Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

The Problem With The Media. Posted on 04/24/2002.

Continuing my recent shift to turning into some kind of sociology blog (see posts on "urban tribes" and "post-feminism", below), I'm now turning my attention to the media.

Last Monday, I attended a lecture given by Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, whose resignation caused quite a stir within the media. Harris stepped down because he felt that the budget cuts coming from Knight-Ridder were too stringent to allow for quality journalism, and he couldn't face heaving the axe.

In a related vein, today's SF Chronicle carries an interview with Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham, who laments the state of American journalism, particularly the degree to which it's subject to corporate interests.

Harris' lecture was a fairly predictable rant about the responsibilities of the press to serve "the public trust", to "inform the citizenry", and he repeatedly cited Joseph Pulitzer's metaphor, that journalists are "lookouts on the bridge of the ship of state."

(After Hollywood filmmakers, journalists are probably the most self-congratulatory profession in America.)

In the Q&A session (and when are people going to learn that Q&A is inevitably more interesting than the lecture, and ask the lecturers to speak for just, oh, 10 minutes?), Harris raised a couple of points that have spurred my rumination. Harris lauded the quality of the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times--the usual suspects. And commented on how they are all profitable. Profitability and quality are not mutually exclusive, but there is a breaking point when maximizing profits is given the top priority. This was his issue with Knight Ridder--the Merc could have been profitable with far fewer cuts, but KR wanted to squeeze as much money out of the paper as possible. (And look at this: today, KR announced a higher first-quarter profit, boosted by "superb" cost-cutting.)

This, of course, is a standard problem with capitalism. Dollar signs become the only measure of worth. But "the free press" serves a public role, necessary for the functioning of a democratic state. But the market could care less about the polis. So what to do?

Harris had a couple of suggestions. In response to a question about how can the journalists/editors at a newspaper engage in a meaningful discourse with the publisher/owners of a newspaper (basically, how can the "editorial" and the "money" talk to each other), he suggested basing the discussion on the fundamental principle of citizenship. Which I found an interesting tactic, particularly in these more-sensitive-than-usual patriotic times. If editors can pick up the mantle of serving citizenship, and if publishers recognize their duties as citizens to keep the public informed, perhaps a bridge can be formed between the two parties.

Another suggestion was for grassroots action. If your local paper isn't serving you the kinds of material necessary to stay informed, make a stink about it. The problem with this is, considering how America has pretty much turned into a series of one-newspaper towns, folks don't have a *choice* of where to get their news, they can't "vote with their feet" to some other offering (well, they could turn to local television and radio, but that's hardly a solution). Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, people anywhere can read top quality news at,, etc. And perhaps that's a solution for national and international stories. But where are you going to turn for city council reports? Stories on your mayor? Local politics has a far more immediate impact on our day-to-day lives, yet how well informed are we of their doings?

Anyway. This is a tricky issue. There are no easy ways out or around. Corporations have every right to maximize profits. I would be wary of any legislation or policy that tried to mandate some degree of "quality". But we as individuals need quality information in order to function as responsible citizens. So what do we do?

11 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Are we entering a post-feminist world?"


Of the New York Times, a friend of mine was reading an article by them about his employer, an article rife with errors. He whined about this, turned the page, and said "gee, what a great article on the roots of terrorism". A coworker turned to him and said "somewhere there's a terrorist saying 'what a great technology article'". Both were enlightened.

And a writer for the Washington Post deliberately misquoted Phil Zimmermann.

These are the journalistic institutions held up for accolades? We're doomed.

The only way we can turn this ship around is to stop the fiction that journalism has any sort of standards or credibility. Journalists are people, some of whom are idealistic and driven, and some of whom are the worst PR machine whores around. We should educate our peers to the failings of traditional journalism, and make sure that everyone is applying basic critical thinking to everything they read, be it The New York Times, The Weekly World News, or your local friendly weblog. Unless these "news" outlets start to feel it in their readership, they'll continue to believe (accurately) that advertisers, not readers, are their customers.

When weblogs make an impact on their audience, the mainstream news outlets will start to reform. Until then we can expect them to descend further into reprinting press releases.
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/24/2002 10:44 AM PST [link to this comment]

"When weblogs make an impact on their audience, the mainstream news outlets will start to reform. Until then we can expect them to descend further into reprinting press releases"

Posted by BJMe @ 04/24/2002 02:10 PM PST [link to this comment]

Sorry. Bad phrasing. Rephrased: Until someone starts taking readers from the mainstream press, the mainstream press will continue to descend on its current path, which is essentially as a conduit for manufactured news.
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/24/2002 04:22 PM PST [link to this comment]

>But we as individuals need quality information
>in order to function as responsible citizens.
>So what do we do?

Easy: We stop functioning as responsible citizens. We have already. Voting and newspaper-reading have both trended downward for decades. Perhaps you overestimate how "informed" most people desire to be. I doubt most Americans can name their mayor, let alone give a hoot about what she is up to.
Posted by Young Luke @ 04/24/2002 05:29 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think the problem is in both sides. One one side journalists/editors/publishers have to act more responsably (some people call it ethics) on what they publish and in the ohter side citizens have to be educated to demand quality. This will not happen in one day. Is about spreading ethics and values in society and demand quality.
Posted by enric @ 04/25/2002 03:47 AM PST [link to this comment]

I wonder if the lack of interest in local politics comes from the fact that except for the cranks, local government tends to be run by managers who make it work. Unless your local town is in real trouble, the primary concern come election time is making sure that the cranks are balanced enough to provide stasis.

Come to think of it, national elections seem to work largely this way too; we counter Republican administrations with Democratic congresses.

