Media Critics Keep Tabs on Mainstream Press

Weeklies Often Sole Source of Scrutiny.

“Albert Camus, the brilliant and versatile young French novelist, playwright and critic, who was also the editor of Combat , a Paris daily, once had an idea for establishing a ‘control newspaper’ that would come out an hour after the others with estimates of the percentages of truth in each of their stories, and with interpretations of how the stories were slanted. The way he explained it, it sounded possible. He said, ‘We’d have complete dossiers on the interests, policies, and idiosyncrasies of the owners. Then we’d have a dossier on every journalist in the world. The interests, prejudices and quirks of the owner equal Z. The prejudices, quirks, and private interests of the journalist, Y. Z times Y would give you X, the probable amount of truth in the story., he was going to make up dossiers on reporters by getting journalists he trusted to appraise men they had worked with. ‘I would have a card-index system,’ he said. ‘Very simple. We would keep the dossiers up to date as best we could, of course. But do people really want to know how much truth there is in what they read? Would they buy the control paper? That’s the most difficult problem.’ Camus died without ever learning the answer to this question. His energies were dissipated in creative writing and we lost a great journalist.”

A.J. Liebling, from the forward to “The Press”, 1961

Media reporting and criticism is common in 1999, although not in the condensed and utile format envisioned by Camus. Big dailies generally keep media reporters on hand, and sometimes, as in the case of Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, they become stars in their own right.

Most AAN papers keep a wary eye on the local daily, and not only to guard against an undermining effort (a faux alternative offering cutthroat ad rates an independent weekly cannot hope to match is a common tactic). As corporate media solidifies its control of the American press, and newspapers, television and Internet-based news services become increasingly monochromatic, alternative newsweeklies are often the source of the only public criticism and scrutiny a local monopoly paper receives.

Media criticism gets tricky, however. AAN News asked member papers’ media writers how they see their roles and how they go about their business.

David Carr, editor of the Washington City Paper, keeps tabs on the Washington Post:

“What distinguishes us, I hope, is a willingness to tell the truth. That, and we report on doings at daily papers, which are unaccountable in the extreme. Who else is going to cover these superpowerful media players if we don’t?”

Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix, whose reporting led to the exposure of Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle as a plagiarist, believes media critics for alternative papers should wear many hats:

“I cover and criticize the local media scene, with a special emphasis on the two Boston dailies, the Globe and the Herald; I cover and comment on national media stories, which differs from my local coverage in that I can be selective and weigh in on stuff that interests me; I call attention to issues I believe are particularly important, first and foremost being corporate monopoly control of the media. Because of the demise of two-newspaper towns (Boston is rather vigorous exception), in many cases the only local media keeping the big daily honest is the alternative weekly.”

Ken Edelstein, managing editor of Creative Loafing — Atlanta, spent over a year looking for the right person to serve as media critic. “It was difficult for several reasons. We wanted to find someone who understood the media — who had the kind of understanding you could only gain through experience. But we didn’t want ‘inside baseball’. We wanted somebody who could look at the establishment media from the outside, and write for our readers — not for other journalists.” Creative Loafing (Atlanta) hired Mike Billips, a 10-year veteran of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph. Billips has a feisty approach: “Major media corporations are too infested by the Humor-Impaired Ambitious to allow them to foster many original voices (which do, however, pop up on the Web), so local papers will continue to become more boring and lose readership. The corporations will respond by thrashing around some more with teams and pods and reader surveys and other Dilbertesque crap. I can’t say I’m all that interested in how they come out with that; I think the death of newspaper chains would do a lot to forward the profession of journalism.”

Managing editor Michelle Rubin writes the “Static” column for PitchWeekly in Kansas City (Mo.). “In my mind, the media critic’s basic role is to give readers insight into the process that affects the news they get from all media outlets and to critique media outlets in such a way that the readers better understand why the way the daily newspaper or the local news station covers an issue or an event is either problematic or exemplary,” she says. “In other words, it’s not enough for a media critic to write that the daily newspaper’s coverage sucks; the critic needs to explain why it sucks.”

