Sunday, May 19, 2013

Notes On the AP vs DOJ: Where's the Public Love?

Thanks to the Internet, millions of Americans don't seem to know that the Associated Press was our first Internet.

It's important to note this now,  as the AP is in the news (rather than just covering it) for a serious matter involving the First Amendment and government intrusion.  We know that Journalism itself has been under siege for some time now from an increasingly disaffected audience, and that some of the unhappiness with the current state of the American press is valid. But the relative absence of outrage about the U.S. Department of Justice's sweeping intrusion into the AP says to me that the press in America is held in even lower esteem than I realized.  It also points up the growing need for intensive media literacy efforts by news organizations and institutions of higher learning to aid the public's understanding of the crucial role of the legitimate news-gathering organizations, and of the press's watchdog mission.

I'm on the record as indicting the leadership of many of the nation's legacy and emerging news organizations for their stubborn inability to make their enterprises more representative of America's population by hiring,  retaining and promoting more Latino, Asian and black journalists and producers, as well as practitioners from low-income or working-class backgrounds. But this news of the AP's situation, and the absence of public outrage about it, hints at a bleak future in terms of the Fourth Estate's ability to prevail in the court of public opinion and possibly in regional and Federal judicial settings. The AP hasn't been immune from economic challenges or from complaints over decades from some staffers frustrated by the same monochromatic issues (lack of class, gender race inclusion) that exists at other news organizations. All the same, the AP is the Timex of American Journalism, and it deserves respect.

A PR offensive by the AP in the midst of its current challenge may help rouse the public. Any such initiative would need to be broader than simply defending the institution in this particular fight with the DOJ.  I am familiar with the Semper Fi culture of the AP, which is to say it has historically avoided the kind of preening and show-biz commercial measures undertaken by its print and broadcast counterparts, even in recent years when marketing and promotions have become flashy and crass, owing to corporate and shareholder pressuring news brands to more strongly differentiate themselves.  The AP is boring, necessarily so. But were I advising the group now, I'd recommend a strategic campaign that emphasizes the "S-word" element of the current DOJ fight -- "S" for "shame," not for "scandal;" and also arrange for some of the company's top Correspondents and Photographers to engage in a barnstorming tour of advocacy groups, colleges and the like, to remind us of the AP's history and of it's reliable, vital work in an increasingly partisan and sloppy media ecosystem.

On Sunday, May 19, Gary Pruitt, CEO and President of AP, gave his first television interview since news of the DOJ's action broke.

Characteristically, Pruitt appeared on the least sexy Sunday political news program on the air, the venerable "Face the Nation" at CBS. (I link to the clip of Pruitt's interview above -- alas it doesn't render if you're viewing my column on a mobile device. Here's the URL: And not surprisingly, Pruitt used clear, blunt language in describing what he believes was the DOJ's "unconstitutional" action.

This is not a small thing, people. I am lately having to concentrate extra hard to stay abreast of this shameful situation amidst the rising cacophony of coverage on the supposed "Obama Administration scandals" that dominates the news cycles.   (Yes, I am discerning, as well as fortunate to have developed over the years a highly-attuned "noise filter."  But it is important to say that many news consumers don't have such skills. I'm not saying that audiences are "dumb," I'm saying that civilians are overwhelmed daily by such a firehose of images, data and partisan screaming that it is a big challenge to ascertain what's truly important. It is a paradox: As Americans become more "media-savvy" thanks to the over-saturation of channels in the Web and on TV screens, the surfeit of news and news-ish outlets is not, in fact, creating consumers who are better informed about legitimate Journalism.)

Pruitt and other members of the AP's leadership might view the idea of a disruptive PR campaign unseemly. Yet handled appropriately, such a strategy at this time actually stands a good shot at elevating the AP's message above the noise.  Americans tend to love a crisp narrative involving historic institutions that started small, grew big over time, and managed to hold fast to their values through the decades. That is the story of the AP.

But how many Americans know it?

