Monday, March 24, 2008

The No Journalism Zone

A friend of mine alerted me to this little bit on page 22 of the Feb.2008 edition of Boston Magazine. Click the image to read it, but the short version is that the Daily Free Press (the independent student newspaper at BU) is in deep doo-doo financially and is considering money from the king of "truthiness": Bill O'Reilly.

Bill O'Reilly?

Bailing out the Freep??


Okay, I admit...I'm a WTBU grad, and there was a serious rivalry between WTBU and the Daily Free Press. Neither of us had much respect for each other and, in retrospect, neither of us deserved any respect anyways. So there's a certain degree of glee for me that's associated with bad news for the Freep.

And it's not like the Freep is immune to all the problems that have plagued the newspaper industry as a whole in the past ten years. Certainly the arrival of the Boston Metro and BostonNOW have been exceptionally damaging to the Freep...since prior to them, the Freep was indeed Boston's third largest daily newspaper. And the Freep was great for BU students because it was free, readily available all over BU's campus, and a quick enough read to be taken in over lunch...three things both the Metro and BostonNOW are as well, and are (debatebly) better papers to boot.

But dammit. Even I wouldn't wish this on the Freep.


Something that has come up often in my discussions on journalism is that PERCEPTION MATTERS. If you are going to present yourself as an objective source of journalism to your readers, you must be above suspicion of any lack of objectivity.

Bill O'Reilly is the living embodiment of lack of objectivity. Regardless of how he may be in person, his "news show" never fails to bend, or break, the truth. It plays fast and loose with the facts. In short, it has zero regard of objectivity...and it is NOT objective journalism. It is advocacy journalism...and while technically there's nothing wrong with that, I do wish more people in America would realize that fact and take everything Bill says with a fat grain of salt.

Kyle Cheney is simply wrong here: there is very much a reason why the Freep should distinguish between alumni when it comes to financial assistance. If you take Bill's money, you take his taint as well; you can't sell only a small piece of your soul, as it were.

All the more so as O'Reilly is quoted as saying "I need to see exactly what their situation is; then I can come up with a plan to help them." Which is entirely the worst kind of donation: the kind with strings attached. Oh sure, O'Reilly is correct in saying "just to throw them a check ain't going to help in the long run" because the problems with the Freep are endemic to the newspaper industry as a whole. But to turn to O'Reilly to develop strategies for dealing with those problems means you're going to sensationalize the news and turn the Freep into a print version of the "No Spin Zone" because, fiscally, that's what's worked for O'Reilly and Fox News in general.

But that doesn't mean it's the only solution, and it sure as hell doesn't mean it's the RIGHT solution. The last thing this world needs is several hundred little Fox News disciples churning out of the Daily Free Press every year.

As an alum, I don't give anything to Boston University because the school was far too focused on business and profits when I was there. That's changed somewhat since former BU President John Silber left, but nowhere near enough. That the Freep is even considering having O'Reilly restructure them is just more evidence that my alma mater is still not worthy of my donations.


GoBUGoBU said...

I'm surprised it's taken this long for the Freep to have such serious problems. I can remember issues in the late 90s that were filled with large swatches of white space because they didn't have enough ads. And they still had the nerve to reject columnists and content. (I'm not harboring a grudge, as I never submitted anything to the Freep. I just know it was happening.)

Aaron Read said...

While what you describe is true, it's not as indicative of the Freep's problems as you might think. I was interviewed several times by the Freep in my capacity as Technical Director for WTBU. And I was misquoted (or taken wildly out of context) every time.

Later, as I worked more and more in journalism, I came to understand that while the Freep is perhaps more extreme, virtually all newspapers do that. Anyone with any direct knowledge of a given newsworthy situation will quickly see that a newspaper will drastically oversimplify things for their stories. It's not really "good", but I can see why it has to be done; to get into enough detail to really explain even a fairly cut-n-dried situation would take reams of paper; whereas columnists are lucky if they have 1000 words to tell the entire story.

I would argue that the Freep's problems stem mostly from one source: John Silber. He has a deep-seated hatred of journalists in general, from what I've heard. I know there were at least a few power plays on the College of Communication's journalism department as a whole during Silber's reign, and certainly he did nothing to make the Freep's life any easier. Hell, a large part of the reason why the Freep stayed "independent" (and thus set itself up for future fiscal failure) was because of the deep mistrust going both ways between Silber and the Freep's editors (and their one paid professional staff member).

BTW, I was at BU from 1994-98 and a regular Freep reader...I don't remember too many "large swatches of white space" but I do certainly remember some issues have 14 pages while some only had 10 or 12. Same difference in the end, I suppose: not enough ads to fill the space.

Also, FWIW, I have often argued that it would make a surprising amount of sense for Boston University to purchase the Boston Globe and turn it into a real-world, apprenticeship-based teaching institution. All employees required to take on a handful of students to mentor for a year...that sort of exchange for BU using its relatively stable & relatively deep pockets to keep the Globe afloat financially for the long term.

Certainly it wouldn't hurt BU's prestige to say they own and operate the largest daily newspaper in New England, and it won't be long before the Globe becomes one of the best papers around because they'll have more stable finances than everyone else.

And while it would be pricey, the Globe probably could be bought with money BU has on-hand, without breaking BU's bank.