The Human Touch

The news media could learn something from Oprah Winfrey about admitting one's own flaws.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page feature story on Bill Gates. It was about what Journal reporter Robert A. Guth learned when he was allowed to join the Microsoft chairman on his annual solo retreat at a secluded waterfront cottage somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

These Gates sojourns, known as Think Weeks, are famous in the technology world, "but what happens in them has been a tightly held corporate secret," Guth reported. "Mr. Gates agreed to show his hideaway to a reporter, the first journalist to visit in the many years he's been holding Think Weeks, on the condition that the location be kept secret."

Naturally, I read on—straight to the end, and it was worth the trip. But the moment I kept thinking about afterward had nothing to do with Gates. It was the awkward little sensation I often get, a sort of inner cringe, when a big old mainstream outlet like The Journal pushes the "a reporter" button.

What's my problem? Referring to oneself in the third person is a noble journalistic tradition, a symbol of reporterly distance and modesty. I've been reading the self-abnegating adventures of "a reporter" my entire adult life. When I was a newspaper reporter, I was often that faceless wraith myself, and I appreciate what traditional media outlets are implicitly saying when they use this device: The story isn't about us, folks—we're just taking notes and writing it up for you.

The problem is, nobody really believes this anymore about the news media. Most of the news we journalists report is not primarily about us, nor should it be. But as the media have become more transparent—thanks to scandals, media critics, blogs, and growing public sophistication—it's become increasingly clear that journalists are not just passive conduits for some pure platonic commodity called the news. Most reporters really do strive for fairness and objectivity, and so they should. But in the end, their personalities, experience, and points of view inevitably shape the news they report. Journalism isn't manufactured by machines. It comes from real human beings.

To pretend this isn't true seems increasingly unnatural and, in a practical way, kind of dumb. The old third-person impersonal stance is just a tiny specimen of a much larger challenge facing the mainstream media in the coming years. The newer media outlets are stealing a march on traditional outlets by speaking to the public in voices that feel more human and authentic, and in a way, more honest. As long as the old outlets continue to pretend, in ways large and small, that they are perfect avatars of objectivity, they play into the hands of their critics. So when a metropolitan newspaper refuses to admit it has made a mistake, or drags its feet and then runs a tiny, begrudging correction—all of which still happen every day—it's just throwing logs on its own pyre.

Admitting they're fallible has been painful for the mainstreamers. But it doesn't have to be. Some of these habits are just that—habits—and all they require is a little fine-tuning. It's already happening with corrections, which seem to have become more routine and timely all across the media, just in the past several years. The next step is to make those corrections less stilted and elliptical. Every mistake is a story in itself, and sometimes a pretty interesting story at that. Why not tell some of them?

Indeed, one of the lessons mainstream media-ites could take from popular culture is that there is a real upside to admitting one's own flaws, and to exploring them in public. Perfection is a pose, and ultimately, it's a lot less interesting than imperfection. The individuals who loom largest on the media landscape today are those who have emerged as real human characters, flaws and all. Think of Oprah Winfrey and her endless weight dramas. Of Bill and Hillary Clinton, bigger than ever after—and arguably because of—all their scandals. Then there's Martha Stewart, who became a more compelling public figure when she threw out her old Miss Perfect image and served time.

News outlets are not individual celebrities, and they shouldn't micromanage their images the way the Martha Stewarts of the world do, for spin and profitability. But if they'd just try a little harder to admit that they're people, I think they'd reap astounding benefits and start to rebuild the goodwill they've lost with the public.

In fact, there's nothing intrinsically bad about a reporter speaking of himself in the third person. For wire stories and hard-news reports, where an "I" or "me" would be intrusive and distracting, the vanishing reporter is the way to go. For softer news and feature stories, it's more of a judgment call. Sometimes a simple word—"this reporter" instead of "a reporter"—can be the difference between natural and not. And there are still plenty of times when it makes sense for a news outlet to speak of itself not just impersonally, but in hyper-formal institutional fashion. If The Daily Planet has unearthed stunning documents showing corruption at City Hall, you don't want some hack sharing his idiosyncratic impressions of the story. You want to read about "documents obtained by The Daily Planet," because, at bottom, that's what the story is really about.

There are no hard rules to this. But then, at its best, the news has always been a seat-of-the-pants enterprise. Just like being a real person.