And when you say "...newspaper-reading have both trended downward for decades", perhaps newspaper reading is trending down because The New York Times' man on the ground in, say, Iran is likely to be a CIA employee who will be directing tanks in the next coup? Maybe (and this is a big maybe, 'cause I tend to be pretty cynical about my fellow humans) people aren't really as stupid as they're often thought to be, and the drop in newspaper readership comes from a feeling of powerlessness, as though knowing the manufactured news isn't likely to make them any more able to control the events published therein?
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/25/2002 02:13 PM PST [link to this comment]

"The New York Times' man on the ground in, say, Iran is likely to be a CIA employee who will be directing tanks in the next coup."

Foreign correspondants as spies? This is a new one. Do you have an example of this, or is this a movie reference I'm too daft to get? I never did see that Brad Pitt movie, and I stopped watching "X-Files" five seasons ago.

And the drop in newspaper readership isn't a matter of people being as stupid as I think they are. It's more a matter of people caring about different things than they did in the past. People are too busy to care about anything that doesn't directly affect them or J-Lo. People care about themselves, their families, their jobs and Krispy Kreme, often in that order.

As for powerlessness ... I have no idea what you're trying to say here. Maybe I am daft. People used to affect the world's events more than they can now?
Posted by YL @ 04/25/2002 04:30 PM PST [link to this comment]

That particular reference was to Kennett Love, Tehran correspondent for the New York Times, who, during the 1953 coup in Iran sent CIA planted stories back to his editors, and directed tanks during the coup. He later denied any conscious involvement, and from the quotes I've read tried to play himself as something of a bumbling Mr. Magoo, but...

I don't have enough faith in the press to worry too much about current instances of such things happening, I assume that international news is reported with roughly the same accuracy as technology news. Since I know a few bits of that fairly thoroughly, and occasionally end up with primary information, I can look at how often that aligns with information I see published, and make some guesses as to who's feeding what to whom, and who's doing fact checking. I don't want to denigrate all journalists, there are great reporters out there, but I think it's high time we stopped treating journalism like it was some sacred institution. It's another information source, like any other, and if we can understand and compensate for the biases and motivations behind it we can probably get a useful approximation of what's really going on. But we won't understand those approximations 'til we start looking at it realistically; as another set of businesses and not some set of infallible morally pure people.
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/26/2002 11:02 AM PST [link to this comment]

"He later denied any conscious involvement, and from the quotes I've read tried to play himself as something of a bumbling Mr. Magoo, but..."

But what? But you were there and know exactly what happened? You were in one of the tanks?

And because of this alleged instance 49 years ago, you think it is "likely" that foreign correspondants today are spies? You, sir, are nuts.

Although journalism is neither sacred nor perfect, I think you are mistaken to use technology reporting as your metric for accuracy. Tech reporting is terrible because, with rare exception, if you know anything about the field, you're working in it rather than writing about it. Your typical tech reporter, therefore, has no expertise greater than knowing how to use her AOL account. Your typical foreign correspondant or editor, on the other hand, has at least a BA in history and at a larger paper at least an MA.
Posted by YL @ 04/26/2002 05:27 PM PST [link to this comment]

Kennett Love is one example. Stansfield Turner, former director of the CIA in the Carter years, acknowledged that they used a journalist with "unique access" in Tehran in 1979, and in at least two other cases in his tenure. John Deutch has hinted about uses of journalists as agents in the mid 1990s. It doesn't take very much looking around to see that this is a matter of great concern to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

But whether or not they're directly employed by the CIA is really irrelevant. What's important is what reporters pass on to their editors.

I have trouble believing that there's this huge break that happens when we hit "foreign correspondent" that somehow separates domestic journalists from foreign ones. Have you had contact with your local reporters? Newspaper, television and radio? Sure, their hearts are often in the right places, but they're just trying to satisfy an editor on a tight deadline, and like everyone with a job to do they really really appreciate it when someone helps out. So if you offer yourself up as an expert in the field, any field, take up a little time to learn their style, write up the interview for them, including their questions, they love you.

I can't believe that somehow everything changes because a journalist is talking to people who interact with the press for a living. But, you keep your theories, I'll keep mine, we'll each see how they hold up as the real world impacts them.
Posted by Dan Lyke @ 04/27/2002 10:10 AM PST [link to this comment]

Story One:

Over ten years ago, my younger brother stepped into a concrete-lined ditch (or arroyo, New Mexican for ditch) and was swept down in the 30 mile an hour flow from the flashflood that had just taken place.

In the midst of this, not knowing whether my brother was alive or dead, a journalist showed up, wanting to know how we felt about that. How the [insert swear word of choice] do you think we feel!? I wanted to scream at him. I got this intense image of journalists as ghouls feeding on human misery.

My brother lucked out and was fished out just before the increasingly massive arroyo went underground for many miles on its way to the Rio Grande.

Story Two:

I glanced at newspaper from Santa Fe yesterday at a bookstore. I live in Albuquerque, 60 miles away. It displayed two pictures, above the fold, middle of the page. One showed a woman, smiling or laughing, who looked like someone you could talk to, a real, believable person: The next, very close to the right, showed a grim looking man who (allegedly) killed her.

The gruesome contrast had the desired effect. But then I felt mad. The newspaper was manipulating me, trying to sell papers with a tragic event that happened in a city I don't live in, one that happened a long time ago. More ghouls feeding on human misery.

I'm more concerned about this kind of tabloid journalism dominating what's covered, rather than the hidden corporate influence, the not offending advertisers type issue. In my case, this approach does not sell papers. Quite the opposite: I almost never read a newpaper or watch the news precisely because of this ghoulish mentality.
Posted by Chad Lundgren @ 04/27/2002 12:25 PM PST [link to this comment]

Add A New Comment:


E-Mail (optional)

Homepage (optional)

Comments Now with a bigger box for text entry! Whee!

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.