests the direct correlation between advertising revenues and circulation, and industry experts have long speculated the causes of declining sales. At least for now, they seem unable to stem the tide.

The good old days of American journalism? Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Library of Congress photo
The good old days of American journalism? Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Library of Congress photo

The matter was brought into focus for me while moderating an Internet discussion forum on emerging news media. As a journalist, I felt I could offer meaningful contributions on the media’s direction in the new millennium.

We covered the basic tenets of the news reporting trade. Among the subjects discussed were truth, verification, independence, objectivity, entertainment, the watch dog function, gatekeeping, sources, and production. After all, an analysis of news media can’t occur without invoking journalistic practice.

The forum members ranged in age from 21 to 34, all fully fledged members of the Digital Age. Indeed, one was a sports blogger with dreams of one day expanding his online hobby into a full-time job.

The forum participants were also part of media advertising’s most coveted age demographic.

Interestingly, they all relied on print as an information supplement, not as their primary means of news consumption. Satellite radio and the Internet were the most common avenues by which they received news. This wasn’t only eye opening, but gave me an inside view of their world, and perhaps of journalism’s future.

So against this backdrop, I once posted the following for discussion:

“What is your opinion of a return to the pre-objectivity days of the American press? How might a media continuum of this kind work in the Digital Age, as it’s been well over a century since we’ve seen anything like it? What would be some pros and cons and their ramification on contemporary American society?”

Expecting lively debate, I wasn’t prepared for their unanimity.

Each one of them supported a return to the 19th century practice of media outlets – in those days only newspapers – becoming nothing more than political instruments or ideological stooges. Even today, this is common overseas; on European newsstands you can find every partisan flavor imaginable.

Furthermore, they insisted on something every media executive in America should consider: unlike their online brethren, newspapers and TV news operations are in decline because they continue to veil their bias in a purported cloak of objectivity.

This frustrates liberals and conservatives alike because they can see right through it and feel is if they are being taken for fools. So instead, consumers – particularly younger ones — turn to other outlets. Whatever else can be said about those emerging news venues, the group considered them more inherently honest than the mainstream media.

Such feedback couldn’t provide any kind of scientifically valid polling conclusion. The forum was small and not very diverse. But as food for thought, its ideas brought hunger to the table. What many of us call mainstream wasn’t so to this cohort; they went elsewhere for the news.

While I didn’t subscribe to all of their views, the group made excellent points. They are the future, and weren’t buying today’s bill of goods. Never mind small publications which historically run on a shoestring. Impending closedowns or reorganizations in major markets such should be a wake-up call for the industry, if it isn’t already too late.

The forum’s message, while limited in scope, was clear: for whatever reason, the lines between finances, ideology, and reporting have been blurred — to the detriment of the entire product.

The aforementioned Portland Press-Herald case study is instructive as a local, regional, and national paradigm. Under three ownerships in less than a decade, its editorial line, and arguably its news coverage, went from center-left to center-right, and now to left. All of these shifts aligned with the ideological views of the principal owner at the time.

The sooner media executives pay attention to this malady and seek remedies, the quicker they might find ways to address the decline now heaped on the shoulders of true journalists.

You may e-mail Telly Halkias at [email protected] or follow on Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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  • The whole thing gives those of us who have loved “the new business” and newspapers in particular
    a lot of heartache.

    Until the old bulldogs at the top of these monsters either become bulldogs again for real, and get off their high horse as Proper gatekeepers of what is and isn’t information we the people ought be able to see, their collapse will continue.

    Study what Pam and Paula did at Seven Days
    would be my best advice. Their paper is a wild success and still growing.

    Denny Morrisseau West Pawlet

    • Mr. M:
      I replied to your note below but in my hurry neglected to do so as a direct “reply.” it is down the page. Apologies, sir.
      best,
      TCH

  • Janice Prindle

    These young digital types reveal their own bias. I think they are wrong. There is a place for accuracy and an ongoing attempt to achieve the ideal of objectivity, for professional standards of good writing, fact-checking, and respect for the privacy and libel laws, that mainstream media provide. There is a real need for a place where people can trust basic information that will help them form their opinions, rather than cater to them or brainwash them. In our ever-more divided national politics, we need a place to come together in one reality, not alternative realities created by extremely biased news media at both ends of a spectrum.

