The Associated Press figured twice in recent New York Times items, and the first raised only a passing chuckle. But the two together ought to terrify us all.
With our planet in dire straits, the venerable AP reflected a ray of hope: "Paris Hilton is being praised by conservationists for highlighting the problem of binge-drinking elephants in northeastern India." Hilton, presumably familiar with animal husbandry, was quoted as saying, "The elephants get drunk all the time. It is becoming really dangerous. We need to stop making alcohol available to them."
Then AP ran a correction; Hilton's publicist denied she had said any such thing. The quote, from an entertainment website, got on the wire unconfirmed. "As journalistic blunders go," the Times noted, "it wasn't quite up there with 'Dewey Defeats Truman.'" True enough. An agency dealing in words by the bushel is allowed the odd slip.
The second Times story was unrelated with no mention of the mistake. But it suggests why AP's crack Delhi bureau, which keeps tabs on one-sixth of humanity and an economic boom that masks complex crises, must worry about potted pachyderms.
Corporate branders have morphed the 161-year-old non-profit news cooperative into "AP 2.0," a name that prompts more chuckles than Paris Hilton. The idea, an editor told the Times, was to "rev up" the report to attract more customers. That includes more weird celebrity stuff. An executive added that AP might even carry advertising, an anathema to one of the last world news purveyors that can say "fair and balanced" with a straight face.
Earth is overheating. An abyss widens between the rich and the desperate. The White House and Kremlin are at it again, but this time many argue over which empire is more evil. An anything-goes worldwide web confounds as much as it informs. Newspapers and broadcasters close foreign bureaus and restrict travel for reporters still abroad. Iraq consumes huge amounts of their dwindling resources.
At such a time, when what we don't know is killing us, what can be more important, in America and everywhere else, than what AP is supposed to be?
AP's mission dates back to 1848, when New York newspapers formed a cooperative to watch a world they could not each cover on their own. Mark Twain's encomium said it all: "There are only two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe - the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here."
But he meant AP 1.0. In AP 2.0, light blazes on dramatic scoops and oddball sidelights. Vital parts of the world, where small things percolate into calamity, go dark. Clearly, this AP remake develops significant stories which merit pride. So did the old one. But such icing is fine only if there is a cake underneath. For our worldwide agency of record, what it covers is only one measure. A more important measure is what it does not.
Things changed after mid-2002 with a new executive editor and then a new CEO named by a board dominated by business people with differing views on bedrock editorial tenets. The scoops and celebrity fluff come at the expense of depth and breadth. Expenses have been slashed. Vacancies go unfilled. Reporters squander time to update members' websites, write TV headlines, and pursue other endless busywork.
AP still has plenty of people, old hands and new hires, who do an exceptional job in tough circumstances. The Iraq crew is only one such example. But trade journal puff pieces miss the main point. Across the world, my old colleagues tell me spirits are lower than anyone can remember. A top-heavy structure thwarts their work, dampens their enthusiasm, and keeps them tied to their desks.
I need to declare myself here. My new book -- Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival -- delves into AP at some length. Over four decades, I reported AP stories on seven continents, ran eight bureaus, and edited a member newspaper. I objected when editors stymied reporters from warning of George W. Bush's Iraq folly and was clipped to a tight leash.
And in 2004, I was told I had decided to retire, following a raft of other veteran correspondents, perhaps 500 years of experience and contacts, who were forced out of the new AP. But if suspect as a source, I know the players. That is important. At the heart of this all is a budget line component known coldly to business minds as "human resources."
AP's polyglot band of reporters, out there where news happens, is crucial not only to our well-being but also our very survival. Many are incredibly gifted professionals who routinely risk their lives to get close to their story. The best of them still favor an old nickname, "wire animals." They'll wade into mayhem, trade family Christmases for canned stew in a ditch, and work for laughable pay -- but only if they believe in what they're doing.
Their job is to monitor vital signs, politically, economically, socially, and ecologically, so they can sound alarms while we have time to act. That takes travel. But they face micromanaging via conference calls and email. Distant editors watch dubious TV coverage and prejudge stories. And to clueless managers who go home at 5 p.m., they are human resources.
One veteran bureau chief whose probing questions could reduce military officers to a stammer has just quit; he is going to edit the Pentagon's daily, Stars & Stripes. A colleague with whom I worked for sleepless days on end, who happily ate fire for something he believed in, shrugged in resignation. He remarked: "You take the money and run."
This is common enough in today's corporate world. But in a calling which depends on a reporter's drive to win one for the team, it is deadly.
AP faces a money crunch. New media require innovative approaches. Since U.S. newspapers provide only 30 percent of AP's revenues, CEO Tom Curley told a trade reporter, "I've got to worry about the other 70 percent as well." There are lots of potential revenue streams. What matters most, whatever the details, is the basic mission.
AP is a still dot-org not a dot-com. Some operations make a profit; others bleed money. The board decides how much members pay annually to balance the books. Increases rarely outpace inflation. Compared to what member papers and broadcasters must spend on their own staffs' stories, AP remains an astonishing bargain.
While new ranks of rear echelon executives earn high salaries, bureaus count increasingly on locally hired reporters who work cheap -- and on interns. In earlier years, no one was hired without five years' experience on a member newspaper. Executives were promoted only from the ranks. This system had drawbacks, but everyone knew what business they were in. Now deals are made to outsource newsgathering, leaving AP's hard-won reputation for credibility and integrity in unknown hands.
Seasoned correspondents are pulled into regional control desk. This often leaves the least experienced people to do the most crucial job: witness the story and gather the facts.
Editing layers complicate this. When the Europe-Africa desk was set up, AP's legendary London bureau was gutted. Its skeleton staff missed the Sunday Times' Downing Street memo: top British intelligence officers revealed Bush wanted war no matter what. The story finally got to New York but no further.
Charles Hanley, a Pulitzer laureate with ironclad credibility, reported evidence from Iraq that would have exposed Colin Powell's bogus U.N. speech. The desk killed it.
By now, such examples are only historical anecdotes. But what is next?
The Internet is no replacement for real reporters who actually see events they describe, talk to people involved, and explain background essential to understanding. Now we have access to much of this reporting, from a lot of sources, but we are seldom able to assess those vital prerequisites: authority and credibility.
We desperately need what AP is supposed to be. The scariest stories, the ones that suddenly demand our attention when it is too late, develop quietly out there in the dark. Reporters, not editors, must find them and shed light on them.
If the Associated Press is not there, we're not there.
Mort Rosenblum is author of Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens our Survival, St. Martin's Press, 2007.