Having spent years conning, kissing up to – and at times – dodging reporters, then running and gunning at the Pitch and later playing hide-and-seek with editors at the Star for 16 years, I’ve got a fairly broad perspective from both inside and out on how things work in the news biz.
Most folks don’t quite get it.
Oh they think they do. Enter entertainment industry pundit Bob Lefsetz. Outside of his music box, most Lefsetz devotees know that he considers himself an expert on just about everything. Kinda like the beloved Scribe, which makes them interesting reads, regardless of how clued out they may at times be.
For example, while many pundits were highly critical of Apple and new CEO Tim Cook at the firm’s recent developer’s conference, the event left Lefsetz in a prolonged state of one-too-many Viagras.
“We’re always ready to be blown away,” Lefsetz gushed. “And Apple did this to us TODAY!”
And for the record, I’m a longtime Mac devotee.
“If it’s not in the newspaper, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Lefsetz begins. “Just because the newspaper says it’s important, that doesn’t mean it is.”
If you really need someone to state facts this obvious, rock with it. However, beginning a topic by stating something this banal is not exactly inspiring.
“Don’t confuse ink with traction. You can hire a PR person, be all over the media, and no one can care. Just because you’re on TV, don’t assume everyone’s seen you.
“Don’t assume anyone’s seen anything in the media today, we’re all so drilled down into our own little holes that everybody misses much, and doesn’t care when they’re called out on it. The concept of feeling better about yourself because you know about something somebody else does not, or you know it sooner, is passe.”
Lefsetz is onto something here…up to a point. Still I think there’s still plenty to be said about being on top of one’s game. Unless your peer group is mostly made up of losers.
“Don’t trust the newspaper,” Lefsetz counsels. “Those are reporters. We want someone who lives that beat all day long, not someone who does a bit of research and tries to put the story together. Old school journalists are concerned with the w’s, the where, when, why and…how. You can only get so far asking questions. But if you live it all day long, you know the history and you know the context. Chances are, on everything other than front page news, there’s a maven online with a website who knows more about it than the traditional reporters.
“Reporters get it wrong. Not only do they misquote, they make stuff up. And oftentimes, editors change things so they’re not accurate, sometimes to justify their jobs, other times for space.”
But here’s where he’s wrong. Most people don’t want to drill down to phD levels on each and every story on a given news day. Yeah, if you want to know the full blown, hardcore skinny on global warming or fracking or whatever, chances are you can find more informed sources than a beat reporter at the Star. It’s actually amazing how reporters often start out covering one area and switch completely to another. Jacks of all trades, masters of none.
Journalism is indeed a game of asking questions and seeking truths. The obvious problem being – as Lefsetz correctly points out – reporters are often the victims of the process. Rather than seeking to find true answers, they seek to present both sides of a story, even when it’s obvious that one side is weaker than a kitten.
They also don’t know nearly as much as they think they do after covering a given “beat” for a long time. The guys at the investment firm I used to work at treated the business reporters at the Star and the Kansas City Business Journal as jokes. They took delight in telling them almost anything. Sometimes to color the news to their advantage, other times just for the fun of fucking with them.
Where Lefstez is dead wrong is on describing how reporters and editors often misquote, make stuff up and get things wrong.
Sometimes a reporter will make a mistake in quoting someone, but if they do and the source complains, chances are they get tagged with an error, correct it and land in the editor’s dog house.
If reporters make something up and get caught, chances are they’ll be fired. Unless we’re talking tabloids, and even then they don’t try to get things wrong, they just play fast and loose to often.
Leftsetz is correct about editors changing things and getting them wrong. It happens, but only by mistake when an editor tries to clarify something and misunderstands. Again, those mistakes usually get corrected.
“If someone’s in the media, being interviewed and quoted everywhere, they’re a whore, they’re into the publicity,” Lefstez writes. “Anybody with a profile knows that the media gets it wrong, so they do their best to stay out. So if you see someone incessantly, whether it be Kim Kardashian or John McCain, know they’re working it.”
I’ll go along with that mostly, except for the media mostly getting it wrong part.
“Almost everything in the newspaper other than hard news, i.e. killings and political situations, is placed there by PR people,” Lefsetz contends. “PR people make it easy for reporters, they fill up the paper. If you think someone in the arts department sits down and decides the important stories, you’re dreaming. They’re concerned first and foremost with access. That’s what PR people do, deliver stories, they write the newspaper…”
Uh, this is a gross exaggeration. At least I think it is, but there’s little doubt that if you include anyone with a motive in the category of “PR person,” people with media connections do by and large get far more play (too much play) given their access to reporters and columnists.
“TV news is what you see and usually nothing more,” Lefsetz says. “Other than sticking a camera in someone’s face, shooting a tragedy, there’s almost no one in the field scouring for news and developing stories. If you think you’re getting the real story on TV, you haven’t read the newspaper, which is where TV gets all its leads.”
Anybody out there doubt that this is right? Most of the people I’ve met over the years in television news were there for the fun of it rather than for the pursuit of hard news. There are exceptions of course, the Star’s Dave Helling being one. Which actually explains why he’s no longer in TV news.
Shaw began his news career in Chicago before getting serious at CBS and CNN. And he reminded me that it’s local TV news that is so vacuous.Far less so national television news.
Now a few a fun ones:
******* “Rupert Murdoch has a viewpoint,” Lefstez writes. “He tries to change public opinion via Fox News and his newspapers. If you see a left wing position in his outlets, it’s a straw man ready to be struck down.”
******* “Don’t try to convince someone their political position is wrong. They’ll just dig down deeper and e-mail you a contrary opinion by their favorite blogger. People change their opinions over time, by themselves, via a plethora of information. This is the essence of gay marriage. Once everybody saw everybody else was for it, they were too.”
******* “Just because someone analyzes deeply, that does not mean they’re right. Today, you must do your own analysis. In other words, you must be educated. Which most people are not. The mark of an educated person? Someone who can hold two opposing thoughts in their brain at one time. If you’re just a knee-jerker…you’re gonna get jerked around.”
******* “”The New Yorker” is the best-written mainstream publication. But that does not mean it’s always right or on the cutting edge or can influence policy. It just means it’s the most rewarding reading experience. Too many magazines focus on the glitz and not the substance…then again, the average person can’t understand substance.”
******* “See who is paying the bills… Trust trade magazines and sites for raw data, discard the analysis, they say positive things about those who pay them.”
******* “Huffington Post has a better layout than the New York Times, but is purely link-bait. The “New York Times” site needs a makeover, but no one working there understands design or the web, they’re too busy pounding their chests and claiming they’re reporters. What did Steve Jobs teach us? Number one comes usability!”
Link bait, I like that. Tony’s Kansas City, anyone?
******* “USA Today is irrelevant. Because its bland stories are done better online, and no one’s got a captive audience anymore, you can get the news on your phone, you don’t need a physical paper.”
Eh, guess that’s kinda true, but USA Today still reaches millions of travelers and business people worldwide and while Lefsetz may not “need” them, who “needs” Lefsetz? Or me, for that matter.
Lefsetz bottom line:
“There’s a need for local news, but local newspapers can’t make it financially. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal survive, everything else is up for grabs.
“People need news. They don’t need to get it from traditional sources.”
That’s a little scary and a bit extreme, but face it, at this stage of the game the NYT and WSJ are in no position to supplant local newspapers. And no matter how much fun you have gazing at T&A and contemplating unsubstantiated rumors, there’s no substitute for halfway accurate, actual news reporting.
Even with the warts and flaws.