In recent weeks, several respected magazines, their publishers, and writers have fallen prey to various journalistic malfeasance and scandals. Who is to blame? Internet boogeymen, of course.
Edward Kosner is a septuagenarian former newspaper and magazine editor. You may be shocked to learn that such a man blames the internet for the downfall of journalism, based on paper-thin misconceptions. Alas, it is true. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Kosner weaves together A) the recent uproar at The New Republic, B) the problems with Rolling Stone's UVA rape story, C) Newsweek's flawed cover story purporting to identify the creator of Bitcoin, and D) the failure of mainstream journalists, including magazine editor and biographer Mark Whitaker, to write about Bill Cosby's sexual abuse history for many years. What do these seemingly discrete and unrelated foibles of traditional print media outlets add up to, in Edward Kosner's estimation? A chance to condemn internet journalism!
Quite simply, print editors and their writers, and especially the publications' proprietors, are being unhinged by the challenge of making a splash in a new world increasingly dominated by the values of digital journalism. Traditional long-form journalism—painstakingly reported, carefully written, rewritten and edited, scrupulously fact-checked—finds itself fighting a losing battle for readers and advertisers. Quick hits, snarky posts and click-bait in the new, ever-expanding cosmos of websites promoted by even quicker teasers on Twitter and Facebook have broadened the audience but shrunk its attention span, sometimes to 140 characters (shorter than this sentence).
Shorter than this sentence? But... but... it's so short!
Yes: Kosner has managed to concoct a laughable case against "digital journalism" based solely on high profile mistakes of traditional print media outlets. This may count as blazing a new frontier in the "Internet is the source of all evil" old person think piece wars. Leaving aside the fact that each and every one of the publications cited by Kosner are now published online—making them, in fact, "digital journalism" themselves—Kosner's various analyses are just wrong. Of the Rolling Stone rape story he says, "Here was a story made to go viral—doing journalistic due diligence on it might blunt its sharp edges and sap its appeal."
Really? A nine thousand word magazine story is supposed to be the example of "viral" content—and one without enough space for "due diligence?"
He calls Newsweek, which he used to edit, a "sad tale of digital undoing." This is true. But not because the internet somehow forced Newsweek to publish an erroneous story—because the internet rendered the act of publishing news once a week an anachronism.
And here is his masterful philosophical jujitsu excusing Mark Whitaker (another former Newsweek editor) for the act of publishing an entire Bill Cosby biography while leaving out the extremely pertinent allegations of rampant sexual abuse against dozens of women:
Mark Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek and news executive at NBC and CNN, had a different digital challenge. Researching his doorstop Cosby biography, he decided to omit any reference to the sexual-assault allegations—most of which had already been published online—because, he told me, he couldn't independently confirm them and he worried that his publisher wouldn't defend him in a lawsuit if the comedian sued.
But there was also concern that gossip websites and tabloid newspapers and television shows would seize on the sex charges and hijack serious coverage of his book. In fact, websites and newspapers like the Washington Post seized on the author's omission of the rape claims to re-interview women whose original Cosby horror stories had mostly been ignored. These articles prompted yet other women to speak up, until the Cosby book was subsumed by a flood of rape stories that have turned Mr. Cosby into a pariah.
Mark Whitaker is not in the wrong here, for leaving valid information out of his supposedly definitive biography; "digital journalism" is at fault, for publishing that valid information. How's that for a neat trick? Why, Mark Whitaker couldn't have told the world that Bill Cosby was a rapist—"gossip websites" would have repeated those charges. Just imagine that. A tragedy narrowly averted. Whew.
And finally, here is what passes for Kosner's disclosure of all the fucking journalistic scandals that happened before the big bad internet:
Great newspapers and magazines had their disasters long before the Internet age. Newsweek, after all, had its Hitler diaries debacle in 1983. A couple of years earlier, Ben Bradlee had to give back a Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Washington Post for Janet Cooke 's fairy tale, "Jimmy's World," about an 8-year-old heroin addict. Even the oh-so-serious New Republic was hoaxed by a fabulist named Stephen Glass. But these humiliations were prompted by greed for a too-good story, not desperation in the face of implacable competition.
You see, there were enormous journalistic scandals before the internet—but they were not "prompted" by "competition."
There was no competition in journalism before the internet, QED. Okay.
There's nothing wrong with being an old person or reminiscing about print media. Just don't be wrong about everything.