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.