James Naughton


Made a career out of covering politicians when people cared to read about that. Moved on to editing, managing and cavorting in newsrooms, often while dressed in costume.

Juan Williams Case Confuses Objectivity with Fairness on Tendentious Television

When Spiro Agnew was compelled to resign the vice presidency after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges, I made the mistake of accepting an invitation to appear on David Susskind’s televised talk show. It was, I naively thought, an opportunity to discuss in detail how that complicated politician had gotten in trouble accepting cash and groceries while governor of Maryland and as vice president.

But the 1973 Susskind program quickly devolved into a clash of loud opinions among William Rusher, Roy Cohn, Pete Hamill, Jules Witcover and Frank Van Der Linden, as I sat mostly mute. During a commercial break, a producer came to me and said, “Get in there and mix it up.” I did not, and never again accepted an invitation to appear on the increasingly tendentious telecasts that masquerade as news analysis.

NPR was right to sever its relationship with Juan Williams — but not for what Williams had said about Muslims on the Fox Network’s “O’Reilly Factor.” Those comments were relatively benign. Williams now contends NPR had been itching to find an excuse to fire him merely for appearing on Fox. He’s right; my only quibble is whether NPR needed any provocation.

We journalists are not and never have been objective. We are, like all humans, conditioned by experience, upbringing, and education, and thus incapable of mindless neutrality. But we strive for fairness. The problem with a journalist participating in opinion-mongering programs on Fox — or on MSNBC — is that these programs by their very nature are unfair. They thrive on inciting and showcasing bias.

It is correct, as some thoughtful journalists have noted, that news organizations have a hard time distinguishing what is permitted of their own commentators. Yes, analysts have wider latitude to opine than do straight news reporters. But what is valued in mainstream news organizations is the judgment of commentators, and judgment is not what motivates producers of programming like “The Sean Hannity Show” or “Hardball.” Heat, not light, is their objective. Rupert Murdoch is not alone in discovering there is big money to be made catering to the worse angels of our nature.

NPR badly mishandled the dismissal of Juan Williams. The public broadcaster could have avoided the current imbroglio if it had thoughtfully and methodically issued a guideline barring appearances by its staff on these tendentious telecasts (but not on more dispassionate programs such as those on Fox hosted by Shepard Smith). Williams would then have had a choice between paychecks issued by NPR or by Fox. There’s scant likelihood he’d have chosen NPR.
Jim Naughton was President of The Poynter Institute from 1996 to 2003. Read more


The Real Jerry Ford

Gerald Ford may have been the most genuine person ever to serve in the White House. He was basic, real, without guile or pretense.

When two deranged women made attempts on his life during his brief presidency, my editors at The New York Times began, responsibly, hassling me as the White House correspondent to prepare an advance obituary on President Ford. That was in 1975. It took two years to accomplish, in large part because the president really didn’t want to cooperate with what he called “the death story.”

Finally, after he had left office in 1977, I persuaded Ford to let me interview him for the advance obit. The ground rules were that nothing he would say in the interview could be published until his death. I prepared for the meeting with vigor, shaping and reshaping questions designed to elicit comments that he could not or would not make publicly while alive. I was determined to dig deeply and discover the real Jerry Ford.

We sat in the living room of his condo in Vail, Colo. He was gracious and responsive — and completely without deep insight. The questions produced nothing that President Ford had not said about his philosophy, his policies or his life while in the House of Representatives, or as vice president or as president.

At the time, I considered the interview a failure. But I’ve come to realize that it perfectly reflected the central characteristic of Jerry Ford: He was what he seemed to be.

That’s rare in a politician. The fact that he served after so devious a president as Richard Nixon made his straightforwardness all the more remarkable and valuable.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider this: The advance obit written in 1977 was virtually unchanged for nearly 30 years, except for some recent updating by Adam Clymer. Jerry Ford was what he seemed to be.

