The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Bill Keller.

What do you think is behind the low level of trust that the public feels for the media right now?
There are a couple of problems — obviously it’s a problem that the media, as a generalization, is held in disrepute, or not trusted. But media is a term that covers a lot of different subsets. To generalize about the media in a piece that covers everything from the “if it bleeds it leads” local news to the Washington Post and the New York Times and NPR is tying together a lot of different things. Also, there is one kind of asterisk that applies to that notion of the dwindling public respect for the media, which is — it’s like with members of Congress: If you ask people if they hold Congress in high or low esteem, they rate it down there with child molesters, but then they rate their own representative highly. If you ask them how they feel about their own particular media niche, you often find out that they are very loyal to it. We did a lot of surveys over the years at the Times, and we found the people who read it might be the same people who would tell a pollster that the media is unreliable, but they’re deeply devoted to the New York Times. I think you’d find the same thing if you polled NPR listeners or New York Magazine readers, for that matter.

During your tenure at the Times, did the technological changes in journalism change the way stories were covered?
Sure, and it’s continued changing, although I think what’s remarkable about the Times is what has remained, which is you still get deep, intensive coverage of international news, which you’re not going to get on BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post.

There are a whole lot of tensions that are created by proliferation of news sources. And the fact is anyone with access to broadband can be a journalist. Probably the most troublesome tension is the one between the need to file immediately, because a thousand other people are filing immediately, and the time it takes to do real reporting, to reflect on what you’ve got and then to write it in a way that’s fair and clear but doesn’t gloss over the complications. And that tension was certainly there when I was editor. And it just seems to get more intense.

Watching from outside, I have to say I respect what the Times is doing. The biggest change that I saw in the eight years that I was editor was that the newsroom went from being perceived, with some justification, as a place that was clinging to tradition, and hidebound, into being a laboratory. By the time I left, we hired Nate Silver, and he I think did some of his best work at the Times, and also sort of spread this gospel of visual journalism and statistics — the use of data widely. So we were trying out a lot of stuff. And that’s the only way the Times is going to survive, by trying out a lot of stuff. So the fact that they’re doing that now, even though it comes at a price — if you’re going to hire 100 visual journalists, it probably means you’re going to lose some journalists who practice the more traditional craft. But they’ve got to do it.

There was a piece on Recode about how, as more content is being accessed through Facebook on mobile instead of homepages, readers are skipping the longform, in-depth foreign-news coverage that once lent prestige to lighter fare. And so the economic justification for those longer pieces will eventually fade.
That’s the right thing to worry about, absolutely it is. The end of depth and the end of reflection and complication. I worry a lot that the web has provided us with all sorts of wonderful things — new ways to reach an audience, new ways to report stories, new ways to tell stories. But it’s also eaten away at our attention spans. And I have a 13-year-old daughter who gets all of her news from BuzzFeed. Well, BuzzFeed has gone out and hired actual reporters to do investigative reporting 

Is that the stuff she’s reading?
No. No. But she’s 13. I tried to cling to the fact that BuzzFeed hired a great investigative editor and he’s put together an investigative-reporting team. But I wonder how long that lasts. I hope it lasts. I hope that BuzzFeed figures that there is some kind of commercial value in it, and it’s not just trying to polish the luster of the brand, but I worry that they’re going to realize that they’re not getting the clicks they want from that kind of reporting and prestige is nice when it’s prize-giving time, but there’s not a huge market for it. I hope that’s not the case.

There was a time when the only way you really knew if someone was great was if he or she was getting a Pulitzer or an ASME award, but now there’s an even better metric: clicks.
Yeah, well, even in the heyday of legacy journalism, there were metrics that counted at least as much as prizes. They were called revenues and circulation.

True.
If you’re scouring the world for reasons to have hope, you can find those reasons. There are places like the Marshall Project and ProPublica, the Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Reporting, that are managing to do longform, time-consuming journalism, and it depends on the kindness of foundations and what I’ve learned to refer to as “high-net-worth individuals.” But it’s real. The classic granddaddy of all nonprofit journalism organizations is NPR, public broadcasting generally. NPR seems to be doing pretty well. You can find some hope — not boundless hope, but some hope — in the serious-minded moguls who decided to acquire news organizations. You’ve got Jeff Bezos, who so far seems really devoted to keeping the Washington Post good. You’ve got Mike Bloomberg. You’ve got Pierre Omidyar. So there are people out there who at least profess devotion to serious journalism, and for all I know they may mean it.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, the news is so negative.” Do you think that’s true?
Well, a lot of the news is negative because a lot of the stuff that happens in the world is negative. There’s — what’s the name of the organization that focuses on success stories?

