To judge from this year's rash of apologetic postmortems,
American newspapers are a very sorry bunch.
The New York Times acknowledged downplaying skepticism about
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. USA Today explored how it let a
top foreign correspondent fool editors for years with fake reports.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story that
said the newspaper's prewar coverage "in hindsight looks strikingly
one-sided at times." And, perhaps most amazingly, a Kentucky
newspaper in July admitted that it had virtually failed to cover the
civil rights movement.
Some of this, of course, is damage control in an era when the
news media are struggling to restore faltering credibility with
readers. But beyond that, there's a debate over what this trend
signifies - a mere bout of self-analysis that amounts to navel-
gazing, or a break with the newspaper industry's tradition of
considering itself above reproach. "We have a culture of thinking
that we're always right," says Arlene Morgan, associate dean at the
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and former assistant managing
editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In reality, of course, newspapers make plenty of blunders, from
confusing actress Angelica Huston's last name with the largest city
in Texas to declaring that President Bush carried a fake turkey to
soldiers in Iraq last Thanksgiving. (He didn't.)
Readers notice the errors. In 1999, a landmark industry report
found that nearly a quarter of newspaper readers surveyed discovered
factual errors in newspapers each week; 73 percent said they'd
become more skeptical of media accuracy. Then, last year, the
credibility of the press fell even further when alert journalists
began exposing colleagues who fabricated and plagiarized their
In a world where Jayson Blair became fodder for a David Letterman
Top 10 list, it's perhaps not surprising that The New York Times, in
particular, has been sensitive about mistakes. Among other things,
it hired a reader's representative who promptly annoyed staffers
with a series of critical columns.
In addition to postscandal damage control, there's another factor
in the growing list of mea culpas, according to Geneva Overholser,
faculty member at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Internet,
she says, gives critics a louder voice than they had in the past,
when they needed access to a printing press to spread their opinions
across the country. "Each of these criticisms is far more powerful
than it used to be," she says, "and in turn causes newspapers to
feel more compelled to be transparent. That is a good thing."
Otto von Bismarck famously said that it's best not to see how
laws or sausages are made - and some say the chaotic inner workings
of newspapers shouldn't get a public airing, either. …