We are worried, here in the newspaper business (motto: "What, YOU never make misstakes?"). We're hearing that you readers have lost your faith in us. Polls show that, in terms of public trust, the news media now rank lower than used-car salespeople, kidnappers, tapeworms, Hitler and airline flight announcements. (We are still slightly ahead of lawyers.)
Of course, these poll results were reported by the news media, so they could be wrong. In fact, there might not actually have been any polls; it's possible that some reporter made the whole "media credibility" story up. But I don't think so. I think the public is genuinely unhappy with us. Lately, when I tell people I work for a newspaper, I've detected the subtle signs of disapproval--the dirty looks, the snide remarks, the severed animal heads in my bed.
How did we get into this situation? Without pointing the finger of blame at any one institution, I would say it is entirely the fault of The New York Times.
For many years, the Times was considered a great newspaper, capable--as no other paper was--of publishing a Sunday edition the size of a Buick Riviera. But then a Times reporter was caught faking datelines. For example, he wrote a story with a West Virginia dateline, in which he said that the father of Private Jessica Lynch, quote, "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the French Alps."
This turned out to be incorrect, and the Times published an 843,000-word, 58-pound correction, concluding that "from his porch, Mr. Lynch would actually have been looking UP at the French Alps."
But it was too late: The barn door of trust had been left open, and the horse of newspaper credibility had run off, leaving behind the doots of reader doubt.
Tragically, because of this one "bad apple," the public is losing faith in ALL newspapers. So in an effort to restore my profession's reputation, today I want to tackle, "head-on," some of the hard questions that you, our readers, are asking about our business:
Q: Where do editorials come from?
A: We don't know. Every morning, we find a batch of unsigned but firmly held opinions lying on our doorstep, kind of like abandoned babies. We publish them in the hope that somebody, somewhere, will adopt them.
Q: How come when I read a newspaper story on a topic I'm familiar with, it always contains errors?
A: This requires a complex team effort, which I will explain by putting key terms in capital letters: First, the REPORTER gathers information by interviewing PEOPLE and trying to write down what they say, getting approximately 35 percent of it right. The REPORTER then writes a STORY, which goes to an EDITOR, who bitterly resents the REPORTER because the REPORTER gets to go outside sometimes, whereas the EDITOR is stuck in the building eating NEWSPAPER CAFETERIA "FOOD" that was originally developed by construction-industry researchers as a substitute for PLYWOOD.
The EDITOR, following journalism tradition, decides that the REPORTER has put the real point of the story in the 14th paragraph, which the EDITOR then attempts to move using the "cut and paste command," which results in the story disappearing into ANOTHER DIMENSION, partly because the EDITOR, like most journalists, has the mechanical aptitude of a RUTABAGA, but also because the NEW COMPUTER SYSTEM has a few "bugs" as a result of being installed by a low-bid VENDOR whose previous experience consisted of servicing WHACK-A-MOLE GAMES.
So the REPORTER and the EDITOR, who now hate each other even more than they already did, hastily slap a story together from memory, then turn it over to a GRAPHIC DESIGN PERSON who cannot actually read but is a wizard on the APPLE MACINTOSH, and who will cut any remaining accurate sentences out of the story to make room on the page for a colorful, "reader-friendly" CHART, which was actually supposed to illustrate a story in an entirely different SECTION.
Yes, it's a lot of work, but we do it night after night, with story after story, all so that when you, the reader, go out to your front yard to get your newspaper, it's not there.
Check your roof, OK?