The Right Fit: “News” Narrative Meets the Agenda

April 23rd, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism, NM Legislature

By Arthur Alpert

The pendulum never stops where it should.

When I got into the news business, for example, the name of the game was “objectivity.” Of course that’s humanly impossible and you neuter yourself pursuing it.

But the 1950s passion for “objectivity” was a swing of the pendulum back from the Front Page era when publishers sold sensationalism and their personal politics.

The pendulum quickly moved in the opposite direction when Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Clay Felker and others invented the “New Journalism,” giving reporters mental elbow-room to nail truths and convey them.

Has the pendulum has moved too far again? I don’t think so. It’s inspired a lot of superior journalism, though it’s to blame for empowering narcissists and advocates, too.

A piece on Ted Kennedy Jr. in the N.Y. Times Magazine March 17 brought this to mind. Journalist Mark Leibovich wrote as much about the circumstances surrounding his interview as about Mr. Kennedy. Brave but maybe not fair.

There’s no such problem with the work of rank-and-file reporters at the Albuquerque Journal. They hew to observable facts, verifiable quotes and make minimal efforts to explain. Whether self-imposed or required by editors, this discipline means they don’t take much advantage of that expanded elbowroom.

Their stories are generally professional, informative and fair. Yet, as the recent legislative session demonstrated, the coverage can be lacking.

No, that’s not a contradiction. Editors, not reporters, determine the coverage by way of decisions on what to cover and what not, as well as how to play stories.

For example, the Journal’s coverage of this session included only two or three mentions of lobbyists. They come in many flavors, of course, but like ‘em or not, lobbyists matter.

Yet a reader unfamiliar with Santa Fe’s annual political theater might come away from the Journal’s reporting thinking it’s a Platonic process, in which disinterested parties question and debate the greater good.

It isn’t. It wasn’t.

Putting this in stark relief was a wry Op Ed piece (April 7) by Ned Cantwell, a former newspaper editor, on lobbying in the early 70s and now.

He zeroed in on a “no brainer” bill (Peter Wirth’s SB17) to allow individual towns to ban fireworks in times of great danger to the forests. Cantwell told us Judiciary approved a substitute but it died, presumably the victim of hidden hands.

Thus did this guest columnist highlight a big hole in the Journal’s coverage of the session.

There was at least one parenthetical notice of lobbyists, though.

In an UpFront column Feb. 5, headlined “Business Needs To Lead, Offer New Ideas”, Winthrop Quigley wrote:
“Business lobbyists are all over the Legislature pushing for a reduction in corporate income tax rates and an approach that bases taxes entirely on in-state sales.”

But Quigley’s observation is not the same thing as newspaper coverage of their activities.

If, in fact, Journal management chose to downplay the role of lobbies in state politics and government, that’s hardly surprising given the newspaper’s (oligarchic) political narrative.

The more important takeaway here is how cleverly the Journal employs its professional staff reporters without compromising management’s dedication to its editorial agenda.

The technique involves editors working around the staff, using assignments, the placement and play of stories, including headlines and art, to make sure the “news” narrative is what management wishes.

That’s my point, I could end here, but at the risk of gilding the lily, I must offer a magnificent example of the technique as applied to Colleen Heild’s big front-page story headlined “Warranty Loophole Costs Millions” Sunday, April 7.

Heild reported the state bears heavy maintenance costs for US 550, because of a unique contract negotiated about 15 years ago under Gov. Gary Johnson. That last information is in paragraph eight in the jump on page 6.

The editors’ cover photos include Pete Rahn’s at left (Johnson’s DOT chief, he still defends the deal) and Sen. John Arthur Smith’s to the right (the Deming Democrat worried about the deal).

Between those two the editors put – wait for it – Bill Richardson! His administration refinanced the contract.

There was no picture of Gary Johnson.

So if you read just the front page, you might not know that the chief executive in charge of this deal costing the state “millions” was Gary Johnson. In fact, you just might blame Bill Richardson.

Neatly done.

Kudos to the Albuquerque Journal editors who tiptoe ever-so-delicately around excellent reporters in the service of…well, you fill in the blank.

But please do not say it’s in the service of journalism.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Cheryl Everett

    Another thought about Journal-esque media manipulation by choice of words. Both electronic and print media have been “reporting” that the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorist acts were motivated by their Islamic “faith.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They were motivated, as far as we can tell, by religious intolerance, ethnic and cultural hatred and the psychosis of violence. I learned growing up in Dearborn MI ~ the largest Muslim community outside the Middle East ~ that Islam and its practitioners embrace peace and tolerance.

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