After coming under fire for darkening O. J. Simpson’s mugshot for its cover Time’s managing editor took to an AOL chatroom to explain. Writing in CJR’s November/December ’94 issue, Jennifer Wolff reported that it was the first time a journalist of such stature had gone online to make “himself accountable.” So it was in journalism’s early Internet days: “Readers have unprecedented access to reporters and editors, and journalists enjoy the rare opportunity to learn with lightning speed what their audience is thinking.” Not all were so eager to embrace the scrum. Asked if his writers would entertain questions or opinions from online readers, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter demurred: “That’s what cocktail parties are for.”
• The New Republic publishes “No Exit,” Betsy McCaughey’s attack on the Clinton health-care bill.
• Hispanic, black, Asian, and Native American journalist groups host inaugural Unity Conference.
Citizen Journalism 1.0
In the nineties, a movement—known as “public” or “civic” journalism—held that the news industry could no longer, as Mike Hoyt described it in the September/October ’95 issue of CJR, “act merely as a mirror of events.” The call went out to provide forums for citizens and journalists to cooperate to help shape news agendas and forge consensus on important issues. Doubters worried about relinquishing authority and stepping away from traditions of objectivity, and derided the experiments (according to one 1994 tally, attempted in over 170 newsrooms) as little more than egotistical self-promotion. Enthusiasm and foundation support for public journalism waned by decade’s end, just as the Internet exploded the possibilities for citizens to craft their own information and civic landscapes.
For twenty-four days I tracked Tonya Harding for The Boston Globe as she moved from an obscure figure skater to a criminal defendant. No piece of information was too trivial. No effort too ridiculous. I endured the embarrassing experience of slipping in alongside a crowd of ten-year-olds at Harding’s rink, in the hopes that Harding’s coach could speak to me (she wouldn’t). I spent one chilly evening sitting in a rented car while a colleague looked in the windows of the cheaply built A-frame where Harding lived (trespassing by anyone’s definition). “I see some skates,” she said, nose at the glass. When she lifted up the lid on the garbage can, I said, ”Will you get in this car!” and reluctantly she did.
—from Jane Meredith Adams’s “My Twenty-Four Days on the Slippery Slope,”
• Alix Freedman of The Wall Street Journal exposes internal tobacco industry memos.
• This American Life, rejected by National Public Radio, goes on air at Chicago’s WBEZ as Your Radio Playhouse.
Smoke, but No Fire
When CBS and 60 Minutes neutered a story on the tobacco industry in fear of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit, it raised questions about the dangers of television networks operating within conglomerates. In CJR’s January/February ’96 issue, Lawrence Grossman, a former president of nbc News, wrote that while cbs executives had a duty to protect shareholders “from undue risk owning a company with a news division is one of the risks CBS stockholders take.” The network was a corporate sibling to a tobacco company, and a major lawsuit could have interfered with CBS’s pending sale to Westinghouse. Those entanglements were not a decisive factor in the story’s treatment, Grossman concluded, but their existence “almost demanded that CBS do whatever it reasonably could to put the piece on the air,” to avoid the perception that business interests had defanged a report in the public interest.
• The San Jose Mercury News publishes “Dark Alliance,” Gary Webb’s
investigation of crack dealing, the contras, and the CIA.
• Fox News, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera all launch.
• After 58 years, the San Francisco Chronicle publishes Herb Caen’s last column, which joshes the mayor for boarding a bus without exact fare.
• America’s last major newspaper strike ends in Detroit after 583 days.