Clark Hoyt, the editor of the New York Times, is the latest big-name journalist to try to respond to complaints that the news media is overemphasizing bad economic news, depressing consumers confidence and prolonging the recession.
Consumers and their media are in a “you go first” staredown on the subject.
In Hoyt’s words:
This is an old argument between a newspaper and its readers: journalists see their job as reflecting the world as their reporting tells them it is, but many readers want reporters to look harder for good news to balance the bad. Ellenson said he wants news organizations to go even further. “Tell consumers not to worry,” he said. “Go out and spend as if there is no recession.”
Maybe there are more opportunities to emphasize silver linings. The demise of flower shows in the recession was front-page news; Broadway’s surprisingly strong box office was not. But The Times is not about to do what Ellenson suggests — and should not. As David Leonhardt, a business columnist, told me: “The problems we have are not psychological. They are hard, real problems. None of them can be resolved by waking up tomorrow and thinking we’re going to be happy about them.”
Of course the Times shouldn’t do what Ellenson suggests. There’s plenty of reason to worry. I know it. You know it. The ’27 Yankees know it. And so do many of the consumers who are asking the news media to step back from the brink. So why respond to the extreme?
A few weeks ago, Don Shelby similarly overreached in describing the request:
But, the old story of the ostrich comes to mind. It sticks its head in the sand believing that if it cannot see a threat, the threat cannot see the ostrich. We could just keep the bad news to ourselves, but then, people who would like a little warning of approaching danger, would rightly say, we didn’t do our jobs
What are people really saying when they voice their complaint? It’s not that they want the news media to ignore reality or pretend something is what it isn’t. It’s that they want the news media to take just as seriously, the stories about what people are doing to overcome the tough times. To tell the story without the constant numerical equivalent of hand-wringing.
AIG handing out big bonuses? Unemployment at record levels? A state budget deficit widening faster than the politicians ability to close it? Of course that has to be — and should be — reported.
So what are people asking for? A little hope. A little inspiration. Perhaps a few stories every now and again like those President Obama told in his address to a joint session of Congress a few weeks ago:
But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.
I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company (note: see a story ABC did on this guy a few days later), took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him. He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ”I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn’t feel right getting the money myself.”
I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community – how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay. “The tragedy was terrible,” said one of the men who helped them rebuild. “But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity.”
And I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina – a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world.
We are not quitters.
My colleague, Julia Schrenkler, was following the conversation on Twitter during that portion of the speech last month and noted that it was at that point when the most snarky comments were posted. “See, I think it is interesting that folks snark a bit at these individual stories…but also complain that the news media only reports bad news. Isn’t this a version of positive experiences?” she said on the live blog I ran that night.
It was a great observation. Do people really want the “positive” stories they say they want? Is the media convinced they don’t? Does “positive” news have to be synonymous with “fantasy?”