Upworthy?
Upworthy’s an example, but — “Solutions Journalism”! There’s actually an organization called Solutions Journalism Network, and it’s become kind of a mantra, and I hate it because it sounds, like, so well intentioned and a happy face. But there’s a serious case to be made that we should not just write about dysfunction and failure and corruption, but also look for examples of people who have tried to reform institutions or fix things that are broken, and report them with the same skepticism that would apply to any other story. But write about them. We’ve tried to do a little bit of that in the criminal-justice area. We wrote about a jail in Florida that had made a serious effort to deal with prison rape by lots of counseling, putting lots of cameras in, things like that. It actually seemed for the most part to be a real success that other prisons and jails could learn from. We sent a reporter out to Kentucky. They’ve tried to do away with bail, which amounts to a kind of indentured servitude for the poor. And we took a hard look at how they were doing that.

People will read stories about people who do good things. The story we got the Pulitzer for is about a rape case, and it’s essentially a split-lens story of one group of police who got it abysmally wrong, had no idea how to deal with the rape case, and one set of detective who got it extraordinarily right.

If all you write about is failure, that can get pretty depressive over time. To actually be able to contrast it with somebody who — I think that was a very popular story for a lot of reasons. First among them being just that it was very well told and reported. But I think it also benefited from the fact that it was not just, “Here are these cops in Washington State who, basically, wrote the book on how to screw up a rape case.” If that was all it had been, the piece would have prompted some indignation — but in fact the reaction was we got an outpouring of response to that piece, and a lot of it was because we had the detectives who’d gotten it right, and as a result of that, that story’s going to be taught in police training academies and trauma departments in hospitals.

The big question is, what makes a story interesting?
Some stories are interesting because the reporters and editors have the skills to make them interesting. If you put a human face on an institutional problem, more people are likely to read it. That’s just craft. Some stories are interesting because you demonstrate that they’re important, you put them in a context that demonstrates that they aren’t irrelevant to your life.

To keep readers interested, many outlets shifted to the anecdotal lede in the ’70s. Did you do this at the Times?
More sparingly. I think the anecdotal lede is a mixed blessing. We went through a phase where every writer felt that every story had to have an anecdotal lede, even if the anecdote wasn’t all that interesting. One shift that happened on my watch, not just at the Times but at a lot of places, was because the straight facts of the news weren’t going to hold until the next morning’s newspaper, you put the facts up on the website and then for the next day’s paper you did something that was more analytical. Whereas in the 1990s you would do a news story for the paper and then maybe the next day you would do a news-analysis piece. The cycle just got foreshortened, and you do the news, straight-news lede, immediately, and then, because the story hasn’t lost its importance overnight, you try to find a way to say something analytical, or maybe it’s just a straight analysis of what the story means, or maybe it’s a focus on one character in the story. But you look for a way to make it seem a little fresher, or to advance it, the next day.

The major feature of the media landscape today is the acceleration of everything. And that includes the debate and the commentary. So the Times posts a story and within seconds it’s posting comments from readers. So sometimes all the meat has been picked off the bones by the time the next day’s paper has rolled around, including the analytical meat.

There can be 500 comments — but even to read through all that and distill that down is a useful function.
But there’s a greater likelihood that by the next morning the attentive reader not only knows what happened but knows what he or she thinks about it.

Then there’s the second turn of the screw — a day in, we already have the facts of the case and the accepted conventional interpretation, and now we’re going to get the Slate take, or —
The counterintuitive.

We’re going to spin it one more time. And on and on it goes … I was talking to a recent Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, and he said that he felt that he had to make his stories fit into the narratives that his editors held back at the home office. Do you think that’s a reality of this kind of journalism?
I think one of the greatest casualties of the high metabolism of the news business is complexity. That’s a big loss. I don’t think it’s a new thing that, when you’re a reporter, you sometimes find yourself fighting the conventional wisdom, or the conventional narrative. At the point when I went to Moscow, there was some resistance to the idea that Gorbachev should be taken seriously. The narrative about the Soviet Union was it’s an unchangeable monolith and anybody who came to power in the Soviet Union, professing to want to change things, was either faking it or delusional. Because it couldn’t change. I remember in the early days sometimes having trouble persuading editors that, yes, something is really happening here. So that’s not a novelty of the digital age.