A recent example of a weekly calling attention to the foibles of a powerful daily is Carr’s piece in the July 2 edition of the Washington City Paper. “I reported that one of the [Washington Post] metro reporters received a mash note from the police chief, became uncomfortable, and was told by her desk to quit dressing like such a hottie. Who else in this market would tell that story?”

“The media critic’s role is especially important, because he or she can expose the story behind the story, or even corruption at the daily,” states Kennedy. “In my own case, I was especially fortunate to be able to prove definitively last August that Mike Barnicle is a plagiarist, and thus contribute to his demise. Much of what all alternative-press media critics do is in that vein, if less spectacular.”

[Editor’s note – It was a short-lived demise. Barnicle is now a regular columnist for the New York Daily News, a frequent guest on the Don Imus radio program, and was interviewed constantly by television during the JFK Jr. plane crash coverage by virtue of his summering a few houses away from the “Kennedy compound.”]

Media writers from alternative papers take pains to distinguish themselves from their counterparts at the dailies. Kennedy makes this distinction: “Those in the mainstream often don’t even describe themselves as critics — they’re reporters, and not really expected to introduce their point of view. If Howard Kurtz [of the Washington Post] offers any analytical take at all, it’s one that emerges from the comments of his sources rather than any sense of order he tries to impose — it’s more bottom-up than top-down, in other words. That approach has real value, but so does the approach of being openly critical and having a clear point of view.”

Billips notes that while someone like Kurtz is a full-time reporter, “I’m doing this in my spare time from my day job…So far, my method has been to send a couple of columns to Ken [Edelstein] and rewrite them until he gets tired of sending them back. What I try to do is find something worth writing about, do a little research to back up my points, and then write jokes…I do want to make serious points (Write better! Be more careful of facts! Keep it in context!) but without being too serious about it. I don’t want to spend ALL my time ragging on writers’ mistakes, but I don’t plan to call people ‘super-reporters’ the way Drudge does, either.”

Avoiding what Edelstein refers to as “inside baseball” — writing for other journalists — is important. “You enter this little hermetic mediasphere and lose track of what’s important,” says Carr. “It’s seductive. Personnel is the best example. I spend a lot of time reporting it, and my wife always says, ‘I hope you and the 700 people you wrote it for enjoy it’ (700 being the number of people who work in editorial at the Post). It’s hard to stay away from. It makes the people on your beat feel important and validated. And it’s ALWAYS what the people at the paper want to talk about.”

Kennedy agrees. “It’s easy for media critics to fall into the trap of writing too much inside baseball. I try hard not to write about the Globe and herald too often, and to focus on broader, national themes. You’ll also almost never find me writing about contract negotiations at either paper, because I firmly believe that subject is deadly for general readers.”

Rich Connelly at the Houston Press tries to keep it simple: “I think our viewpoint is that of any Houstonian stuck with the media choices in this city — complaining about it, making jokes about it, criticizing it. I don’t think of myself as a ‘critic’ because to me that implies being an expert and giving a thumbs up/thumbs down on everything. Instead we just point out the eye-rolling foul-ups or lameness on the tube or in the paper. It may be a nonexistent distinction, but I classify myself more as an ‘observer’ than a ‘critic.’

“That viewpoint tends to reinforce the ‘no inside baseball’ philosophy, because you’re dealing more with the finished product, as the average person sees it in the paper or on TV.”

In the “Wayward Press” essays that appeared in The New Yorker from 1945-63 (collected as “The Press” and in and out of print since 1975, with no discernible pattern), A.J. Liebling regularly called attention to increasing corporate control of newspapers and the dire consequences for independent thought and expression, warning famously that “Freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one”.

“Everything in an alternative weekly can and should stand as a different way of looking at the world when compared to the way the daily does it,” says Kennedy. Edelstein thinks “a media critic needs to be willing to criticize the assumptions of the profession.”

And Carr believes in the importance of independent media criticism and reporting: “When we are going good, what we offer the reader is a filter through which they can better read their daily paper. By letting the readers know that this big organization moves in tendentious ways that coincide with their business interest, I think we make them better consumers.

” I think it’s at the core of the altie paper conceit and a place where we have the field completely to ourselves.”