Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Wall Street Journal. Neutrality. A Chance To Make Right.

Yesterday, Slate's Michelle Tai asked the question, "How do newspapers report on themselves?"

And I've got an answer: They don't. Rather, they shouldn't.

The paper in question is the famous Wall Street Journal, a rag so esteemed that you rarely see a journalist write about the Journal without preceding it with "venerable." Yet with a Murdoch-ian News Corp. positioned to eat up what is arguably the nation's most important paper, Tai wants to know how exactly the paper is supposed to report on itself, given that News Corp. has its hands in, well, everything. With that kind of potential disclosure, how's a paper like the Journal supposed to have any space for actual business news?

Tai correctly points out that the public's perception neutrality -- a sensitive word these days in the media world -- would be seriously compromised if the Journal reported on itself. As an "important paper," the Journal would certainly shun avoiding covering News Corp. altogether, because that would leave holes the size of, well, News Corp. in the paper.

OK, can't do that. How about finding our "most neutral" reporters? Besides serving as a backhanded diss to all the other reporters at the paper for being "less neutral," you still have a cynical public who won't believe it with the "staff writer" title behind it. So what's left?

Tai saves the very, very last paragraph of her excellent and brief overview of the situation to what I think is the answer: Hire an outsider. She writes:

Sometimes the answer is to hire an outsider. In 2003 the Seattle Times chose a freelance reporter, Bill Richards, to cover its ongoing dispute with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. To ensure objective coverage, editors didn't tell the owner what Richards was working on. Richards and the paper also decided that an outside arbitrator would have the final word on any disagreements.

There you go. With all of those top-flight journalists out of a job these days anyway, I say it's high time to hire a bunch (with experience at liberal pubs and conservative pubs alike) to cover Rupie and his media Death Star.

I'm tired of hearing that newspapers aren't neutral, and reading those that don't try to be. I'm also tired about reading the old yellow journalism tactics of championing your own paper in editorial, e.g. "Post beats Daily News in circulation! Woo! Top story!" So in my opinion, the Wall Street Journal should have a third party -- the Society of Professional Journalists or some similar group -- to choose a small team strictly for the News Corp. beat. Pay them average pay, too -- no more than they would get in any other department at the paper. Make it transparent; tell us who they are on, where they come from, and how much they're making for all of this. Full biographies. The whole nine yards.

Does it raise the question that the WSJ's own reporters aren't neutral enough? Maybe. But I think doing this "out of principle" is a solid basis for supporting this suggestion.

Would it be expensive? You bet. But if the Wall Street Journal can't hack it when the paper itself is in the pages, don't expect any other lesser paper to do so. You can say what you want about it, but it's my opinion that this is the only way to do that elusive neutrality concept right.

It's time to set a good precedent in journalism for once.

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