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It’s Not About the Shape of the Paper

The truth is I’m not opposed to tabloids. I When we first were developing zoned sections in Philadelphia we made them tabs, so they would be distinctive, would slide out of the mainsheet with ease, would give the readers in the zones a feeling of uniqueness, a section just for them. One of the most successful sections of the Inquirer was and probably still is Weekend, the Friday entertainment tab.

There’s no question that we competed like hell with the Daily News, but not because it was a tab.

It seems to me the shape of the paper isn’t really the issue; what matters are the four Cs: the content, the continuity, the coherence and the completeness.

The one issue on which broadsheets have a modest advantage is continuity. If you have to go searching for the section you want, that’s a turnoff to readers. But there are plenty of broadsheets that move the business section or local news or sports around from day to day.

I’ve long admired Newsday and had grudging respect for the Philadelphia Daily News.

This is off the point, but the concern I would have about switching is simply that: switching. Readers of newspapers tend to be creatures of habit. Change something and it pisses them off. Some of the problem many papers have had in recent years is because they keep changing things — and fibbing to readers about why, contending it’s to improve the paper when it’s really to improve the bottom line. Read more


Your Editor, Your Lifeline

Not long after Bob Rosenthal was posted to Nairobi for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he and a Los Angeles Times correspondent were imprisoned by Idi Amin’s soldiers in a remote part of Uganda. Editors at the two newspapers had to enlist pressure from the U.S. State Department and Congress to get the reporters released.

You know Rosey means it when he calls the desk a lifeline.

He’s made that judgment from several vantages. As a correspondent in the 1980s, before laptops and cell phones, the desk was his “voice from home.” They told him how the Phillies were doing, kept him abreast of gossip in the newsroom, patched his phone calls through to his parents and fianceé, and got his stories the good play they deserved.

When Rosey returned home from Africa, he parked on the Foreign Desk while the bozos who ran the paper figured out what he should do next. It soon became obvious he was gifted at helping other correspondents cope with living and working abroad. The bozos eventually appointed Rosey foreign editor.

“The most important job the desk has,” he discovered, “is giving context to the correspondent.” How does the correspondent’s story fit into the flow of events? Where can the correspondent go to give flesh to the geopolitics, to turn a development into a tale?

Conversation with an empathetic boss back home, Rosey found, can be pivotal. The correspondent and the editor are schmoozing. The correspondent recounts something that doesn’t sound to the seasoned world traveler like a big deal. The editor hears it as something intriguing and, if the editor is like Rosey, erupts:

“That’s the story!”

“Why?” says the correspondent.

“Because,” says the editor, “no one here knows that.”

When Rosey ran the foreign desk it had six correspondents and five assigning editors. It wasn’t overkill. The backfield editors weren’t just shoveling copy or tending the wires. They were available when the correspondent needed guidance in Asia or Africa or Europe, not just during daylight on the desk. They were abetting, guiding, supporting, assisting the correspondents who were immersed in events that, without help, could overwhelm them.

Or kill them.

The desk has to keep acknowledging that it understands the rigors of being alone – and afraid – overseas.“You’re literally putting people in positions where they can be killed or kidnapped,” said Rosenthal. “Especially if you’re sending out people who are green, they really need direction.”

Even vets want a desk back home that comprehends what they are up against, who knows how hard the correspondent’s job is, physically and emotionally, who will ask questions like, “Get any sleep last night?” Or, “When can you get a chance to shower?” Or, “Can I patch you through to your daughter?”

The desk has to keep acknowledging that it understands the rigors of being alone –- and afraid –- overseas. “It’s crucial,” said Rosey. “If the person you work for doesn’t understand, you’re miserable.”

At its best, he said, the editor’s role is not one of fixing stories but of collaborating with correspondents, and they get into “a rhythm, a culture, a pace” together in pursuit of the story.