    That said, we should realize that even mainstream media is not nor can ever be perfectly objective. I think, though, what annoys a lot of Americans about the mainstream is not its attempt at objectivity, but rather the SHALLOWNESS of its attempt, these days. The networks have dumbed-down, to be blunt. If a Tea Party politician says X, they just go to a Democrat to quote him saying the opposite, and call that balance. They don’t actually check the facts to challenge spin on both sides. There’s so much more to objectivity than “equal time.” There are so many more stakeholders in any newsworthy event or situation, than just two sides.

    Part of the problem is with the medium itself: McLuhan was so right, it is the message, and the message of TV and internet is catch-my-eye-and-entertain-me, instant gratification and on to the next thing. For all the immediacy of disaster footage, there is a numbing of emotions after a while and it’s so easy to flick the remote or click to a new story. The networks and internet news therefore go for sound bytes, for big drama. Newspapers and news magazines, therefore, are losing the competition for attention.

    That’s part of the problem — but the bigger problem, I suspect as a former journalist myself ( print), is that mainstream media are more transparently business propositions. Real news-gathering and investigating is much more labor-intensive and costly, especially when you have to then turn it into a visual production. That same problem, the high price of real journalism, affects newspapers and broadcast media alike, but it doesn’t affect any outlet that exists only to preach to the converted and show their followers a good time. They can recycle and rant for real cheap.

    • Dear Ms. Prindle,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Are you the same Janet Prindle who wrote in NYC back in the ’70s when I was in college? If so, I’ve read, and enjoyed, your work plenty.

      Your points are well taken, though for myself I would not go as far as saying the kids are wrong. They are reflecting both their bias, and an oncoming reality. My own media and journalism students actually answer the question: “Where do you get your news from?” by often answering Colbert and The Daily Show. Oy vey. And then I have to remind them that however humorous and incisive, all of that remains satire.

      A wise mentor of mine, retired longtime journalist and editor Tyler Resch, now firmly ensconced in historical research as the author of 15 books, once cleared this picture for me.

      While interviewing him for a feature-review of one of his books, we got to talking about journalism in 19th century Vermont.

      “If you were Republican, you read one paper,” Resch said. “If you were Democrat, you read the other paper in town. And if you were smart and paying attention, you read both to know what the other guy was up to.”

      Equal time doesn’t really have as much to do with objectivity; it’s more aligned with fairness. And we both known you can be fair without being objective, and vice versa.

      In the end, the kids were telling me: “You know what? We’re not dumb. You come clean with your slant, we’ll read yours and the guy’s with the opposite slant—and then figure it out for ourselves.”

      Ostensibly, we here in the northeast create as much of a blue state echo chamber as our fellow citizens create in red tones down south, for example. And that is while adhering to the best principles of accuracy, verification, transparency, etc. The kids were onto something–not everything, but something.

      I didn’t totally agree with their outlook, still being a bit old school myself, but that is where they are going to take this thing, whether you and I like it or not.

      Honestly? I don’t know yet if it’s better, worse, or just … different.

      Thank you again for entering the fray. And if you were the Prindle I’m thinking of – you’re one damn fine reporter.

      Sincerely,

      Telly Halkias

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Yep…way back in 1952, I was a stringer for the Times Leader in WilkesBarre, PA. Those were the days. Nothing stopped us from getting the scoop. Some of us still have ink in our veins.
    Now, everything is different. When I think of great journalism, I think of Glen Greenwald.
    Is there an ethical investigative journalist anywhere in Vermont? I have been looking for a long time. If anyone knows one, give him/her my phone number. I have a hot tip.

    • Always great to get a reader comment from you Rosemarie; I hope you are well!

      Interestingly, getting the scoop and getting it right is one of the subjects of another column of mine to be re-run here in a few weeks. Stay tuned; you’ll recognize it when you see it.

      As far as Greenwald is concerned, as a trained litigator he has a razor sharp mind and it shows in much of his writing. He also can be quite the watchdog when digging his teeth into a target.

      But all is never milk and honey. To be fair, when we mention him in a journalistic vein we would be remiss to not bring up things such as his previous ownership of a commercial (for pay) pornography website and his more than $200K in liens and back business and income taxes owed to all levels of government, related to his law practice, most of which he has yet to settle.

