darts and laurels

Darts & Laurels

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July 19, 2007

Laurel to the countless gatherers, makers, and consumers of news who over the years have brought to this column, along with their nominations, a shared regard for journalistic ideals and a spirit-lifting faith in the perfectibility of the craft. Meanwhile, for the editor who for more than three decades has appraised those nominations and put a small sampling of the worthiest on public display, there have been more earthly gratifications as well, not the least of which has been the growing awareness of what some today might call (cringe) the D&L brand. The Associated Press, for example, once commissioned an in-house study of the column, presumably for practical application. Mass Comm Journal published a quantitative analysis of the column’s content, category by ethical category, by a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. A major commercial network approached with a proposition for a regular weekly Darts & Laurels segment on a national television show (we respectfully declined on potential conflict-of-interest grounds). The editor of a mid-sized paper confided that when, at a strategy meeting for a new advertorial section, the question arose as to the project’s goals, the immediate answer was this: “To avoid a CJR Dart!” Some (okay, a few) news outlets that hadn’t managed to escape that dreaded fate graciously acknowledged their lapses and mended their ways. At the same time, and impossible to forget, there have been the voices: the nervous tremor in the responses of a Dart nominee, the note of hope in a slighted activist in search of fairer coverage, the anxious whispers of a reporter torn between saving the soul of his newsroom and hanging on to his job.

Were that graduate student in Texas to look today at the evolving content of the column (and of perhaps its microcosmic implications), she would surely need to take note of the various dogs that, for better or worse, have stopped barking in the night. Thankfully, for instance, we’re not likely to soon again see, as we did only a few short decades ago, an item about a wire-service report on a street rape that ends, “The woman was not harmed.” On the other hand, we’re also not likely to see an item about the firing of a newspaper editor for running a photo of a disgruntled customer standing in front of a local car dealership with a sign reading lemon!—but is such a scenario so hard to imagine because publishers today are less protective of their advertisers, or because editors are more so? Similarly, those whistle-blowing whispers from inside newsrooms may have largely disappeared, but whether this means that management now is more ethically pure or that news staffs have become less idealistic, may be a matter for debate. And consider, too, the less frequent attention that the column has been giving to those old familiar standbys: the magazine cover that’s really an advertisement in drag, the TV infomercial slipped into the news, the invasive ad on a paper’s front page, the paragraph borrowed without attribution, the expert’s agenda left undisclosed. Is the relative decline in such items a cause for celebration, or have they simply become too commonplace to warrant more than a shrug from even the columnist herself?

In any case, if the whispers from within the newsroom have grown increasingly faint, the cries from without have not. Some of those cries find expression here, in what more than one petitioner has called “the court of last resort.” But many of those appeals—typically, from ordinary citizens who see themselves as victims of a mendacious, avaricious, unaccountable press—are destined for only silence, unable to overcome the column’s limitations of time and space and investigative resources, the constraints of its structure and black-and-white concept, or the whims of a writer who is not unmindful of the value of novelty in a given situation or how well it may lend itself to a felicitous turn of phrase.

So much for journalistic justice. Little wonder that time and time again I have longed to offer, besides a sympathetic ear, the name and address of some authoritative, quasi-official body better equipped to address complicated grievances than an eight-hundred-word column published six times a year. Little wonder, too, perhaps, that I’ve come to recall the once (and future?) National News Council, for all its failings and foibles and flaws, with a sort of fondness. Still, such frustrations notwithstanding, Darts & Laurels will go on trying to do its best, recording, for the edification of all and sundry, some of the lows and highs in the day-to-day performance of our matchless press.

For my part, I’ve lingered long enough, and it’s time to pass the torch. To those who will follow me in this heady and humbling job, I wish every possible success. To those I’ve disappointed, I extend regrets. And to those who have given me your trust, well, Here’s looking at you. No matter what the future brings, we’ll always have the Laurels. 

Gloria Cooper was CJR’s deputy executive editor. For three decades, she wrote the magazine’s “Darts & Laurels” column.