Rosenthal went on in Philadelphia to be the paper’s top editor, a role in which he resisted demands to reduce the overseas staff and the desk. Now he is managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Watch what happens to its overseas coverage. Read more


In Case of Emergency, Break Class

At Poynter, we know our first obligation is to you, the teachers and students who come to participate in our seminars. With that in mind, we’ve devised these protocols in case a national emergency disrupts your life en route to, or during, a Poynter seminar:

  1. If the boss no longer can spare you, we’ll adapt to your –- and your boss’s -– needs.

  2. You and your company will receive a full refund of your tuition and housing fee if Poynter has to cancel a seminar because the participants cannot attend.

  3. If the emergency occurs during a seminar and you need to leave, Poynter will refund the unused portion of the seminar and housing fee.

  4. Our agile program staff will assist you in making travel arrangements to return to your job if you must leave prematurely.

  5. What about seminar participants who don’t have to depart in an emergency? We’ve conducted some programs for small groups and, when appropriate, we can adjust the training to a more intimate style.

  6. Poynter’s faculty will reach out to participants who cannot get here by putting additional training materials on Poynter Online.

  7. We hope your life is not disrupted by events beyond your control. If it is, we’ll try to demonstrate how well we understand deadlines –- and change.
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Opening Remarks to Journalism & Business Values Participants

Welcome to The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

We don’t always say those last three words: For Media Studies.

Most people know us as Poynter or, in an oddity I’ve never understood, THE Poynter.

Some know us by our marketing slogan: Poynter, A School for Journalists.

I’m focusing on these differences because it’s important that we stress tonight that this is an institute for media studies.

And this could be the most important gathering ever convened at Poynter, certainly the most notable to be focused on media studies.

I have, in that context, three confessions to make.

The first is that we here at Poynter do not have all the answers.

Yes, we teach. We also learn.  

While we can –- and often should –- make declarations about journalism with the ring of authority, we treasure having established a place where unsettled issues can be discussed with vigor and openness.

This is one of those times.

As Larry Jinks or Bob Steele can attest, we’ve been eager to create a forum in which, without the customary preconceptions and rhetoric, leaders of the craft of journalism and leaders of the business of journalism help each other understand where their values must diverge -– and where their values can or should converge.

Gregory Favre, bless him, has brought you here in the belief that this may be the medium.

We’ll see, soon enough.

The second confession, with which some of my colleagues in journalism may disagree, is that we journalists have done an awful job of explaining our values.

We too often have cloaked our cultural habits or our newsroom traditions in the protective embrace of the First Amendment, thus diminishing the power of the values for which we really stand.

It’s only fair to note that some corporate leaders may too often have dismissed or too easily overridden the fears of newsroom leaders about the extent to which maximizing profit can minimize journalism.

What we hope to attain in the next day or so is a more reasoned dialogue about why journalism matters to the business and why business matters to the journalism.

In that connection, I want to especially urge you to give a respectful hearing tomorrow to Tom Rosenstiel, Phil Meyer, Rick Edmonds and Roy Clark.

They are trying to move the endless and fruitless conflict between the newsroom and the boardroom toward more common ground by conducting research about the relationship between business success and journalism success.

They are working toward the development of honest, neutral measurements of journalism capacity.

If they succeed, future discussions of corporate values can have more of a basis in hard fact than in self-protective rhetoric.

My third confession –- this may shock some of you –- is that The Poynter Institute understands the values of the boardroom.

Poynter owns a media corporation.

We care –- emphatically — about financial performance.

The very existence of this institute depends on the profitability of the Times Publishing Company.

One of the Principles of Ownership enunciated half a century ago by Nelson Poynter was this: “To maintain a strong editorial policy, a newspaper or broadcasting concern must be in a sound financial condition.”

The final confession is more personal.

My colleagues here have taken to greeting me with that annoying sound made by the AFLAC duck.

Yes, I’m a lame duck.

I’m hoping that this creates, for Poynter, a genuine opportunity.

In some ways, my presence here may have retarded Poynter’s ability to facilitate the values dialogue.

I make no apology for being outspoken in behalf of journalism and journalism values.

But let’s be honest: I bring baggage to that dialogue.

