A Press Pretending to Be Invisible

Last week, this reporter wrote a story for the New York Times about the marketing machinations behind the novel The Traveler. The piece was about publicity for the novel, but it also, of course, was itself publicity for the novel — which came out the day after the story appeared. Yet the story did not mention its role in perpetuating the very phenomenon it was documenting.

Was that a mistake? Perhaps. Certainly, journalists are too often reluctant to admit in print that the story they’re writing may well impact the issue they’re covering. That reluctance is manifest in everything from style (the choice to use “this reporter,” for example, instead of “I”) to content, as evidenced by the lack of acknowledgment in this reporter’s New York Times story about publicity that a New York Times story itself is something of a publicity coup.

There are other examples: The New York Times fronted a piece about a year ago about rumors that Dick Cheney would be dropped from the Republican ticket before the election. Nowhere in the piece did the Times acknowledge its own role (though its page-one placement) in pushing what Jack Shafer, in his takedown of the piece, called “baseless rumors.” Other speculative pieces fall into the same trap; at the moment, the breathless articles and commentary on who might be the Supreme Court nominee, which are reminiscent of similar pieces on the “Veepstakes” during the campaign, rarely acknowledge that many of the people quoted therein have agendas and use news stories either as trial balloons or to attempt to impact the outcome.

Instead, political reporters tend to write as though they’re sports reporters, sitting in the press box looking down at the players on the field, removed from the action. But they’re not. They’re actually down on the field, impacting the game as they cover it. They block the paths of baserunners, get in the way of center fielders tracking fly balls, and criticize a batter’s stance even as he’s batting. And yet they pretend that they’re sequestered away in the stands, far away from the events unfolding before them.

Would Howard Dean have gained his hothead reputation had the press not amplified “The Scream?” Would Dan Quayle have become famous for stupidity had the media not sent the potato(e) incident bouncing through the echo chamber? It’s not that there isn’t an element of truth in the popular images of these men, but in both cases, the coverage itself shaped both their reputations — and their success, or lack thereof. It seems disingenuous for reporters to act as though they’re above it all, or that their readers don’t need some context about the impact of the reporting itself.

Which is not to say that every story should be an exercise in meta-journalism. Yesterday, in the Times, Edward Wyatt came close to doing it right, but didn’t quite straddle the line. His story was about the security efforts around the new Harry Potter book; it was also, of course, a buzzmaker for the book itself. As for the story’s acknowledgment of its role, consider this passage:

On Monday, Amazon.com is to invite reporters and photographers into its distribution center in Fernley, Nev., to let them see its packing and shipping operations. Barnes & Noble invited photographers into its northeast distribution center last month for a similar photo opportunity.

“Of course we’d rather they didn’t do that,” [Barbara Marcus, who oversees the children’s book division of Scholastic Inc., which is publishing the book] said last week. “It’s really not the story. We’d rather it be about what a fabulous reading experience this is, and the fact that J. K. Rowling is turning so many kids on to reading.”

Sometimes the companies want both their security and the publicity. Barnes & Noble, for example, trumpeted its photo opportunity and the location of its warehouse in a press release issued through wire services and posted on the company’s Web site. But officials also declined to discuss other security arrangements and asked reporters not to reveal the warehouse’s whereabouts.

While the story points out that the companies want it both ways — both publicity for their distribution methods and security for the book — it doesn’t discuss the fact that marketers use security concerns to hype the book to outlets like the New York Times and reporters like Edward Wyatt. The “security is so tight” angle has driven many recent stories about the Potter book; it’s an element of the marketing campaign, yet it has gone unacknowledged even in stories that discuss the book’s marketing.

The omissions are born of a pervasive feeling in journalism that one shouldn’t break down the wall and acknowledge to the reader that the journalist is himself running around the playing field in order the capture the game up-close-and-personal. But wouldn’t the reader be richer for the knowledge? One can understand the reluctance on the part of the newspaper — some readers could interpret an acknowledgment from Wyatt that his angle is marketer-approved as evidence that the newspaper’s role is not as news provider but hype creator. But savvy readers understand that stories can be newsworthy and also function as marketing. They shouldn’t be kept in the dark just because journalists don’t want to give them the full dimensions of the minuet danced by PR people and reporters.

Brian Montopoli

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.