On the Road Note: Radio, Software, the Dilemmas of the Press

By James Fallows

I have been offline for a while because of (a) the long process of traveling to Greater China, plus (b) events once I got here, of which more soon. Starting later this month, my wife and I will be in the position of doing virtually no travel except across our homeland on the American Futures beat. But these past few weeks, several long-planned other journeys, including a valuable one earlier this month for the "Public Knowledge Forum" in Australia and one right now in Hong Kong and Beijing, have occurred.

For the moment three notes very late on a Sunday night from Beijing:

1) Radio: Just before leaving on this trip, I had a chance to talk with Kai Ryssdal, on Marketplace, on what we're learning from our cross-country journeys so far. The audio and web features are here

2) Software: In between travels these few days, I've been doing fact-check followups and copy-edit duties on an upcoming magazine article centered on the little town of Eastport, Maine. I mention this because I felt a kindred spirit when I coming across this very nice essay by Mark Bernstein, designer of the "artisanal software" Tinderbox, on the art, science, and emotion of creating a program that meets his own standards of being elegant, and right.

What Bernstein describes, and what I've been trying to work out for this article (and all articles we print), are not quite the same as the very familiar Steve Jobs story of insisting that the inside of a computer look nice even though no customer would ever see it. The difference is that people will notice if a program has bugs and crashes, or if an article gets facts wrong. Still, there is a craftsman pride on working details no customer / reader / civilian will ever notice, just because you enjoy the steps and standards involved in trying to get them right. Bernstein's essay captures this well.

 3) Bloomberg and China. I have meant to write about this in the past week, and will try to do so after talking with people I know here in Beijing. But at face value, this story is developing in a way that reflects badly on the Bloomberg organization -- and, of course, on the pro-censorship factions within the Chinese government.

If you've missed the background, some of the main installments are here, here, and here. It's possible that the impression of initial coverage is unfair. But:

A) The response out of Bloomberg has not been what you would normally expect from an organization that feels it's been unjustly accused. The "this is all wrong!" denials have been notable in their vagueness. Matthew Winkler, the Bloomberg editor-in-chief who is described as having ordered the soft-line approach on Chinese stories, has strangely kept up a Twitter feed on varied items in the news with no mention of this topic. 

B) Journalism has of course always involved conflicts of interest and tradeoffs. Because most of what we consider "serious" journalism -- foreign reportage, investigative coverage, local or statehouse beat reporting -- has never paid its own way, it has traditionally survived by being bundled into some larger and more profitable organization. This in turn has often involved snarls about humoring or offending advertisers, advancing the publisher's pet causes, remembering how your business stays afloat. You don't have to trust me: you can go to the movies for proof! Citizen Kane, ChinatownAbsence of Malice, Good Night and Good Luck, and many others are all on this theme.

The concern in the Bloomberg case -- and frankly, the appearance so far -- is that these age-old pressures are recurring in a large and awkward way. The New York Times and Washington Post face similar worries and tradeoffs: how cavalier can you afford to be about irritating your business base? The Atlantic faces them too. But for these organizations and many others, the journalistic-credibility part of their business is a very major part of the business as a whole. Without that, their/our entire business operation is jeopardized. So for your own survival, when in doubt you lean toward publishing a controversial story. In Bloomberg's case, the non-journalistic part of the business is vastly larger than the (nonetheless large) journalistic side. Until now, that's mainly seemed good, in providing a reliable bankroll for first-rate journalism, when "normal" journalistic organizations are in such straits. The question now is whether we're seeing the bad side of the bargain.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/on-the-road-note-radio-software-the-dilemmas-of-the-press/281570/