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Dilemmas in Media Reporting: Is Navel Gazing Good for You?

The surreality of media-on-media coverage—and why we need it

By Elizabeth Spiers - May 23, 2005

I think media reporting is the most soul-destroying job in journalism.

That was a line I wrote in an email to one of my favorite editors at New York magazine about a year ago after he jokingly, then half-jokingly, then not-so-jokingly accused me of leaking inside information about goings-on at the magazine to Gawker.com. I couldn't deny the irrefutable fact that I knew the people who ran the site very well (I was the founding editor), but, as I pointed out to my editor, had no incentive to give them gossip and was, if anything, more a target of Gawker than a friend of Gawker. (My successor there had recently taken to posting items under the rubric "SpiersWatch" that consisted mostly of reader-submitted sightings of me, nearly all of which occurred while the readers were, by their own admissions, drunk.) I had been in Alabama for a funeral when the first few New York mag items in question were posted, so the email began by addressing that. "Having written Gawker myself," I wrote, "I have no doubt that there are real live people who would interrupt the funeral of a close family member to send Gawker inane gossip about office politics at a city magazine. I, however, am not one of them." Then came the grand sweeping statement: I think media reporting—well, you know the rest.

In my defense, a week of writing Gawker (much less writing it for nine months) is probably enough to convince anyone that media reporting is the most soul-destroying job in journalism. Also in my defense: It can be.

The coverage of last week's Koran-in-the-Gitmo-toilet scandal is indicative of much of what I don't like about media reportage. If sheer word count is any indication, Newsweek was the story. Or Michael Isikoff was the story. Or Mark Whitaker was the story. While media-related scandals make my job as the editor-in-chief of a media trade website a lot easier, it's disturbing to me that the larger implications—the reasons why a short front-of-the-book item of that nature is capable of generating the rage it produced—seemed to be secondary to Newsweek's fact-checking process. It's collective narcissism on the part of the media industry: We want the story to be about us.

In that respect, media reporting is unlike any other beat. On some level, it will always be about you—not you literally (narcissist!), but you metaphorically. The subject of every story becomes a professional model to be emulated or a cautionary tale. As a media professional, you're not one of those lucky outsiders who can read about a journalistic mea culpa or triumph without taking it personally—or professionally, as it were.

And if the beat isn't odd enough, those things considered, add the fact that as a media reporter, you will be inevitably (if not constantly) asked to report on people and institutions with whom or for whom you have worked—or for whom you will work.

Also inevitably, some of those people will be friends of yours. You will find yourself overanalyzing personal relationships to the point of absurdity in order to determine what and whom you can and cannot cover objectively. I couldn't even write that graf about the Koran scandal without doing it automatically. I know Mike Isikoff... But not very well... But then I like Isikoff and think he's an excellent reporter, and am probably more inclined to think he's being scapegoated as a result... But I certainly don't know him so well that I'd feel compelled to defend his integrity without examining the facts.. And to be fair, we've only had a handful of conversations and they were all social; he's an acquaintance, really... But then again, a handful of conversations is Ed Klein distance of Jackie Kennedy and he sold God knows how many biographies on the basis that they were 'close friends'... But then... In some cases, this sort of maddening circular inner dialogue loops endlessly, like something out of a Beckett play, and this sort of thing was not exactly an issue when I've covered other subjects in other industries. Am I too close to the chairman of Goldman Sachs to be objective? Uh, no. Am I too close to Paris Hilton to be objective? God, no. (The easy solution, of course, is to have no friends in the media industry. As it happens, I'm working on that, and I'm sure it will be a reality soon enough—probably by July.)

Perhaps because of these things, media reporting tends to be incredibly personality-driven. (The vitriolic hate mail I've gotten this week concerning Mark Whitaker—apparently because his mediabistro profile is the second search result on Google—is a case in point.) When the story really is duly and justly about a single person, that's not a problem. But when the focus of an important macro-level story is reduced to the psychology of an individual, it's a loss for both readers and the industry at large. That said, it's not easy to maintain that balance when the demand for information about personalities is huge. Mediabistro has gossip blogs largely for that reason. They are, of course, tonally different from the straight reportage, and consciously make an effort to cover media personalities in a satirical vein, as if they were conventional celebrities—partly in the hopes that doing so will emphasize the ridiculousness of doing so sincerely. (It's too early to tell if this is actually an effective antidote, but we're certainly under no illusion that publishing Graydon Carter's wedding registry is making the world a better place.)

But it's not all bad—and in fact, can be very, very good. The downsides of media reporting—the incestuous nature of it, the endless navel-gazing, the near impossibility of avoiding self-referentiality—are small prices to pay for the merits of doing something that can, when executed properly, make an enormous difference in the maintenance of a free press. Do I really believe that media reporting is the most soul-destroying job in journalism? No. (Following Paris Hilton around her own "book" party with a notepad and a digital camera is the most soul-destroying job in journalism.) I wouldn't have taken this job if I felt that way.

This weekend was Dan Okrent's last ombudsman column in the New York Times. In some ways, Okrent's job is a postmodern caricature of the inherent weirdness of media reporting. The Times ombudsman is automatically conflicted because he's getting paid by the publication that he's critiquing; he's on the premises and knows most of the people about whom he writes and probably even likes a few of them; and his column is entirely and intentionally self-referential. But it's hard to argue that Times has not been a better paper with Okrent than without him. The use of anonymous sourcing has been addressed and improved, standards have been clarified and strengthened; and the public knows a little more about how the news gets made.

Media reporting, when done well, is an important tool in the industry's ability to police itself, and in this day and age, everyone with a blog or the ability to write a letter to the editor is a potential media critic and reporter. And as a journalist who wants to do work that's effective and useful, I think that can only be a good thing.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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