      So while I’m far from a prude, and no huge fan of the IRS, professional judgement issues erode the credibility of Greenwald’s public persona, and therefore put a damper on his passionate commentary. Depending on the subject he is covering, then, the above context can often make him come across as sanctimonious at beast, and hypocritical at worst, regardless of how right he is on an argument. That, too, is all part of the journalistic package.

      You are a lady of great integrity and conviction, and it is always nice to hear from you. And while Vet’s Day has passed, before I forget the former Air Force flygal: Thank you for your service to the nation.

      Warmly,

      Telly Halkias

  • I know the Journalists who paid good money for college feel like the New Scribes are so much a pain in the behind and the bottom line. They are. Would you return to the men sitting around typing stories waiting to submit to the Library of Congress, to go down as the sole historical record? The guys in the picture look like they cannot wait to go out for a liquid lunch and take the subway home. Is theirs the only viewpoint? I am a blogger nurse poet whose content is free. My loyalty to myself, not my advertisers or pals. What could be a more pure form of journalism? As you cringe and scream at the Death of the Hearst era of selling information, we people in the roots of America stand with our voices, small crickets in a sea of information. Do not mind us.

    • well said and well done!

    • Dear Ms Gerdt,

      Thank you for your comments.

      I see you mention that you are a nurse. You’ll appreciate then that health care, like journalism, is at a crossroads in this country. As such, I would like to believe that, when presented with a commentary on the former, accompanied, say, by a photo of a nursing station in 1942, a journalist would not presume to know what was going through the minds of those young ladies, particularly as it pertained to their professional ethic.

      That word, professional, is key. The gentlemen in the photograph you have chosen to deride made their living and fed their families through the written word. It was not a hobby; it was serious work that required them to be on time, on target, always. They were journalists.

      A journalist would never suggest that any one person’s opinion is more important than another’s–certainly not more important than yours. Yet the fact remains that people then, as well as now, paid to read their stories. And that puts them on a different plane of accountability than the realm of amateurs or hobbyists.

      In those days, lacking our current technology, there were three roles, all represented in that picture. A journalist often rotated or worked through all roles: reporter on the street who got the scoop and phoned the story in: copy man who received the story in the newsroom, and re-rewrite man who prepped the copy to send to editors.

      So if it seems to you that these professionals were in some way cavalier about their jobs–their livelihoods–history can assure you that their meandering about was part of the job, before getting a call to race out and get the story on a moment’s notice, and at all costs, no questions asked. That’s loyalty of a very high calling.

      On that note, this goes back to the amateur vs. professional context. It is easy to pound out a cleverly constructed graf touting one’s purity and loyalty to self–all while administering an ad hominem argument against others.

      It’s akin to cursing the batter who struck out when you’ve never stood in the box facing 100mph heat. But as a paying spectator, you have a right to boo. The batter, however, doesn’t get to chase you out of the park–because he’s a pro, and held to a higher standard.

      In that same vein, a journalist can’t reply to your comments here with invective, because professional journalists are accountable to many more folks–most importantly their readers— than just themselves.

      And the nurses in our hypothetical 1942 pic? Professionals. Despite the turbulence of the current health care debate, a journalist would treat them exactly that way. And while a journalist can ice his or her ankle just fine after a sprain, or Band-Aid a cut, he or she could never bring themselves to put the words “purest form of nursing” next to their names, because those nurses are pros at what they do.

      In the end, that is the difference between a journalist, and someone else who just writes.

      I appreciate you taking the time to join the conversation,

      Very Respectfully,

      Telly Halkias

  • Dear Mr. Morrisseau,

    Thank you for your comments. Like Vermont Digger and many other smaller news outlets, Seven Days has a model that works for them and their audience. Growth, of course, is relative to one’s market and demographics, and is not an endless well, not at least, in the Digital Age.

    Undeniably, the national mainstream media is in decline, as are its younger cousins in the less larger but still sizable markets. The numbers don’t lie; they need real long-term fixes, not the annual band-aids we now see periodically.

    The proliferation of one-sided spin under the cloak of objectivity helps no one, so perhaps it is time for all news outlets to just openly use their labels, stop trying to pretend they are something when they really aren’t, and then let consumers decide.