The remarkable woman who soon will succeed me does not.

Karen Dunlap cares deeply about journalism and its values. But where I might be accused of acting out of cultural identity or journalistic intuition, she cannot. She acts on research, on critical thinking, and on principle. When it comes to media studies, Dr. Karen Dunlap is the real deal.

What you do in this meeting will help Karen and her faculty colleagues shape meaningful programs to help set a proper balance between profit and public service in media ventures.

What you do after this meeting can influence the conduct not merely of your enterprises –- but of our profession and our industry.

Thank you. And good luck. Read more


Ending Confusion

We were taken aback by a letter on impressive bond paper from a law firm in New York (with offices in Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and, of course, Paris) alerting us to the risk that Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews could be confused with MediaNews Group, Inc., publisher of The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Daily News and other newspapers.

The gist of the law firm’s concern seems to be that eliminating the space between the words Media and News might prompt the unsophisticated, raffish crowd who tune in to Poynter Online to think it was Dean Singleton in his pajamas pecking away at the keyboard in Romenesko’s Evanston apartment.

For the record (and to appease the folks at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP), it is not Dean Singleton whose work you read on our website. Neither Jim Romenesko nor his MediaNews has any association with MediaNews Group, Inc. (We’re still working on how to say that in French.)

Despite the law firm’s kind suggestion that we resolve this perilous situation by placing an em of space between Media and News, we’ll decline, thanks. But we do owe the ever-alert folks at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP our gratitude for prompting us to do something we might’ve gotten around to eventually — recognizing Romenesko’s singular contribution to journalists and the ways in which his name has become its own brand.

From now on, his blog will be called Romenesko.
Jim Naughton

MediaNews lawyer's letter to Poynter 11/26/2002MediaNews lawyer’s letter to Poynter 11/26/2002
Poynter lawyer's letter to MediaNews lawyer 12/13/2002Poynter lawyer’s letter to MediaNews lawyer 12/13/2002
MediaNews lawyer's letter to Poynter lawyer 1/8/2003MediaNews lawyer’s letter to Poynter lawyer 1/8/2003
Poynter lawyer's letter to MediaNews lawyer 1/31/2003Poynter lawyer’s letter to MediaNews lawyer 1/31/2003
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Why Fun Matters

This is part of a series of essays under the general title, “Why It Matters.” Poynter faculty members will write these essays with new journalists in mind, but we think their advice will inspire journalists of all ages and levels of experience. After all, craft has little meaning without a sense of purpose, without a sense of why it matters.

You can put a live sheep in a colleague’s hotel room.

You can send a rival reporter on a wild goose chase.

You can send gift hams to the new bosses of your friend — at the friend’s expense.

You can get the Goodyear blimp to hover over the top editor’s house.

You can wear the San Diego Chicken’s head to a President’s news conference.

You can wear goofy slippers on deadline.

You can do all those things, and more. I should know. I’ve done most (not all) of the above, done them because journalism is fun. Or ought to be.

It is one of the more dreadful consequences of the last decade’s bottom-line pressures that so many journalists have concluded they cannot have fun any more on the job.

That’s definitely bad for journalism. It’s probably bad for the bottom line. Fun matters. Fun makes up for modest pay. It takes the sting out of disappointment. It facilitates collaboration. It serves the interests of retention.

Journalists want to work in news organizations that understand the creative spirit. When you are up against deadline and think you are going to scream, or throw a keyboard across the newsroom or punch your immediate supervisor in the snout, there is a preferred alternative: Laughter.

The wonderful thing about having fun in journalism is that anyone can start it. Talk about empowerment.

You do not need permission to giggle.

It does not take a mandate from the General Manager nor a memorandum from the Executive Vice President for Cutting the Crap Out of the Budget.

Go ahead and laugh. It’s infectious.

Better yet, plot. Conspire to play a prank on a boss.

It is advisable to make sure you select a boss who can take a joke. Some cannot. Reporting which bosses have funny bones can save a career.

