Reformed ex-editor Gordon Hirsch left a particularly thoughtful — and, given his background, well-informed — comment on this last post. Full disclosure: I put him up to it — I e-mailed him to ask for his input. And since he came through, I hereby elevate his contribution to its very own post, so it’ll be more visible:
I used to work with Brad a long time ago at The State. It was was my third of four SC newpaper jobs. I don’t practice journalism anymore, but I like to watch. Once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you understand that journalists can’t even agree amongst themselves on "the issues," much less conspire to attain any specific goal. As for companies they work for, the media biz is all about ad revenues and meeting shareholder expectations of earnings. News is just the "content" that compels audiences to suffer ad exposure.
Part of my job at The State was to make final, deadline decisions about what to report or print, what not to report or print, and prominence of story placement in the paper, three editions a day. As a result, I spent much of the next morning answering to readers who phoned to accuse "us" (me?) of bias, poor judgment, or just plain stupidity. I can’t remember anybody ever calling to say, "Good job," although there were those rare letters to the editor to that effect, mostly from partisan types whose compliments made us cringe.
After all, the practice of good journalism is supposed to be an "objective" and "fair" process, free from personal prejudices and the influence of those who would try to sway "the media."
In reality, everything about the editorial process involves subjective decision-making, governed by experience and notions of fairness and objectivity, as best we can apply them as human beings on a daily basis. What’s interesting or important to me may not be to you. Multiply that fundamental disconnect in all people and their belief systems, and you’re wrong most of the time by a lot of other people’s standards. You get used to it, but (good) editors never stop listening to complaints from the gallery, because that’s how we learn to respect other points of view — and that’s how readers got our attention. If you cared enough to call, we’d listen. It’s a lot like government and, yes, the squeaky wheel oftens gets the grease.
The same was true of the newsroom and its people. For example, much of what Brad considered crucial, I did not, but I respected his passion and diligence. We discussed, argued, debated, all day long sometimes. Ditto for just about everybody else on staff. We disagreed amongst ourselves as much as any other group of individuals. As a result, by the end of each day, we were more informed than when we started. Everybody had their say, time ran out, and we made a decision about what to publish, and where to "play it."
Of the McCain story at issue here, I have no recollection, but I can imagine how the newsroom debate might have gone. There are political implications, fairness issues, insights into McCain’s character, all worthy of consideration. But in my opinion, it’s a mean little story at the expense of an intensely private little girl whose parents were, ummm, distracted by "other matters." Personally, I remember feeling compassion for Chelsea. She seemed quite frightened by it all, a sitting duck for for the commentators on all things Clintonian.
Adolescence is tough enough without having the Washington Press Corps at your birthday party. Is that "objective" on my part? Fair? Nope. But it still seems "right." So, in the end, I probably would have agreed with The Washington Post that the story was "too vicious to print."
If McCain benefitted as a result, so be it. I could handle your call the next morning with a clear conscience. As far as I know, that’s still allowed in newspapers today.