    Unfortunately, in today’s model, independents, particularly pragmatic centrists who have learned to embrace the best of both left and right, are pilloried by both sides as pretenders: RINO, DINO, etc., as if one can’t have brain enough to choose what is important to them from both sides: You are either with us 100 percent, or against us, period.

    It’s madness, really, and not good for society as a whole, (in my humble opinion).

    Sincerely,

    Telly Halkias

  • walt amses

    although there may be issues with fact checking and objectivity, the real dilemma with print – and increasingly, TV journalism – is its irrelevance, particularly with timely events. I cannot remember the last time I watched the news or actually picked up a newspaper and learned something I didn’t already know. I’ve contributed to many outlets over the years both print and digital; I majored in media/journalism in college; and I’ve worked as both an editor and photographer at various times. I LOVE journalism and wish newspapers were what they once were…..but they’re not. Unfortunately, there’s nothing available in a newspaper that isn’t available on the web – including newspapers themselves – updated almost continuously while they transition awkwardly into the new world. I think the New York Times continues to do journalism very well, frequently using a multi-media approach to cover stories in depth while providing as up-to-the-minute reporting as possible regarding events around the globe. I miss the days when there were seven or eight daily papers in New York City, and you could land in a coffee shop or a park bench and leisurely pursue the events of the day. Through technology – for better or worse – we can do similar without the need to ask “what just happened?”……we already know……but it’s not like getting ink on your hands by any means. life had a far different pace in those days

    • Dear Mr. Amses,

      Thank you for your comments.

      From a civic perspective, there might not be anything quite as beautiful as the feel of ink, as you so well put it, on one’s hands. We still buy four Sunday papers, and have a fifth local weekend edition as part of our print subscription. This includes both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

      There is a lyrical sense, indeed a rhythm, to having this papers around all week and sometimes for months as we pick sections here and there, stop for a read, sip some coffee or wine, and take in more than just the events of the day. Feature sections are of tremendous interest and importance, both intellectually and for the soul.

      Honestly though, between my laptop and smart phone, and perhaps later at night a few stops into news shows both left and right…I pretty much already have the news down pat.

      Locally I just glance at headlines unless there is a piece of interest from a young reporter whose progress I am following–then I read and send the cubs some feedback every now and then. Let’s face it, for what some of these newspapers pay the kids right out of school, positive reader feedback might very well be worth as much as their actual pay.

      Thanks again for stopping in with your insights.

      best always,

      Telly Halkias

  • David Usher

    Excellent piece! NewsPAPERS will die. Good journalism will thrive serving, unfortunately, a relatively small minority of people who pay attention and take the time to read anything beyond their bills to be paid.

    Bias is real, unavoidable and part of the human condition. I think journalists should issue a statement of beliefs, updated periodically, and made widely available so that readers know their bias.

    This pretense of journalistic objectivity is a fool’s errand and does not serve the profession or consumers well.

    • Dear Mr. Usher,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      One thing I learned when serving as an Army officer is that in war there is no such thing as absence of fear. The best we can do is control it and let our training and natural instincts kick in to do our jobs, even if under fire.

      This was a valuable lesson to take into the rest of my life, in all endeavors–business teaching, etc. Indeed, the fair of failure in particular has been a great motivator for me as a journalist.

      I, too, have my biases. My fear every time I sit down to put words on a page is that they will cloud the way I present the next story, column, or review.

      And so I work at it. It isn’t easy, being that it is a very human condition, as you so well note. But you have to do your best at it. In the process, I often anger everyone because other than obvious black and white good vs. bad, I tend never to side 100 percent with anyone.

      So be it. I can sleep at night. I’m sure those frustrated with me, like some of the people leaving comments here–all which I will endeavor to answer– can also.

      Respectfully,

      Telly Halkias

  • Fred Woogmaster

    Dear Mr. Halkias:

    Your willingness ‘to engage’ is as refreshing as your writing, which I always appreciate.

    Thank you.

    Fred Woogmaster

    • Dear Mr. Woogmaster,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments. Thought has to begin somewhere.

      And hopefully, civility.

      Be well, Sir,

      Sincerely,

      Telly Halkias