There is simply no more delicious collaboration, no better way to bring disparate people together in a news organization, than to conspire against a boss. Think whoopee cushion. Think string, even.

There once was a city editor in Cleveland who came to work every day and reached up to pull a string that would turn on a light over his desk. His staff trimmed a tiny bit of string off each night, after the editor had gone home. When it got to the point where the editor had to stand on tiptoes to pull the string, they began putting a slightly longer cord in place each night. The city editor, no fool, knew the caper was helping get the staff through the hard nights. He never acknowledged they were stringing him along.

Don’t wait for someone at the top to proclaim that merriment shall occur. Take it from the bottom.

If you don’t find reasons — and ways — to have fun in the newsroom, you’ll wind up wanting not to work there. We need you there.

Have fun.


Jim Naughton Read more


An Unfortunate Precedent

When the Persian Gulf War began a decade ago, journalists reminded one another of their ethical obligation not to disclose national security information. At the newspaper where I worked, we had sober discussions about exercising prudence.

It came, then, as a shock on the eve of the U.S. and allied ground campaign when our Washington bureau filed a story, accompanied by unusually explicit graphics, detailing the tactics that named military units were going to employ.

We told our Washington bureau editors that this was exactly the sort of story it would be irresponsible to publish. They explained that the details had been volunteered by authoritative sources in the Pentagon and that, moreover, similar stories were being prepared by every major news organization in Washington.

We’re still not going to publish it, we said — and we didn’t.

As it turned out, most news organizations did publish the details, and the details in those stories were wrong. The whole thing was deliberate government disinformation, demonstrating once more that truth is the first casualty of war.

That episode from the first Bush presidency helps to explain why it is so troubling that broadcast and cable news networks agreed this week to a White House request that they not broadcast videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden and his associates.

It’s perfectly natural for the government to want to control the flow of information in wartime. It’s perfectly awful for the media to consent.

The scale is different and the stakes are higher, but the situation is no different from the occasional request that journalists get from local police to refrain from publishing some detail about a crime that might be known only by the culprit.

The answer to such a request from places where I have worked is along these lines:

Thank you for letting us know of your concern. We respect it. Our instinct is to publish news, not withhold it. We don’t make those decisions lightly. Because we take so seriously the obligation to be independent of government control, we will not promise in advance that a particular story will omit information. But we will offer assurance that we will carefully and respectfully make our judgments about whether the information is necessary to each story.

I’ve made such a case to Secret Service agents, to FBI representatives, to police detectives. They understood it. In none of those cases did we, on reflection, give away vital information.

But neither did we give away our right to use the information as we saw appropriate.

What the networks have done is give away their authority to make a news judgment. It’s an unfortunate precedent at the outset of a period of inevitable tension between the government and the fourth estate. Read more


A Day for Reporting and for Reflection

The reporting should begin carefully finding answers to the questions on the minds of everyone: Who did this? If Osama bin Laden was to blame, who is he? Tell me more about Afghanistan, where he and his group are based. What happened when the Russians tried to exert influence over or control Afghanistan? Do the Russians have insights into whatâs happening there now? What happened to the Pittsburgh flight? What kinds of changes in airline travel are in the offing? Are we apt to see security guards again on planes? If we cannot prevent terrorism, can we mitigate it? How? The single most important information to obtain, for today and future reporting: airline manifests. Who was aboard those flights? Why?

The reflections can focus on what these attacks have done to our culture, our politics, our families. Much of what has appeared on television suggests a unifying effect. How might that shape our lives, our government, our sense of national solidarity, for good or bad? Might we be resolute or vengeful? This is an opportunity for an essayist to plumb how we feel about ourselves. The essayist should use reporting skills, not merely opine: Show the impact of the terrorism, don’t guess at it. Terrorism has explicit goals. Did they succeed this time? Or are they being thwarted? This is a very difficult assignment, but done well can appear on Page One or near the top of a newscast. Read more


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