Monday, April 02, 2007

Guess Who's Coming to Edit?

The print journalism profession is engaged in so much soul searching these days it could pass as a parole hearing.

What does the future hold? Is there a future? Should we move everything lock, stock and printing press to a web site? But how do you make a web site pay, when news is available almost anywhere free of charge? What about blogs? Are they reliable sources for information? And what about citizen journalism? Do you want your newspaper written by the guy next door?

It is this kind of hand wringing that makes some editors attempt what can be charitably described as gimmick-based journalism in attempt to appear cutting edge.

Example A is the latest very public soap opera to be staged down at the Los Angeles Times.

As we join this episode, the Times has decided to turn its Sunday opinion and editorial section over to a "guest editor."

But the first "guest" down the chute is Brian Grazer, a Hollywood producer who, it turns out, is represented by a publicist who is the opinion editor's girlfriend. Questions are immediately raised as to whether Grazer received favorable consideration in landing the assignment.

The debate over the Times sometimes cozy relationship with Hollywood is re-ignited.

Accusations are made. Angry words are exchanged. Feelings are hurt.

The entire Sunday section is scrapped, opinion editor Andres Martinez quits and the "guest editor" program is relegated to the trash heap. In the middle of it all, the mud slinging and finger pointing by editors, columnists, pundits and academics reaches a threshold unmatched since the last presidential campaign.

Other "guest editors" whose work we will never see included Donald Rumsfeld and Magic Johnson. Honest.

And the Times, already staggered by a number of body blows delviered by its greedy corporate owners in Chicago, gets a black eye.

Indeed, the elevated volume of outrage coming from the Times newsroom is in direct proportion to the distain felt for their Tribune overlords, one of which is the publisher who signed off on this "guest editor" nonsense.

Worse yet, instead of becoming the source, the Times becomes the story.

There is no question that citizen voices play an important part in any news publication. There is good reading in the letters column. There is intriguing debate in op-ed pieces.

But I would no more let Donald Rumsfeld run my opinion pages than he would let me run the Department of Defense. Each job requires a professional.

And despite what you may think of journalists, there are skills involved.

Allison Silver, a former editor of the Times Opinion section, put it this way:

"No matter how clever and talented the invited guest is, the decision to go outside journalism suggests indifference to editing as a critical profession. It goes without saying that you wouldn't turn your Sunset Strip restaurant over to your mom for the night no matter how good a cook she is, or take the Jet Propulsion Lab away from Caltech and give it to CalArts to run, just to shake things up. But the newspaper was suggesting that any one of a number of smart amateurs could pull together a Sunday analysis section, given a little guidance. Professional experience and journalistic skill were deemed of secondary value."

The Times is not alone in this quagmire. Vanity Fair magazine is turning an issue over to Bono, the rock musician/activist, to edit.

Is this a trend? If it is, objectivity could be the victim. And the newspaper profession can ill afford that kind of problem at this time and place.

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