American Pie 27.05.05

An
astonishing one in five Americans believe that the government should be
allowed to censor the press. This was one of the findings in a new
survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut, even before the
publication by Newsweek of its incendiary story about prison guards in
Guantanamo desecrating the Koran by flushing it down a toilet – a
report which Newsweek has had to concede it may have got wrong. All of
which has highlighted once again the American public’s distrust of the
media. One other finding of the survey is the belief by 43 per cent of
the public that the American press has too much freedom, while 60 per
cent feel the media is biased. Which raises the question: Did Newsweek
run the story because it was biased – or just guilty of sloppy
reporting? Most journalists here feel Newsweek just slipped up.
Ironically, Newsweek was not the first major news organisation to
report that copies of the Koran had been desecrated. The Washington
Post, BBC and New York Times all made the charge – long before
Newsweek. The difference perhaps is that only Newsweek reported that
the charge was part of an official government report, whereas the
earlier reports were based on claims by former inmates at Guantanamo.
It was left to Steve Dunleavy, of the NY Post, to perspicaciously point
out that it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to flush any book
down a toilet.

The campaign against anonymous sources is gaining
momentum (Press Gazette, 20 May). Although the White House has not yet
agreed to ban off-the-record news briefings, some newspapers have
voluntarily banned the use of unnamed sources, most notably USA Today,
the largest selling paper in the US. It claims that one year after
instituting tighter controls it has reduced the number of anonymous
sources in its pages by 75 per cent. Says editor Ken Paulson: “We still
probably average three or four anonymous sources in our copy each week.
But it used to average a dozen a week.” Paulson took over the
editorship after the resignation of his predecessor in the wake of the
scandal involving one of USA Today’s reporters who admitted fabricating
quotes. Today reporters have to get the approval of at least one of
five managing editors to use an unnamed source in a story. The editor
in chief also has to be advised.

Do mothers in America really
scare their children into eating their vegetables by invoking the name
of Conrad Black as a bogeyman?

That’s what the former newspaper
chief – presumably tongue in cheek – told Fortune magazine in the first
interview he has given in two years. But it won’t always be that way,
he insists. He is planning a comeback – once all the court cases
stemming from the alleged “looting” of Hollinger International are out
of the way. His comeback he acknowledged to Fortune may not be in
newspapers. “It’s no longer a growth industry,” he averred.

Will readers of the New York Times be willing to pay $50 a year to read the paper’s features and editorials on their computers?

The
paper is hoping so, which is why it has introduced a new service for
those eager for the top features before the paper goes on sale.
Actually, regular subscribers will get the service free, but for
columnists on the Times and the International Herald Tribune it will
now be pay as you read. While charging for news content has worked on
some papers, it has been a failure at others. The LA Times for example
has just decided to stop charging for its theatre and movie reviews and
its entertainment listings. Although advertising on websites accounts
for only two to three per cent of income at most papers, it is the
fastest growing source of revenue. The NY Times’ website logs about
1,700,000 visitors a day. That’s more than its daily circulation which,
according to the last audit, was just over 1,130,000. Some of the
writers on the Times have mixed feelings. One said: “The capitalist in
me applauds any effort to make money.” But Clyde Haberman, one of the
Times’ best-known feature writers, said: “I hope the idea works. But if
it fails I hope they won’t blame us.”

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