There’s an oil-tanker-like momentum to the public conception of an issue, and that, to change it, one reporter by himself is like a gnat. It’s very hard to change that sense of how things must be, right?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if it’s harder or easier now. Just because people coalesce around an idea and then disperse. This is slightly off the point you raise, but the genius of Donald Trump is that he knows how to change the subject. Oh, they want to talk about taxes? Well, I’m going to insult someone so we won’t be talking about taxes, we’ll be talking about how attractive my wife is. It happened this week — all the press, led by the Washington Post piece, wanted to talk about whether Trump had actually lived up to his promise to deliver money to these veterans groups. And the story on cable TV this morning and on the front page of the Times is about Trump going on a rampage about the sleazy media. He’s a master at changing the subject. If you’re loud enough and outrageous enough, all the eyeballs belong to you.

I mean, the media, capital “M” in quotes, has been rightly faulted for not taking Donald Trump seriously early enough, but if you go back and look, you’ll see that the Times was pretty aggressive once he began winning primaries and caucuses. They assigned reporters to him full time; with the Trump University case, they’ve been subjecting him to the kind of scrutiny that you want a newspaper to apply to the likely Republican nominee.

There’s this idea that Trump knows the rules of journalism better than journalists do. There are the ostensible rules of journalism, and then there are the real rules of journalism.
There’s the dynamics of journalism. He understands the business of journalism. He understands that it’s like journalists can be like a school of fish: They all turn in formation really fast, chasing the bright shiny lure.

We were talking about this oil tanker of perception, how hard it was to convince people that their narrative is wrong, and now here’s Trump, who can make that oil tanker turn on a dime.
Well, there are two things going on at the same time. One is the daily news cycle, which he understands: You have to feed the best regularly, and if you feed the beast, it will perform. Then there’s the underlying narrative: “Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.” Which I don’t think has changed all that much. I think there’s still an amazement and dismay about, and a sense of something profound and not particularly appealing happening in American politics. But magazines write that piece. Frank Rich will write that piece. The New Yorker will write that piece, The Atlantic will do it. The Times will do it, too. But TV is, they live and die by the cycle.

When you were in Moscow,  you were trying to convince your editors that Gorbachev was really different. It was it hard to get that across?
They published those stories. They put them on the front page, so I don’t want this to sound like I was pounding on the door and nobody was listening. But there was an initial skepticism, and I’m not just speaking for myself but the whole cadre of correspondents who were covering this guy. He was defying a well-established conventional wisdom about the ability of the Soviet Union to change.

What was it like when you found yourself on the ­other side of the table, and you were getting pitched by your writers from the field?
I tried very hard to keep an open mind, listening to them. The irony of the Gorbachev years, once people bought the idea that he was for real, was he became this celebrity magician. He came to the U.S. and people lined up in the streets to watch him. For a lot of people, the wisdom about Gorbachev moved from incredulous to overly credulous.

That experience definitely shaped me when I was an editor. We tried, for example, to be very careful about celebrating the Arab Spring as the true arrival of democracy, because the reporters who were out there were, yes, caught up in the euphoria of the crowds, but they were also saying, “It’s not that simple … don’t break out the Champagne and the party hats yet.”

Someday I’ll go back and read our real-time coverage of the Arab Spring, but I expect I’ll find that there’s a restraint, a caution about expecting utopia to suddenly emerge.

That perhaps is the subtlety that gets lost — especially when you feel emotion, you feel like your problems have gone away — that simple narrative can be the stickiest one.
And reporters aren’t immune to that either. There’s something genuinely inspirational about seeing people who’ve never had a chance to vote for anything line up for miles to cast their first vote. It’s powerfully moving stuff. But in neither Russia nor South Africa did it mean that the sun was coming out.

Is there a story that is a great example of not turning out to mean what it was thought to have meant?
There was a lot of stuff written about how the fall of Qaddafi was the end of a problem. And potentially the birth of a new, more benign time. It turned out to be not at all true.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know