Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Yorker in the room

Last night a few of us broke away from a wine tasting to catch a speech by The New Yorker's David Remnick, part of an ongoing Lezioni di Giornalismo series here in Rome. Never mind that none of us had tickets. The event sold out long before, and even my press credentials were proving useless with the organizers. So, we did the only sensible thing. The four of us - Mauro, Manuel, Niccola and I, all "professional" journalists -- sneaked in and inconspicuously took up an entire row in the center of the auditorium.

It was well worth the risk.

Remnick spoke about the history of The New Yorker, its philosophy, its colorful roster of editors and writers, plus regaled us with insights about the magazine. For instance, in the hours after the attacks on Sept. 11, Remnick, looking for guidance, went back in the archives to see how the previous editors covered the attack on Pearl Harbor. The magazine dedicated just a few lines to the event that sent the United States to war, squeezed into a story about a football game at the Polo Grounds. That was it. Just a few lines. Later, the magazine redeemed itself with courageous reporting on the beaches of Normandy, from Italy and an epic piece in 1946 on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing that took up the entire magazine. The article, at 31,000 words, broke new ground (you can read more about here) in investigative journalism. The New Yorker has always been about going "deep" on a topic, as Remnick says, and it will continue to do so in the Internet age.

Sadly for me, book-length reportage is an art that's not at all common outside of the Anglo Saxon media world. There are a variety of factors for this; time (the readers') and money (the publishers') is the biggest culprit. In a pip-squeak media market like Italy (but certainly not only Italy), the emphasis is on short, easily digestible stories and lots of images. You can flip through most weekend news magazines here between lunch and nap time. In some weeks, you can wring out all the meaningful stuff while sitting in the smallest room in the house.

The point that drew the most post-speech discussion from our group was the idea that there exists a publication that still strives for independence and balance. In other words, a publication that makes editorial decisions based on news value, not based on the owner's pet causes nor on shareholders' returns. Remnick says he has never once received a call from Conde Nast brass seeking to influence the upcoming story lineup. And, he's never received a call afterwards either. Mauro, sitting next to me, gasped.

A truly independent commercial media, one could easily argue, does not exist. That's not really true. I have written for plenty of American and European publications. The difference is that Americans try their best to operate with a wall between the business and editorial side of the publication. In Europe, that wall fell down a long time ago. It certainly doesn't exist in the flag-waving world of Italian media where captains of industry and politicians (the same people in many cases) have turned their publications into propaganda sheets to manipulate public opinion and sabotage rivals. What's lost in such a scenario is credibility.

The press cannot function without credibility. It's as simple as that. In a world of spinmeisters, propagandists and elected liars, to paraphrase Remnick, a credible press is the only thing separating democracy from a tyranny of special interests.

Remnick was cautious in his assessment of the blogosphere. It's biggest failing too is credibility. I agree with this entirely. But I do believe blogs have created a powerful forum too, one that is capable of holding companies and politicians accountable, oh, and the press too. Yes, and me too.

1 comment:

Roam2Rome said...

Oh, I am on an eternal quest to find publications that makes editorial decisions based on news values. Not an easy feat. Well, most of my news comes from NPR because of my disappointment with the main networks *sigh*