Blasting Phone Hackers, Bugging the Buggers and Capturing David Carr
After a full year of finding the best-written and most useful reporting and writing about media on a weekly basis, we've narrowed it down to a few articles, columns, and blog posts that were most successful in explaining the media business to itself in 2011.
To quote the late Christopher Hitchens, "Herewith. Hope it serves."
Best (Almost Accurate) Scoop: Nick Davies, The Guardian
The naughty deeds of the journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.and elsewhere on Fleet Street had been simmering in investigators' pots for several years. To get the story to boil over took a singular revelation -- Mr. Davies' discovery that The News of the World had hacked the phone of an abducted girl, deleting voice mails and giving the aggrieved family false hope. The findings, which came to light thanks to months and months of Mr. Davies' shoe-leather journalism, were explosive, leading to the firings and resignations of several News Corp. executives, the closing of NOTW, and more inquiries that have thrust Mr. Murdoch and his son James and their leadership into the public glare. The article even had the added virtue of being correct -- mostly. A police investigation this month determined that Mr. Davies' assertion that it was NOTW hacks that wiped out voice messages was incorrect. This is causing new controversy, as observers wonder whether an inaccuracy was responsible for putting hundreds of people out of work or whether other evidence of the paper's spurious practices would have brought it down in any event. Either way, the phone-hacking scoop ended up being 2011's version of WikiLeaks, spectacular, far-reaching, and not a little problematic.
Best Performance by an Actor: Hugh Grant, The New Statesman, "The Bugger, Bugged"
Hugh Grant was standing helplessly outside his broken-down car when he was picked up by a passerby who turns out to be one of his former paparazzi harassers. Speaking frankly during the trip, the ex-journo, now a pub owner, ended up confessing in rather matter-of -fact fashion to hacking Mr. Grant's phone. Then Mr. Grant decided to go back and secretly tape a conversation in which the man repeats many of the same admissions. If it sounds almost like the summary of a movie, it's not. Mr. Grant, one of many celebrities who have been outspoken on the matter of journalistic excesses in Britain, actually published this account in The New Statesman:
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging -- what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up. ... So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that ?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Best Portraiture: Tom McGeveran, Capital New York, "The Kingdom and the Power of David Carr"
Since I'd imagine the significance of David Carr will be difficult to explain to future generations, it's a good thing that we will have as an aid Tom McGeveran's profile for Capital New York. Written on the occasion of the release of "Page One," a documentary about The New York Times that only really lit up when Mr. Carr was on the screen, Mr. McGeveran did a service in explaining his subject's broader meaning. Too often Mr. Carr, who kicked both crack and alternative weeklies to become The Times' media columnist, is reduced to the drug-addict-made-good archetype. He is so much more than that , especially a forceful yet lovable spokesman for one of our most important institutions.
This is one version of David Carr, which he endorses: a veteran of the alternative newsweekly scene and the media-focused Web 1.0 craze; a former crack addict and single father on welfare who has written a memoir all about it without sparing himself, who tweets with abandon, moves comfortably among the paper's enemies at dinners, parties and media events; a journeyman reporter who is content to have the ear of the executive editor and cub reporters alike on an informal basis, grateful as he is to have the job he has.
It's not wrong, but it's not complete. It doesn't begin to hint at his influence, and the way in which he projects the power of his institution. I don't think it's too much to suggest that to the industry, David Carr is the battle-hardened face of The New York Times, that kind of zealous convert every clerical magisterium (and the top of the Times masthead is a sort of Vatican) wishes for but could never intentionally create. He is its most important champion.
Best Painting a Bull's-Eye on Oneself: Dean Starkman, Columbia Journalism Review
The beating that the institution of journalism has been taking for several years has come in many different forms, from the market and technological forces that have pulled so much advertising from newspapers and magazines to the theoretical pounding the trade's practices and processes have been getting from academe. For a few loud critics, the news-gathering processes at many news organizations have grown moldy and need a rethink. Among others, Dean Starkman points to Jeff Jarvis' interrogation of the idea of the article and John Paton's "digital first" focus on the crowd and networked journalism. In "Confidence Game," Mr. Starkman summarized and parsed the number of these "future of news," or FON, thinkers, producing a useful critique as well as one of my favorite lines of the year: "I covered Pawtucket City Hall, and you had to pay me." Here's a longer excerpt:
But we can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that "information wants to be free" (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information's value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, "walls," don't fit into a networked vision. It's worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn't to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it. The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it.
Best Media Coinage: Paul Ford, New York magazine
A calm essay by Paul Ford could be read as the antidote to all the shrilling over technology and journalism's uneasy intersection. In his understanding of today's scene, social media is about the "ceaseless flow of time" while he imagines old media as something called "the Epiphanator," "a giant steampunk machine that organizes time into stories." Admitting his biases while refusing to take sides, the author argues that it's impossible to predict which will win out or if there will even be a clear winner, but holds a place for expert storytellers:
We'll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important "■" to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending.
We'll get this lil Epiphanator cranking again on Thursday, for Part 2.
Matthew Creamer is an editor at large at Ad Age . You can find him on Twitter, at @matt_creamer.