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Meet the (Meta)Press: Greg Mitchell
Who reports on the reporters?- September 23, 2003
It's an unusual trek through magazineland: A longtime editor at Crawdaddy—considered probably the coolest music mag ever—who subsequently edited Nuclear Times, Greg Mitchell is today the editor of Editor & Publisher, the widely respected trade journal of the newspaper business. (And he's also written a number of nonfiction books on the side, ranging from Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, on Richard Nixon's 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, to the recent Joy in Mudville, a memoir of his years as a Little League coach and his life as a baseball fan.) Mitchell has been at E&P for four years, the first two as its articles editor, and in his time at the helm the 105-year-old mag has gained a new relevancy. Bolstered by an impressive web presence, the magazine has grown from a stodgily obligatory read to a vibrant source of breaking news and commentary on the media business. In fact, last week E&P announced that it was pulling back the mag's frequency to monthly so that its breaking-news coverage could be concentrated on the web. Soon after the announcement, Mitchell spoke to mediabistro.com about his magazine, his underground junior-high paper, and objectivity in news.
Hometown: Niagara Falls, New York First section of the Sunday Times: Sports
Yankees or Mets? Mets
Tell me a little about your eclectic career. How did you get into journalism, and how did you then get into media writing?
I like to say that I probably came to journalism by comics. When I was a kid in the late '50s, I was an enormous fan of Superman, the TV show and comic books. But I was probably one of the rare people who wanted to grow up to be Clark Kent instead of Superman.
I also believe that I probably ran the first underground junior-high newspaper in the country, in 1961. I almost got kicked out of school for running it. We covered junior-high injustices, gossip about teachers, various bad things students had to put up with. From there I was on a straight line to journalism school and working for a daily newspaper in the summers, the Niagara Falls Gazette. And then I got out and was offered jobs at daily newspapers, but instead came to New York and got involved in counterculture magazines.
I was in charge of the non-music coverage at Crawdaddy, which was the first what you might call "serious" rock magazine. We had a lot of political coverage, films and books and so forth. I was into music and did a lot of music stuff, but my specialty was political stuff and books and things like that. Then, for the past 25 years I've been more involved in political or social issues.
How did you then get into media studies?
I had written a lot for Channels magazine, which was a magazine in the eighties that had to do with cable and television. I never was a media critic or anything like that, and I can't point to having worked at Columbia Journalism Review. It just evolved.
The big news at Editor & Publisher is that you're going from weekly publication to a monthly and beefing up the web presence. Tell me about that decision.
Editor & Publisher is one of the oldest magazines in the universe, and certainly one of the oldest weeklies. It's been weekly for 105 years. It's not something you take lightly to go away from that. On the other hand, we're not in the horse and buggy days. The news business has completely changed. People now expect to get news quickly, daily, hourly. Crawdaddy was monthly, and, working there, we always kind of envied people who came out weekly and didn't have to sit on news. When I started at E&P, it was great to get stuff out weekly. But even just in the short span, we spend a tremendous amount of time here, every week or every day, debating, well, should we put this up on the web first?
Which usually gets preference? Is based on news value?
Yes, it's the news value, whether we think it can get picked up elsewhere. Some of the stuff appears only on the web. Some of the stuff is both print and web. But a lot of the stuff, a lot of the newsmaking stuff, a lot of the publicity we get, are web-only stories. We're constantly debating, well, when should we put this up? If we hold it, what day of the week do we put it up? Or if we put up too much stuff from the magazine, then why should people subscribe to the magazine? Just constant debates over this stuff. Eventually, it became apparent that the way to go was to have a thick monthly magazine with trend stories, analysis, and commentaries.
And totally separate from the web?
They would go up on the web after the issue comes out. But the rest of the month, there would be just constant news stories on the web, so people will know that the website is filled every hour with new news stories. And at the end of the month, they're going to get a thick magazine with a bunch of features and profiles and analysis, so it's kind of like putting everything in perspective and context. We've been going that way anyway. Issues of E&P in the last couple of years have increasingly become more analytical, and news has migrated more to the web. It just makes that more formal. This is a long-term thing. This isn't a desperation move. This is well thought out and we're keeping all our staff. It's not like the usual case where it's cut and slash, cut and slash.
How badly do you think the recent New York Times scandals have hurt the news business? Do you think consumers were cynical before, or did it make people more cynical about the news?
