Facing Subpoenas, Reporters Medicate Selves

The New York-named weeklies have some scary news for members of the media, and a Time reporter decides to practice "performance-enhanced journalism."

In the event that members of the MSM were feeling at all optimistic at the start of this new year, here comes both New York-named weeklies to remind them to be afraid … very afraid.

New York’s Phillip Weiss serves up a lengthy profile (or, in Weiss’s own words, a “hero ballad”) of Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.org whom Weiss dubs “The Exploder of Journalism.” Weiss tells the tale of “how a schlumpy IBM refugee found you your apartment, your boyfriend, your new couch, your afternoon sex partner — and now finds himself killing your newspaper.” Weiss concludes that “if it wasn’t Craigslist, something else would be driving the [newspaper] business to the wall. But Newmark is so wedded to the idea that he is just giving people a break, he can’t acknowledge any downside to his achievement.” You see, Newmark didn’t set out to kill classified revenues for big-city newspapers, Weiss explains, he just wanted to, as Newmark says repeatedly, “give people a break” and “connect people to make our lives better.” (Of course, as mom used to say, “I didn’t mean to doesn’t make your brother’s broken nose feel any better.”)

In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin explains how the “N.S.A. leak investigation may join a growing list of cases in which journalists, under threat of legal sanction, are being asked to identify their sources.” Readers are treated to a concise recent history of this phenomenon, courtesy of Toobin’s mostly-named sources. We learn, among other things, that “thirty-five years or so ago, reporters started getting a lot of subpoenas, and then there was a long lull. But starting about two years ago we got this sudden pop.” And this “pop” comes at a time “when the legal status of reporters is as unsettled as it has been in more than two decades. Public esteem for the media is low, and neither Congress nor the courts seem inclined to grant special protection to journalists.”

Toobin includes some choice quotes from Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus who, Toobin reports, “believes that reporters are facing more subpoenas as much because of bad habits that the profession has acquired as because of an unsympathetic public and judiciary,” that reporters are “often too ready to grant confidentiality to their sources.” Toobin himself grants confidentiality to “a person close to [Scooter] Libby’s defense team,” who gives him this ominous warning about the Libby trial: “There are going to be fights over access to the reporters’ notes, their prior history and credibility, and their interviews with other people. By the time the trial is over, the press is going to regret that this case was ever brought.”

Moving on, Ariel Sharon graces the covers of three major newsweeklies, with US News & World Report pronouncing it the “End of an Era,” Newsweek wondering, “What’s Next for Israel?” and The Economist looking “Beyond Sharon.” Time, too, ponders Sharon’s legacy but assigns the cover to “The Man Who Bought Washington,” Jack Abramoff (and assigns Karen Tumulty to answer, “Who is he, and how did he get away with it for so long?”)

Finally, when we saw the first-person piece in Time’s “Mind & Health” section by senior editor Belinda Luscombe about how she took Ritalin for a week “in pursuit of truth and a tidy desk,” we were tempted to skip it. After all, we reasoned, if you’ve read one reporter’s account of taking a widely prescribed stimulant in order to practice “performance-enhanced journalism,” you’ve read them all.

Turns out, Luscombe’s piece was worth the read — for fellow reporters, at least. Here is what we learned: On the downside, Ritalin might cause a reporter to feel guilty about some of the things she has written; Luscombe reports that she woke in the night “deeply regret[ting] a headline” she wrote. Feeling accountable? What reporter wants that?

On the upside, it seems Ritalin can enhance a reporter’s powers of punditry. Luscombe writes that “TV bookers showered me in praise” the day after a TV appearance during which she was “on the Big R.” Kicking butt the next time you’re a talking head on Hardball? What reporter doesn’t want that?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.