Monday, August 28, 2006

The news: Based on a true story

Like most philosophical discussions, it took place in a bar.

The Society of Professional Journalists met in Chicago this weekend, and a crowd from Maryland followed me to the Billy Goat Tavern. This bar below Michigan Avenue features a grill that's said to be a model for late comedian John Belushi's "cheezborger" diner sketch. But it's a journalists' bar, across from the Chicago Tribune, lined with photographs of gone or forgotten Chicago journalists.

We were talking about fake news.

Irony is the language of modern debate, even in a crowd of reporters. Maybe especially in a crowd of reporters. A "Celebration of Diversity" convention reception drew operagoing journalists (yes, the tribe includes even operagoers) to hear up-and-coming Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel. His choice of song? "La donna e mobile," Verdi's aria about the fickle nature of woman. For those of us with Lyric Opera season tickets, this confection had a bitter aftertaste.

As the evening wound down from wine at the recital to beers at the Goat, chat geared up from the opera to the Onion, a satirical weekly that delivers topical humor in deadpan wire-service style. Typical headline: Bush Urges Nation To Be Quiet For A Minute While He Tries To Think.

Political satire has a long and puckish history in newspapers, but the Onion has a special following among journalists for its sly use of newspaper conventions, from promotional teaser headlines to iconic graphics.

A recent journalism-school graduate in our group enjoyed the Onion's fanciful editorial page, where all publishing executives are named Zweibel. That's an in-joke, I explained: The Onion started in Madison, Wis., originally a German settlement where everyone seems to be named Zweibel (translation: onion). A newspaper editor in Madison is named Dave Zweifel (translation: doubt).

The Onion has spawned imitators such as the Heckler, a Chicago sports tabloid with a standing feature titled "Over/Under With Pete Rose." Oddly, both the Onion and the Heckler put their fake news alongside factual, if not irony-free, entertainment features.

Beltway editors in our group had not seen the Onion but knew plenty about "The Daily Show," the Onion's television twin. Jon Stewart's smart comedy has many fans among young reporters, and if polling is to be believed, among well-informed young adults in general. In the last election, "Daily Show" fans scored higher on campaign platforms than viewers of other late-night hosts.

"The Daily Show" has a veracity segment too, a newsmaker interview in which Stewart delivers more pointed questions than Leno or Letterman.

The young Onion fan saw the "Daily Show" as part of a generational divide: College students think Stewart's fake newscasts are on point, while older adults find the satire corrosive. The newly minted j-school grad was of two minds. She enjoys the comedy. She abhors the attitude.

Journalistic convention is a foil in the Onion and on "The Daily Show." It plays deadpan while stating the outrageous. However, my generation of Watergate-raised reporters never bought into the conceit of just-the-facts reporting. Instead we tried to walk a line, being analytical but not critical.

Now news seems married to polemics. Perhaps it's simply impossible these days to absorb news reports without drawing conclusions. Broadcast talk shows start from a conclusion. "Liberals hate us" is the billboard boast of Chicago radio station WIND. Air America Radio affiliate WCPT answers, "Liberals love us."

Centerists can only tune it out.

Advance word on ABC's docudrama "The Path to 9/11" suggests that its producers are trying not to let facts get in the way of a good story. The miniseries dramatizes behind-the-scenes planning in the war on terror, which would be understandable if none of the planners were around to tell the tale.

All of this seems like the swing of a very slow pendulum back to days of a press captive to its political sponsors, when newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin wrote under sly surnames like Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue.

Fact-finding is expensive, and drags down newspaper share prices. Satire is a visit to low-overhead country. Now, bloggers share the satirists' business model. Yet even as we write ironically, we know how cheaply it comes.

Satire is one of the few weapons the powerless can aim at slavers or dictators. But it has little force to change what it ridicules. The Berlin Wall was not mocked into oblivion. Yet increasingly satire is how we interpret politics. When George Stephanopoulos wants to take the country's temperature on ABC, he shows clips from "The Daily Show."

Sen. Joe Biden writes in his latest statement on Iraq: "Those who reject this plan out of hand must answer one simple question: What is your alternative?" It's Biden's pre-emptive strike at irony.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sympathy for the coach

I've got an hour scheduled with my boss this week, just to talk about what I've been up to.

No, I'm not telling tales out of school. This could be an appointment with any of my bosses. My work supervisor, my wife, my God. It doesn't matter. Received wisdom now comes in 90-second bursts between appointments, or commercials, or errands.

This is how the work world works these days. Few managers have time to give orders. Employees must be think for themselves. At least that's how it seemed when I analyzed why my corporate jobs were being billed as "entrepreneurial."

It still helps to sit down with a manager to assess where those short bursts of direction lead. The schedule doesn't always allow it. But whatever the interval of such debriefings, I'll coach the boss as much as she coaches me. (Again, in my world "she" is the image and likeness of any boss.)

Early in my career as an editor, I considered myself a good coach. A reporter would call me Chief, and like Perry White to cub reporter Jimmy Olsen I'd say "Don't call me Chief!" But I wouldn't mind being called Coach. Coaching was interactive. You gave as good as you got. You started with a meeting of the minds on what the assignment was and what it would take to get it. You ended with time to review edits line by line, show that there was a reason behind every change, and make sure the result made sense.

In practice, it wasn't that simple. The postmortem was the first to go. Long chalk talks with junior reporters might have made sense at the suburban bureau, but daily deadlines are tighter and senior reporters have their own ways of doing things. At first I tried cutting to the chase, pointing to a buried phrase and saying, "Here's where it all starts to make sense for me." But soon enough, waiting for copy left too little time to revise it.

Collaboration always makes sense at the start when an idea is taking shape. But deadline editing is more of a head game, trying to influence or at least keep up with the reporter's thoughts between interviews.

Now that editing is a minor part of my project work, coaching is even more about time management. The clock is running on every interaction, and I'm still trying to figure out how much mileage I can get out of how few words. A successful starting point: Here's the payoff, and here's the roadblock to getting it.

Then it's time to collaborate on a solution, as the schedule permits.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reading sparingly, listening liberally

People are turning more frequently to online news, according to a new Pew Research Center report. This seems to come at the expense of radio, which competes most directly with online for the breaking-news headlines audience.

Beyond that, news habits haven't changed much in my reading of past Pew reports. The combined news audience has held steady amid expanding leisure pursuits; there's a booming demand for news about finance, health and religion.

And the taste for news is still acquired with age; younger readers enjoy the Web because they don't need to read much. However, NPR's audience share is catching up to Fox News; liberal Democrats bucked a trend and maintained their interest in politics in advance of the offyear elections.