Brown Versus Noonan, Everyone Versus Fleischer

Showdown at the Paley Center

Feathers flew today at a panel at the Paley Center hosted by the Independent Film Channel’s Media Project. Two burning questions made for lively discussion among panelists Tina Brown, Ari Fleischer, Katy Kay of the BBC, Peggy Noonan, and Josh Rushing of Al Jazeera English. Here’s some blow-by-blow from the talk.

Issue One: Transparency, Torture Memos, Independent Investigations, Partisanship Revealed

How’s the Obama administration doing on the transparency front? It’s “business as usual” at the White House, says former Bush press secretary Fleischer. “The media has demands that are insatiable. They won’t be satisfied until there’s a White House cam 24-hours a day. And if it’s only on 23 hours, they’ll ask, what are you doing in that one hour?” Oh, that greedy media.

Should there be a 9/11-style commission on torture? No way, Fleischer says. It will create too much acrimony and polarize the country. “There is no entity in this country that can carry out a commission in an impartial way. It’s a Pandora’s box that will serve no good purpose.”

“Is the point just to avoid acrimony in and of itself?” asked the BBC’s Katy Kay. That’s not all, Noonan says. It’ll also “harm intelligence services. … This is no time to dishearten them.”

See, it’s funny how last night Bill O’Reilly complained about so-called “NPR men” who want to talk about feelings—but then today their comrades don’t want to pursue an investigation into interrogation techniques because it would cause “acrimony,” which I guess isn’t technically a feeling, and “dishearten” the sensitive boys and girls of the CIA. Hmm…

Issue Two: The Future of Journalism, Newspapers, Media, the Universe

The question at hand actually was about the rise of the “commentary” class in America and how it has overshadowed the “journalist” class, and how that shapes the country. But why answer that question when we can talk about our favorite topic: The Future!!!
Just like the transparency/torture debate spill along Republican/Democrat divisions, the Future debate divided along platform allegiances. In one corner, Tina Brown of the online Daily Beast. And in the other corner, Peggy Noonan, of the dead-tree Wall Street Journal.

Brown says that the Internet has liberated journalists from their corporate owners and their allegiances. “A huge number of papers don’t police their communities because they don’t want to lose the advertisers,” Brown said. Then, just a few beats later, she said that part of the plan to profit from the Beast involves experimenting with ads that aren’t invasive, but that still attract eyeballs. Presumably, it’s okay to piss off those advertisers, then?

But Peggy Noonan won the day (and my heart) with a lucid explanation of why online models are still falling short, offering an example about regional reporting and the bailout. “It’s really expensive having a bureau in Newark, New Jersey,” she said. “It’s really expensive investigating New Jersey. … Somebody’s gotta be there to watch the flow of money. Without the mainstream media, and without the Newark bureau of The New York Times that money and power will disappear into a million scandals.” And she’s so right! A few days ago, when I was reading headlines from the Garden State, I was disheartened how weakened the Star-Ledger had become. If any state can create a million scandals, New Jersey can do it for sure.

But Brown wouldn’t hear of it. New models will emerge. Philanthropy. Independent bloggers. Newspapers have too much staff. The whole enterprise is too expensive. And, on the Web, the “liberated” journalist will find an audience that will support him or her. It’s too late to fix papers. “The time to renovate was ten years ago,” Brown said. What’s more, the competition on the blogs is akin to competition among publications in the print age. “You really had to sell your paper.” We’re in a period of experimentation and innovation and something new will come along that will support journalism. No sense of what that might be, though.

But what about the reality of the working journalist? Noonan asked Fleischer how receptive he was to journalists writing for the Web. “If I say I’m Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal or I say I’m Peggy Noonan of, he’s not going to be as responsive. … I miss the big thing.” (The newspaper, I presume.)

Fleischer minced his words on this one. Sure, there are some blogs that are quality. But at the end of the day, “Nothing replaces the impact of the front page,” Fleischer said. I’ll let that be the final word for now.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.