Media critics: And then there were none

David Brauer, once the preeminent media watcher in these parts, once humbly observed that his beat wasn’t that hard. You just have to wait for media people to email their news organization’s secrets and get to work. There’s no bigger sieve in the world of business than the nearest newsroom.

He was, of course, too humble. His analysis of the performance of media organizations here was enlightening and informative, and, no doubt, made journalists better. If you had any journalistic chops at all, you didn’t want to get a failing grade from Brauer or any other media critic with a shred of respect in the business.

The late David Carr, of course, set a standard for this in his years at the New York Times. Criticism — knowledgeable criticism — makes journalism better.

“Carr’s opinion and analysis mattered,” journalism professor Steve Buttry wrote upon his death. “When he disagreed with you, you stopped a moment to ponder his point, and, even if he didn’t win you over, he made you think. His reporting was thorough, his analysis incisive, his criticism fair.”

Making us think about what we’re doing is why it’s not for nothing that we observe today that there no longer is anyone with credibility in the industry in Minnesota, as near as we can tell, performing this vital function.

The last media critic, Brian Lambert at MinnPost, has revealed that the online publication has ended the media beat.

Lambert, however, is still writing his presumably popular Daily Glean, which patrols what stories the daily media is reporting.

MinnPost was the last holdout among local news organizations with a media beat, but had to concede reality. Compared to other needs and demands of news consumers, the coverage had to go.

“We’ve made a bunch of investments in staff and technology over the last couple of years that we obviously think are critical to the organization and our mission,” MinnPost editor Andrew Putz said in an email this afternoon. “But — as with almost every news operation these days — that also means making some hard choices. As much as we’d like to (and as much as I expect us to one day), we can’t cover everything we want to right now.”

Putz says MinnPost is putting its money in coverage of local government, immigrants and refugees, workforce issues and stories arising from data analysis. The site will still do the occasional story about the media.

Beat coverage of media issues joins a wish list for future resources that includes dedicated reporters for higher education, health care policy, and more coverage of the state outside of the Twin Cities.

There’s a lot of value in all of that, certainly. And a lot of media criticism can be local gossip, true.

But, more often than not, it holds local performance to professional standards.

On his own blog post, for example, Lambert takes on the case of a reporter for Marketplace, who says he was fired for questioning journalistic ideals like ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’.

But as the news media has contracted, its coverage of itself is disappearing. There’s nobody left with an understanding of journalism to regularly demand explanations of the media organizations when decisions and coverage spark questions. Nothing good can come of that fact.

There are exceptions. Both PBS and NPR still employ media reporters and ombudsmen to respond to listener criticism and to help explain, when necessary, how decisions are made. That’s an important function because in the absence of that explanation, listeners and readers will create their own reality, which is almost always wrong.

But, by and large, ombudsmen are gone, and to the extent there was still valid media criticism here, MinnPost owned the space abandoned by other organizations.

Lambert, for example, was the media reporter for the Pioneer Press, Mpls-St.Paul magazine, and Twin Cities Daily Planet before joining MinnPost.

Years ago, the Star Tribune called their ombudsman, a “reader representative”.

Lou Gelfand, who died in 2013, was probably the best known.

He was cut loose in 2009 by the newspaper, which had given him a twice-a-month business ethics column after settling a 2005 age discrimination claim.

Former Pioneer Press staffer Kate Parry took the ombudsman job with, reportedly, a less adversarial approach, although her Sunday column reached its high-water mark by questioning the ethics of Star Tribune legend Sid Hartman after it was revealed he would take part in a fundraising effort for the athletics department at the University of Minnesota, which he covered as a journalist.

“I might drop dead tomorrow and not have a chance to do this,” Hartman told Parry. “There’s nobody else who’s done more for this paper. That’s why it could be right for me and not for someone else. I’ve got a unique situation. There can be a little different rules for all I’ve done for this newspaper.”

In her critique, Parry disagreed.

The damaging, high-profile ethics scandals at some of the nation’s very best newspapers in recent years have had their roots in similar situations. When a prominent or promising staff member appears to skate past standards to which others are held, real damage is done. It hurts morale when others think there is a double standard. It sends the wrong signals to young journalists. It endangers the newspaper’s credibility.

The issue was resolved, Minnesota Monthly reported at the time, when Hartman agreed the money raised would not be turned over until he left the paper, which may never happen.

But it was resolved because someone was watching, someone with expertise and professional standards.

Parry’s column ended in 2007 in a cost-cutting move when she became the health editor. She’s now the paper’s assistant managing editor for development and special projects.

The Star Tribune tried out a blog and an occasional column in which then-editor Nancy Barnes could take on the weighty issues. Both seemed to die of their own neglect.

