By Patrick L. Sullivan
LAKEVILLE — Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize winner, author and veteran journalist, described the uneasy state of the journalism profession at a Salisbury Forum talk at The Hotchkiss School on Friday, Sept. 22.
He began by telling the story of Joseph Pulitzer, who cut his journalism teeth in the rough and tumble of post-Civil War St. Louis, in an age when newspapers were openly identified with political parties.
(When a man came to his office once to complain about a story, Pulitzer shot him in the leg.)
Pulitzer went on to found the New York World, the first truly popular newspaper in the United States and the direct antecedent of tabloids such as the New York Post and New York Daily News.
He also founded the Columbia School of Journalism.
At the end of his life, in poor health and in a reflective mood, Pulitzer wrote a piece for the North American Review ( “The College of Journalism” in May 1904) that envisioned journalism as a profession on a par with medicine or law.
“The world we grew up in is shaped by this vision, influenced by economics,” Coll said. The business model for newspapers, and later for television news, required a fact-based, neutral tone — in part because the press couldn’t afford to irritate anyone to the point of not reading the paper or watching the broadcast.
After World War II, American newspapers went into a slow decline, with fewer papers and consolidated ownership, and increasing competition from television.
Coll said the economics of the business “created more incentives for credibility.”
When Coll started at The Washington Post in 1985, Washington was a one-paper city. The owner’s goal was that The Post “would be an essential part of everyone’s breakfast table in the Washington area.”
The newsroom ethos reflected this goal of ownership, Coll said. Emphasis was placed on transparency and credibility.
So when the Post had a major problem in the form of Janet Cooke, a reporter who won a Pulitzer for what turned out to be fabricated stories, the results of The Post’s investigation were published on the front page on a Sunday, for maximum readership.
The internet changed it all
But with the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, “the world changed very quickly.”
Publishers and editors were slow to understand what was happening, and by the time of the 2008 recession, newspapers around the country were in trouble.
Coll noted that with the internet, there are no barriers to becoming a publisher. It is no longer necessary to buy a printing press.
In this period before social media, “incentives changed in a profound way. Now a sustainable news business means you need a fully engaged audience committed to your paper or channel.”
Coll said cable television news channels such as MSNBC or Fox are “hugely profitable before they sell an ad.” The incentive is “to build tribes,” so that a cable provider doesn’t drop the channel from its lineup.
Similarly, The New York Times now gets over half its revenue from subscriptions — not advertising.
“It has to be a community.”
Coll said the qualities of professional journalism — use of the scientific method, awareness of “confirmation bias” and the willingness to confront it, stories that are fair and complete — are “the basis on which we claim our fragile rights.
“To lose confidence in professional journalism is to lose those rights.”
Coll discussed the media’s performance in the 2016 presidential campaign and election.
He said despite the rise of unconventional media outlets such as Infowars or Daily Kos, there is still “common consumption of legacy media.”
How the media aided Trump
On the television coverage of the candidacy of Donald Trump, Coll was blunt: “ The assumption for a long time was that he was not a serious candidate and could not win, so he could be enjoyed.”
And exploited for ratings.
Coll said that “complacency” and the “isolation of news decision makers” from the areas of the country where Trump was popular combined to make the election such a surprise.
Compounding the problem, post-recession investment in news organizations was significant, but centered on the two coasts. With the end of many local papers came the end of local knowledge.
“We now have news deserts,” said Coll. He told a story about a job fair where his students lined up to find out about jobs with Vice Media — but nobody was at the booth of the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal, where there was an opening for someone to cover Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, then preparing a presidential bid.
‘Feet on the street’ news
Coll reminisced about the election stories The Post and Times used to run the Sunday before an election.
“Two weeks before an election they’d identify two dozen key counties and go there and knock on doors, talk to everyone, get a sense of what people were thinking.
“On the Sunday before the Tuesday, they’d run a portrait of the country — with some statistics and very little polling. You read it and you knew what the election was about.”
In 2016, however, there was “a bubble of prediction journalism, rooted in the use of data. Everyone treated it as insight.”
On candidate-and-now-President Trump’s attacks on the press, Coll said they are part of a political strategy. He said Trump’s remarks have “incited his followers” to make racial comments and spit on reporters.
Coll said Trump’s goal is to attack elites in general (“and the press are elites”) and “to delegitimize the professional press at a time when the press is economically weak.
“When a leader incites people to attack, the result is usually violence.”
Coll also identified threats to recent Supreme Court decisions that protect journalists.
“I don’t see it going away, but an atmosphere has been created that will inevitably affect journalists when they go into court”
Coll noted that this did not begin with Trump. He said the Obama administration “came close” to declaring journalists co-conspirators when writing about national security, and that the administration prosecuted more leakers than the three previous administrations combined.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if journalists are involved in leak prosecutions.
“These are serious events, not just tweet-storms,” Coll said.
“This is a profession. It’s not easy to do this work. There’s been some clarification in last two years of what we’re meant to do.”
He said he believes journalism is a “reinvigorated profession” and described the Columbia students as “suddenly full of purpose.”
The next big challenge involves social media. “Very few of us understand social media,” he said, and called the “large number of deliberately manufactured fake news stories” that are shared on social media “pollution in the public square.
“The social media platforms are paralyzed on what to do about it, he said. “So the patterns of 2016 will return in the next cycle. Neither the media nor the public are prepared to deal with it.”