AP is funded by individual news organizations and staffs bureaus across the US and the globe.  It was founded in 1846 by a group of five New York newspaper companies who banded together to support a pony express route that would enable their papers to speed news of the Mexico War to their readers faster than the US Postal Service.

I have worked in news organizations that contribute to the AP, and can report first-hand that the AP houses some of the best writers, editors, visual journalists and producers in the world. Its immense brick and mortar footprint -- as in, bureaus large and small strung across the globe -- are hugely valuable to working journalists worldwide.

In 1992, for instance, when Los Angeles lit up in flames following the acquittal of white police officers who had been charged with beating a black motorist named Rodney King, the AP bureau in the City of Angeles hosted dozens of out of town journalists who rushed to the city to cover the conflict. We were literally sheltered by the AP in LA , and provided quality equipment and resources in what can only be described as urban warfare conditions. I was moreover during that week stunned to look up from a desk I'd found off the main newsroom of the AP in LA to find that another person had joined me at an adjoining desk, a local AP reporter named Linda Deutsch.

Even at that neophyte stage of my career, I knew that Deutsch was a legendary legal affairs reporter and a mainstay of LA journalists.  She was friendly, helpful and mildly salty, as we made small talk for the rest of the afternoon that I shared that space. I knew that Deutsch had covered some of the biggest trials and criminal cases in LA for many, many years. Her work had filled column inches in newspapers across the globe for decades with straightforward, tough dispatches.  I'd always aspired to writing dailies and long-form stories that were "colorful," but I certainly understood and appreciated the ability of Deutsch and other AP staff correspondents to hew closely to the "Just the facts, Ma'am" style that is the AP's hallmark (although its correspondents also produce terrific feature writing, sports coverage, and also in recent years, video reportage.) They tend to be fly-on-the-wall reporters,
not peacocks.

The AP's reach historically represented a ubiquity that is now replicated (albeit in a vastly mutated, accelerated form), by the Internet.  It concerns me that upcoming generations of news consumers don't seem to know that the blogs they read, the sports sites, the fan-pages are largely seeded by work from AP writers worldwide.  If you take a moment to think about it, then take another half hour to actually mount an organized search, you'll easily see that without the AP, a whole lot of "content" would vanish from the Web.  And by "content," of course, I mean "news and information."

Finally, a word about AP's CEO Gary Pruitt.

He is from Florida,  has a law degree from UC Berkeley, and is probably one of the last news company Chiefs who genuinely believes that the mission of a news corporation is to support an open, transparent democracy, not simply rake in big profits for owners and shareholders.  Pruitt was for many years a top lawyer at the McClatchy Newspaper Company in California, and then CEO of that Company.  During my time as a Fresno Bee staff writer, Pruitt moved from Sacramento to Fresno to serve as publisher, and pretty quickly implemented a policy of transparency as well as structural innovations that the FresBee sorely needed at that time. Of all the editors, publishers and owners that I encountered in the many years that I've worked in news and information, I can say without hesitating that Pruitt is easily the brightest, most genuine, and emotionally intelligent that I've met.

He's also a crafty, tough negotiator -- and an expert in the First Amendment and the Constitution.  I anticipate the AP's dealings with the Department of Justice from here out will be highly instructive, with or without a flashbang PR campaign.

1 comment:

  1. Amy, great points, as always. But this is more than about not understanding the role of AP in the fourth estate. Nor is this merely about media literacy. 1. the public doesn't trust the news media these days, as the news business has given them little reason to trust them, especially in the half-decade after 9/11, when many in mainstream journalism sat on their hands while rights were being curtailed (Patriot Acts, anyone?). 2. the news media and the public are in a negative symbiotic relationship, where one feeds the other candy corn news while the other eats it, expecting nothing more substantial. Last week's series of non-scandal scandals (the AP issue aside, of course) is one example. The wall-to-wall coverage of Jodi Arias is another.

    I watch BBC now for most of my news, and read US news stories (all dependent on Reuters and AP, I know) via Twitter and Huffington Post when necessary. This issue, though, has taken 40 years to develop, and it may take that long before the news business has more respectability than say, a history professor.