Thursday, December 16, 2004

Being Positive, Not Just Negative, is Good For Journalism

The world is grim enough these days, without the great newspapers making it seem worse. Yes, they have to report things honestly. But if they assume a whiny, preachy tone, such as is too often the case on The Los Angeles Times editorial pages, and sometimes on other pages as well, then it's no wonder many of their readers will opt out. And they are opting out. This is surely one reason the LAT has lost more than 200,000 subscribers since the Tribune Co. bought the paper five years ago.

Smart newspapermen are casting around imaginatively to find a way to publish positive as well as negative stories, on Page One and elsewhere.

Take the New York Times today, Dec. 16. Yes, it reports on Page One that a new defense missile failed to launch, and that many emotionally troubled soldiers will be coming back from Iraq.

But the story on the top left hand corner of Page One, under a two-column head, is about big retailers enticing Christmas business by offering opportunities for buyers to make a charitable contribution even while buying their loved ones presents. ABC Carpet & Home will deliver a water buffalo to a Cambodian village for only $135. And The Gap is selling teddy bears for $20, but a portion of the price is going to buy coats for poor boys and girls in North America.

In 39 years at the L.A. Times I could certainly be as negative as anyone. But sometimes when I wanted to be positive, particularly on a politician or a consumer product, I found there was tremendous resistance. It seemed more respectable at the paper to be negative.

Once, as a political writer, confidential police intelligence operatives tried to get me to slam San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, then running for governor, because they said his campaign had invited Mafia members to a fundraising dinner. I checked it out, and it turned out that an Italian American civic organization, without any input from the Alioto staff, had not differentiated between mobsters and good citizens in inviting people to a $15 or $20 dinner, I forget which. But I decided not to use the item. The LAPD types were disgusted with me. But Alioto became my friend for life, and when he was an attorney for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders there were times he was the only person with that organization who would talk to me.

Later, covering preparations for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I surged along, on a daily basis, raising questions about the threat of The Games to Los Angeles taxpayers. Everytime I talked to David Wolper, producer of the Games' opening and closing ceremonies, he would ask me, "What is this? More negativity?"

I'm proud that I had some role in bringing in the Games at nominal cost to the taxpayers. But later I concluded that I stayed too negative too long. When I finally wrote a few days into the Games that they looked like they were going to be a fabulous success. Noel Greenwood, then Times metro editor, chastised me for being too positive. Yet the Games were a success.

The big newspapers have to seize their opportunities to be positive, even occasionally on the Bush Administration, when it does something right. Don't tell me, it never does anything right. We are hurting ourselves, more than George W. Bush by being so negative.

I was back at a college reunion in October, on the night of the second debate, and a good many classmates were watching the debate upstairs from a class party. Every time the President said anything, it seemed that three or four of my classmates offered an insulting rejoinder. The rest of the crowd mostly said nothing. I told a friend later that the insulting remarks were going to get a certain number of peoples' backs up, and Bush could benefit from the insults. In retrospect, I'm sure he did.

The same is true of newspapers. They can't scream all of the time effectively, just some of the time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's an adrenaline surge over the 9/11's. You walk back to your desk and get on the phone or go out on the street and see that award dangling--rather than thousands of people devastated. Positive is for pussies. We dont think a soul reads soft serve--and it doesnt compete. It's all about beating our inner circle. We are the agenda, Ken.

12/16/2004 10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: "[T]hey have to report things honestly".

Ah. There's the rub. Increasingly, rarely, do newspapers of any stripe report things honestly. If they did they would have less to whine and moan about.

12/17/2004 4:34 AM  
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