I think the biggest problem is the growing ideological response to the news. 50 percent of the people think the news is biased in the liberal direction, and 50 percent think it is biased in the conservative direction. That's been the continuing trend, and I think it's a far bigger problem. There's always been problems with accuracy in newspapers. I think it's a problem, that the press has to do a better job, but I think they're policing themselves tremendously more than they used to. But the biggest problem is people responding to news as if it's biased. You tell a story, you reveal a story or honestly express something that happened, half the people read it and say, "They're making that up." They take each story as ideologically driven. Someone of one political party or another does something horrendous, and you write about it and stick to the facts, and people say, "Oh, you're out to get them, it didn't really happen that way." That's terrible.
But even sticking to the facts, is there really an objective story for any one event?
Well, going back to when I was in j-school, we always talked about the myth: "There's no such thing as an objective reporter, but there are facts." I mean if we want to throw open the question of whether there are facts, then we're really in trouble. But there are facts, there are things that happen, there are people who are arrested, there are documents that reveal if somebody did something or somebody lied. You report that and people constantly make choices and say, "Well, we could ignore that. Here's someone who documents show lied. We can ignore it." But you're constantly having to make choices on what's important.
So if someone is in a responsible position and is shown to have lied about something and it had consequences, and you cover it. That would seem to be a no-brainer, but half the people say, "Oh, you're out to get that guy." Or, "You're twisting it somehow." Or just doing it to make the Republicans look bad or the Democrats look bad. So I think that that's the biggest problem.
But isn't that partially true, that some news organizations are doing it to make one side look bad? I mean, watch al-Jazeera and then Fox News, and it is like two different stories, even of the same event with the same facts.
Well, that's the problem. You can make a judgment on how objective people are. It's all relative. But the problem is Fox is a response to the perception by some people that the media was too liberal. I could question that, but that's a response. That drives the ideology. Because there's a perception. So then the liberals say they're going to form their own liberal network, so we have a liberal news network and a conservative news network. It's a big problem. It becomes all relative. Everyone has their own bias, no one's 100 percent objective.
You can say such and such a newspaper seems to be fairly on the middle and others less so, but lumping everything together, "The media is such and such," is really wrong. And I'm not a champion of newspapers. But I think practically any newspaper is more objective than practically any television network. But people will say, "Oh, this newspaper's biased; they had an editorial on such and such"—well, that's what editorials are for. They confuse the news pages with the editorial pages.
Do you think bias is necessarily bad in something like Fox News? I think it was Walter Lippmann who said that people will eventually just go to the news that fits their ideology.
I think that's a problem. Some people, 30 or 50 percent or whatever, watch Fox and get no other view, get that reinforced, listen to talk radio. I mean you don't have to say that 50 percent of people have to listen to Michael Moore, but if there are vast numbers of people on both sides of the ideological spectrum who are turned off to objective reports, and then there's 30 percent left in the middle who are fairly open-minded, that's a big problem.
It may have already led to one war that is going to have enormous consequences for generations. E&P, going back to last fall, had the first reports on the embedded reporters program, we had the first reporter who actually went into a training for embedded reporters, we were the first magazine to expose the limits, the regulations that embedded reporters have to sign on to. We've done 200 articles related to the war and the media that I would put up against anybody's. It's an important question.
Tell me about your personal view of the embedding campaign. Was it successful, and for whom?
It was successful for everyone, to a point. Newspapers benefited because they got reporters close to the scene. And got a lot of stories. It was cheap, you didn't have to pay for them. And they got a lot of vivid action stories, a lot of great copy, and a lot of great work overall. The problem was that they relied on that almost exclusively; they had very few independent reporters over there and they didn't acknowledge enough in their reports the restrictions they were under. There weren't enough people who would say, "I saw this," but then say, "I was only allowed to see this. I wasn't able to see that. I wasn't able to report this."
Do you think reporters dropped the ball on questions of what would happen afterwards?
Absolutely. Again, even little E&P was raising these questions in February. It's about buying the rah-rah-rah. Anytime there's a war and the media covers it in a rah-rah way, and then after the war, all the questions come up and then we say next time we won't do that. Then there's another war, and it's back to rah-rah land. This war already has and will continue to have enormous consequences for future generations. We'll pay for this for generations. Enormous financial costs. It's going to be incredible. If people are for the war, that's fine. But understand what the consequences are going to be. If it's worth it to you, then God bless you. But be aware that there are enormous, enormous consequences.
David S. Hirschman, a freelance writer and editor, is the news editor of mediabistro.com.
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