Chico and the man.

Media criticism.
March 31 2005 7:17 PM

Chico and the Man

What Los Angeles Times press pundit David Shaw could learn from reading his own paper.

Los Angeles Times press pundit David Shaw asserted on March 27 that "mainstream" journalism is inherently superior to the pitiful scrivenings produced by bloggers because 1) bloggers have no "journalistic experience" (any fool can blog) and 2) because blogging is an "unmediated medium," that is, a blogger can post whatever he wants without running it by an editor.

"At least four experienced Times editors will have examined this column [before publication], for example," Shaw boasted. "They will have checked it for accuracy, fairness, grammar, taste and libel, among other things."

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So where were the four experienced editors who swirl, sniff, sip, swish, and spit every Times article when staff writer Eric Slater filed "Hazing Death Highlights Chico's Greek Life" (March 29)? The day after Slater's piece appeared in the Times, Melissa Daugherty of the Chico Enterprise Record demolished it as "replete with errors, omissions and unnamed sources." Today's Times confirms Daugherty's judgment with this correction:

An article in Tuesday's California section about hazing at Cal State Chico mistakenly said that a pledge to a fraternity at nearby Butte Community College died of alcohol poisoning. He did not die but was hospitalized. The article also said Chico has a population of 35,000; according to the city, the population is 71,317. In addition, University President Paul Zingg was quoted saying the school would shut down its Greek system if problems with hazing did not abate. Zingg made his comments to a group of 850 students and others, and his remarks were quoted in the local media. He did not speak with The Times. Also, although the article characterized the school as being well-known for its basketball program, its winning baseball program may be best known outside campus.

In other words: Never mind, we take the whole thing back.

I don't know Slater or his work, so I don't know why he erred so monumentally, or why he confused Cal State Chico's basketball team with its baseball team. While mortifying, his mistakes are not unprecedented in the annals of journalism. Nor is the squirrelly shortcut—if that's what it was—of presenting public statements by the university president as the products of an interview.

But I'm not interested in analyzing this particular journalistic embarrassment to shame the Los Angeles Times or to champion bloggers. Instead, I want to use it to revisit the Shavian thesis that the professional press has a higher claim than bloggers to the First Amendment and its subsidiary protections. Shaw concludes that the "reporter's privilege" to keep confidential sources confidential, enshrined in 31 state "shield laws," should go only to professional reporters. (For those arriving to the argument late, see "Don't Fear the Blogger," in which I poke out Shaw's eyes, play dice with them, and then roast him like a pig. A good friend said I went too far.)

Shaw doesn't think the reporter's privilege should depend on the accuracy of its practitioner—after all, professional reporters make mistakes every day. Rather, it is the "institutional safeguards of the traditional media that differentiate them from bloggers and the blogosphere, even if those safeguards sometimes fail. When they do, as they clearly did in the case of several recent media scandals, heads roll."

In other words, professional reporters deserve the privilege not because they're more accurate but because they work over a safety net, and when the net fails, people get fired in a public act of accountability. Following Shaw's logic, the Times must dismiss some of the editors who massaged Slater's copy, and presumably, Slater, too. (Don't hold your breath.)

Without citing a single example, Shaw writes that the blogger's knowledge that he "can correct errors quickly, combined with the absence of editors or filters, encourages laziness, carelessness and inaccuracy." It's an audacious cheap shot, so let me fire two back at the Times:

1) The print and Web versions of today's Times include a correction for the Slater story. Yet no correction has been attached directly to the Web version of the story. If it's so easy to "correct errors quickly" on the Web, as Shaw writes, what's keeping the Times? Even a junior blogger would have posted a correction to copy as faulty as this by now.

2) Maybe Slater's understanding that four editors were back-stopping him and his copy induced the complacency that caused the errors and the misrepresentation. Do safety nets encourage the notion that accuracy is a collective rather than an individual responsibility? Perhaps newspaper reporters would demonstrate greater vigilance if they had fewer editors. (Mickey Kaus, who's wasted fewer years of his life editing bad copy than I,speculates in Kausfilesthat four-layer over-editing drains the Times of writerly vitality.)

Shaw's insistence that the reporter's privilege be reserved for professionals would put the government in the business of deciding who is and who is not a professional, therefore who is a journalist, which would constitute an embryonic form of licensing. But as Jacob Weisberg recently noted in Slate, "Journalism does not require any specific training, or institutional certification, or organizational membership, or even regular employment. It's just an activity some people engage in that is protected under the Constitution." The reporter's privilege should protect acts of journalism as opposed to journalists—professional or otherwise.

Such a generous definition would even apply to the Los Angeles Times on its bad days.

[Addendum, 4/1: The Times has now added the correction to the Web version of his Chico article.]

******

Thanks to Brady Westwater of LA Cowboy for telling me the Times hasn't appended a correction to Slater's story on the Web. Send your equally useful suggestions via e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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