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"Something Quite Breathtaking." My Exchange with Neil Lewis of the New York Times

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Jay Rosen I teach journalism at NYU, write the blog Pressthink.org, try to grok new media.

Neil Lewis, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, wrote me about my criticisms of his colleague, Jim Rutenberg, in a previous post. Here's his letter, which he graciously agreed to make on-the-record, followed by my reply.

Dear Professor Rosen: I don't think we've met but I write as someone who is generally a fan of your blog and commentary. I am a longtime Washington correspondent for the New York Times. But I hope that I am not reflexively defensive about the criticism of the Washington press, and believe much of it is dead-on and thus helpful. I am writing to object, however, to some of your comments on May 1 about my colleague, Jim Rutenberg. In particular, your suggestions that there was something invidious in his interviewing you at length and only using a portion of your comments in his article.

I am a bit amazed at such criticism; what you describe is, in fact, the essence of what we do. We shorthand, we synthesize, we edit. News pieces are the result -- and inevitably so -- of a sort of triage process. One of the wonders of the web is that if someone has lots to say other than what a reporter will include in his article, it may be said elsewhere, freely and at length. And that is exactly what you do in your blog and commentaries. I am grateful for it and enjoy (mostly) reading your work.

Your complaint has the cranky tone of public officials who chronically complain they can get only a snippet of their worthy thoughts into the publication.

And, as a result of your pique, you suggest something quite breathtaking, especially for a journalism professor: people might well consider, you say, not cooperating in oral interviews because they might be used briefly.

The ability of the reporter to fashion the scope of any particular story is what distinguishes real journalism from stenography. There are, of course, honest and dishonest ways to go about it. But what you call preconceptions about assignments may also be decisions to define the scope of the story in advance. (See your comment: "I knew what I was getting into when I called him back. Reporter and I talk for 30 to 45 minutes; he decides which twelve seconds he wants to use. If he has a pre-existing narrative that he wants me to ratify, chances are good I will say something he can use to do just that. Them's the rules.'')

There is also opportunity to concoct a reality by preconceiving a story and then getting the quotes to fill in the blanks. I have long resisted -- to the irritation of many editors -- edicts to call someone to say something we expect him or her to say. Why call anyone at all if we have already selected the person for what we expect him or her to say?

As I say, I am an admirer but i thought you were less than fair to Jim Rutenberg. (Yeah, he is a friend and colleague.)

Regards, Neil Lewis

Jay Rosen replies

I agree that journalists must condense and trim; this is normal practice. But I didn't say there was something invidious in Jim Rutenberg interviewing me and only using a portion of my comments. I knew full well he would use only a portion of my comments. I said there was something invidious about recruiting me into a miscast bloggers vs. journalists "debate" that I specifically wanted no part of, because I thought it wrongly and cheaply applied to the situation at hand.

That "left-leaning political activists" felt the choice of Rich Little hopelessly dated and the Correspondents' dinner badly compromised was, I thought, a bad idea with which to begin a news story. For the simple reason that lots of other people thought Rich Little and the dinner itself dated and compromised, including--as it turned out--columnists David Carr and Frank Rich in the New York Times. Now that your newspaper has decided to end its participation in the event, it may be easier to see that.

I told Rutenberg there were reasons for the mistrust of the dinner that had little to do with activists clashing with journalists and everything to do with the history of Bush and the press. Thus: That Man Tried to Run You Over. Why Are You Having Dinner With Him?

I agree completely that "the ability of the reporter to fashion the scope of any particular story is what distinguishes real journalism from stenography." As you say, there are honest and dishonest ways to do it. I don't contest your right to fashion an account that you think fits the facts. And I recognize that I lose control of my words in an interview. Therefore the transaction involves trust.

"But what you call preconceptions about assignments may also be decisions to define the scope of the story in advance." I agree. Here there is wide room for argument.

"People might well consider, you say, not cooperating in oral interviews because they might be used briefly..." Nope. I simply said that I was re-considering. But not because I only got a few lines in the play and waaaaaahhhhh I wanna bigger part. By my participation in Jim Rutenberg's story, I ended up perpetuating a lame, wrong-headed and outworn interpretation of a failed ritual.

The ritual gave out because the consensus beneath it--that the Washington press corps was a legitimate part of the modern presidency, indeed part of the system of checks and balances--was rejected outright by Bush, Cheney, and Andrew Card. In my view the press didn't want to face this and still does not want to reckon with it. Too costly, then and now.

So underneath this little dispute about a single interview is a much bigger dispute. Here I realize I'm departing from your letter's concerns.

Michael Getler, ombusdsman for PBS, said it last week in his review of the Bill Moyers program, Buying the War: "The failure of much of the American press to uncover -- and provide some prominence to -- the private doubts and even the public case against the war was, in my view, it's most egregious failure in my 50 years in journalism."

Why did it happen? What were the consequences? And how do we know if the reporters and editors (the bureaus and staffs) who participated in this historic and egregious failure have reckoned with the reasons for their collapse under Bush, seen the depths of it, or corrected the parts in their system--including their belief system, their pressthink--that failed? Just below the surface of the Corespondents' Dinner we find these far more explosive questions.

Watching the dinner on C-SPAN, I found it impossible to decide: Are the press people sitting there with Bush sitting there as professionals who....

* previously understood and corrected for their most egregious failure in 50 years?

* remain in general denial about their most egregious failure in 50 years?

* persist in ironic detachment from this debacle, so as to return things as smoothly as possible to Normal?

* are completely deluded about the current state of the watchdog press and our basis for trusting it?

* aren't worried at all because the bloggers and "activists" who say things like that have an ax to grind?

It's impossible to know when you look at that crowd, and this is what Colbert exploited so skillfully for laughs. The WHCA saw it and got Rich Little to come the next year. Dean Baquet and Bill Keller saw that, and pulled the plug. A perception problem, they called it.

I agree with Michael Getler that newspapers like yours and the Washington Post have done more to reckon with their collapse under Bush than their colleagues in other places, especially TV news, who have done almost nothing. But this is not the same thing as doing enough. Maybe I am wrong, but I get the impression you think the whole subject talked to death.

To me the conversation has just started. Thanks for writing-- and for reading PressThink.

Jay Rosen


Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog, PressThink, where this first appeared.