Commentary

It's New, But Is It News?

Having worked in and around news organizations for most of my life, I have come to understand that news is too often in the eye of the beholder. While journalists train and then strain to be "objective," they are human beings who bring their own subjectivity to the process of deciding who, what, where, how, and why.

The competitive nature of the news business can, at worst, result in outright fraud (think Jason Blair, Janet Cooke, etc.) and at best, stories with facts and figures that should have been checked again for accuracy.

The recent rash of stories about doomed Gruner + Jahr USA CEO Dan Brewster is a good example. Both the Daily News and NY Post claimed he was to be fired--in part--for buying Inc. Magazine. Only the NY Times' Dave Carr got it right--that Inc. was acquired before Mr. Brewster's arrival at G+J.

While all the stories speculated about the business reasons why Bertelsmann would fire Mr. Brewster, The Post's Keith Kelly took the story to another level, writing:

"Although his father was once a U.S. senator from Maryland, young Dan learned about his parents' impending divorce only moments before it broke on the evening news. Brewster was raised primarily by his mother as his father battled alcohol and legal problems during Brewster's teen years.. Brewster ultimately reconciled with his father, years after the divorce. (Brewster's own marriage began to unravel a year ago.)"

Clearly, this is the kind of reporting that sells newspapers (well, for the NY Post, anyway), but was it relevant or necessary for the story? I think not.

Mr. Kelly says in an email that:

"The whole 'Senator's Son' thing had surfaced at the Rosie trial. Thought it was somewhat relevant that he really didn't have much to do with old man Brewster until recent times--despite the Rosie rants. His was a broken home-- granted at a high level in Maryland horse country and exclusive prep schools. Just thought it added a human side to the story."

Ed Morrow can be heard turning in his grave.

Journalists have long struggled with the temptation to "go with" something provocative simply because they got it in the course of reporting (or just as often, someone proactively whispered it in their ears). There was a time when such information was simply ignored--such as, in Washington, Jack Kennedy's philandering or Nancy Reagan's drinking--because printing the information might put the publication (or network) in the doghouse with the White House and they would lose access to "top administration officials" on whom they relied for tips and off-the-record confirmations.

But journalism has changed, and nothing seems to be out of bounds any more.

In libel law you can get away with writing almost anything about anybody who has thrust themselves into the public eye. But too often, we see stories that simply go too far.

I have met Dan Brewster on a couple of occasions (although he needs to be reminded each time who I am, I can live with that), and have no opinion about his job performance. I frankly don't care why he was fired. But in a rare moment of fairness, I would challenge Mr. Kelly to develop a straight line between Mr. Brewster's purportedly screwed-up childhood and his recent job performance.

Over the years, I have worked for some of the most dysfunctional human beings imaginable (including Katharine Graham and Dick Synder), but couldn't swear that their screwy personal lives had much of an impact on their professional abilities. I once had a girlfriend who wrote a book about people who became highly successful at a young age, and every single one of them was driven to success by the desire to overcome some childhood trauma (real or perceived).

The larger point here can be illustrated by news helicopters. They are extraordinarily expensive, and every TV news director who finally gets one is constantly under the gun to amortize its cost with news stories. And so we are nightly treated to house fires and traffic accidents that otherwise would never be reported, only because the copter could get some pictures and help the news director keep his job another week.

In the same sense, just because reporters learn some salacious personal facts about people they report on, in my view, unless they can draw that straight line between cause and effect, the notes are best left in the notebook.

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