The newspapers are out of the media criticism business. Brauer has moved on to live the life of a Minneapolis squire. Lambert is off the media beat. David Carr is dead.

At a time when the media’s credibility is at a rock-bottom, there’s a clear niche to be filled in knowledgeable reporting on what, why, whether, and how we’re doing what we’re doing.

The dwindling comfort that news consumers might feel, knowing someone was asking the right questions and occasionally inflicting proper punishment, will only feed the mistrust of the very institution of journalism.

  • chlost

    It would seem that in this era of claimed “fake news” and fact-checking, this would be the era in which a clear head, journalistic standards, and ethics focused reporting on media would be most important. Maybe you should step up to the plate and take on that reponsibility, Bob Collins.

    • I have less time left in the profession than Sid Hartman does.

      • MrE85

        Best line of the day. Knowing Sid, you may be right.

      • Gary F

        Got someone swinging two bats in the on deck circle for NewsCut?

        • Heh. No. This blog dies when I do.

          • Gary F

            you are retiring and not dying, correct?

          • I’m hoping to retire before I die. But also hoping to die before I get old.

          • Mike Worcester

            You and Roger Daltry huh? 🙂

          • Rob

            As a fellow pre-geezer, I totally appreciate your perspective. Old is just another word for infirmity and decrepitude.

    • rallysocks

      As awesome as that would be, would it be fair to inflict that on a person? After all, even the fact-checkers are roundly called out as biased, therefore the facts presented are open to interpretation, leading to alternative facts with which we are free to disagree with.

      • Everybody wants “just the facts.” Then they get the facts and decide they don’t like them so they must be made up from biases.

        People who’ve worked in newsrooms make perfect candidates for the task. They’re already used to ignoring the pointless braying of some in the public.

        • rallysocks

          Well, that’s true enough. BTW, love the new promos for NewsCut.

  • MrE85

    The Twitter threads on this topic are always interesting. In addition to Brauer and Lambert, you’ll (Mr.Collins) usually chime in, as will Jason DeRusha from ‘CCO.. But in a town that employs a fair number of newsies, its a very small circle who are willing to critique their peers and profession.

    • Journalism, despite what non-journalists think, is a complex equation. A “story” is a complex thing. Twitter can’t handle the duties.

      • Rob Levine

        To quote the great Brad Zellar, when it comes to media criticism there’s never enough sets of teeth to go around

  • Will

    I agree, it would help the media’s image if each news outlet would justify the issues covered and why & how they’re being covered. Then use analytics to show quantitatively which types of stories are getting the most coverage. I still think making the balance of a newsroom known and to aim for better balance would improve the quality of perspective in newsrooms, but many already know about my rant on that. I agree the media needs to be as up front as possible with coverage explanations as often as possible.

    • MrE85

      Forget balance. Worry instead about accuracy, timeliness and quality.
      The rest will take care of itself.

      • Will

        I’m afraid that truth, accuracy and beauty are all in the eye of the beholder.

        • // I still think making the balance of a newsroom known

          How would you like it broken down if you got your wish? The vast majority of people, I suspect, are not the wildly rabid partisans that you find in comments sections and talk radio. The vast majority of people, I suspect, are far more varied in their lives.

          Beyond that, your plan assumes that journalists cannot be fair and professional in covering stories. What you’re actually looking for is merely a reason to dismiss that with which you may not agree with on the basis of someone’s civic responsibility as proof that what they are reporting — no matter how factual — is the product of a corrupt process.

          This latest kerfuffle making the rounds isn’t about whether a news organization’s perception of “objectivity” (spit) is appropriate in these times… it’s the acknowledgement of a reality that too many in the American public simply will not allow to exist as validity, that with which they disagree. So of course you don’t allow your reporters to jump into political opinions.

          People will believe that which they want to believe and they will not believe that which they don’t want to believe and they will go to extraordinary measures to protect that instinct.

          One of the most important jobs for journalists is to remind themselves that they shouldn’t give a damn about the fantasy world some in the audience live in. Just keep reporting professionally.

          • Will

            I agree 100% with your last line.

          • tboom

            How about the second to last line?

  • AllYourTV

    Great column and it is a topic dear to my heart. It’s always frustrating to me that I can find plenty of places that will pay to write national media criticism, but there hasn’t been any work locally. But for that matter, I had to launch my own site in order to write about television, since TV critic is a near-extinct profession in the Twin Cities.

    I remain amused by the fact I have more name recognition almost anywhere that isn’t in Minnesota. What a strange profession.

  • Mike Worcester

    Was I the only person who bemoaned the demise of the Minnesota News Council? Granted it had no enforcement powers, but their ability to force outlets to defend their actions was definitely refreshing.