Special to The Times
At a conference on the "new" journalism, I paid a visit to a couple of "old" journalists.
James J. Kilpatrick and Marianne Means may be the senior lion and lioness in the pride of American newspaper columnists. And, they have much to be proud of.
He was once the most widely syndicated political columnist in the nation, as part of Universal Press Syndicate. His televised "Point/Counterpoint" segment with Shana Alexander on "60 Minutes" aired for years and was famously parodied on "Saturday Night Live" by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin ("Jane, you ignorant slut! ... Dan, you pompous ass!").
Now 86, Kilpatrick still writes a weekly column, "The Writer's Art," about words, grammar and usage, which runs in The Seattle Times and many other papers. Means is nationally syndicated by Hearst Newspapers, and her column appears regularly in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Together, they may be the most widely read newspaper columnist couple in the country.
Married since 1998, they live in a handsome apartment in Foggy Bottom, on the edge of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. That's where I visited them last month.
I arranged the meeting because I wanted to thank Mr. Kilpatrick — that's how I addressed him in an e-mail, to which he replied, "Dear Mr. Hamer" — for a letter he wrote to me almost 20 years ago. As a (fairly) young columnist for The Seattle Times, I once wrote about my hair starting to turn gray. It was one of those pieces that newspaper columnists crank out when they can't think of anything else to write about, and a deadline looms.
Someone sent Kilpatrick a copy. Out of the blue, I got a letter from him praising the column and encouraging me to keep writing on such offbeat topics. I always treasured that letter, and wanted to tell him so in person.
He greeted me graciously and offered me coffee. We sat in their living room overlooking Rock Creek Park. The couch and chairs were covered with blankets and throws, "for the cats," he explained. And soon a friendly feline started rubbing against my leg. "That's Marc Antony," Kilpatrick said. " 'Cleopatra' is hiding."
I showed him a copy of that long-ago letter and my old column. As I expected, he had no recollection of it whatsoever. But that was fine. I wanted to ask him about the future of journalism.
I explained that I was attending a conference in the nation's capital called "Journalism That Matters," focusing on the extraordinary changes in the news media in the Internet age. It was organized and facilitated by two Seattleites — Stephen Silha, a Vashon Island communications consultant (and Washington News Council board member), and Peggy Holman, author of "The Change Handbook" — along with several other national media leaders, including Chris Peck, former editor of The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review who now edits The (Memphis) Commercial-Appeal. Under their guidance, about 150 journalists, academics, citizen journalists, and bloggers were gathered at George Washington University trying to predict the future of journalism and perhaps create an experimental "next newsroom."
Traditional print newspapers are in steep decline. Their old business model is no longer working. Circulation is declining or flat, advertising revenues are down, and newsrooms are hemorrhaging jobs, with layoffs and buyouts announced almost daily. Online journalism is the future, most believe — although what form it will take and how it will support itself is uncertain. (I hesitate to use the term, "remains to be seen," because Kilpatrick once wrote a column scorning the wide use of that phrase by journalists as indefensibly wishy-washy.)
Kilpatrick asked me what I thought about bloggers. I said some were good, some were terrible, but they are the pundits and commentators — or maybe op-ed columnists — of today. They might be compared to the pamphleteers of our nation's early years, or the public speakers who mounted soap boxes or tree stumps to address a crowd. But now their voices have global reach and considerable clout.
He asked how bloggers made money. I told him that many just wrote for free. They are the "pajamahideen" — sitting at their computers, happily pontificating to the world.
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," he said, quoting Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Like many mainstream or "legacy" journalists, Kilpatrick is skeptical of bloggers.
"They are not professionals," he said. "They are amateurs. And they are — I hate to use the word 'irresponsible' — but they are nonresponsible."
Interestingly, I had just taken part in a discussion at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, where there was a lively exchange between "pro" and "am" journalists. Nothing raises a blogger's bile faster than to label him or her an "amateur," I noted.
And is there really a difference, now that anyone can write online and gain a worldwide audience? In the Internet era, freedom of the press is no longer "guaranteed only to those who own one," as A.J. Leibling once put it.
Kilpatrick still questioned blogs: "What if a blogger seriously libels someone? If they libel me, whom do I sue?" I said this was a hot topic of discussion at my journalism conference. He could probably sue, but wouldn't get much in damages from a poor, independent blogger.
Gazing out the window reflectively, he said: "The whole world's turned upside down. The big newspapers are in trouble. I don't know what the future holds."
Hearing us pondering the future of journalism, Marianne Means came in from the next room to join the conversation. She also decried blogs.
"They say anything they want," she said. "Who can trust them?"
When she writes her column, she said, "We have editors. We're vetted."
This was precisely what we had discussed at the "Journalism That Matters" gathering, I told them. Do, or should, bloggers follow traditional journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness and balance? How can they be held accountable? With the instant feedback and comment on the Internet, is there a built-in correction mechanism? Is that enough? If anyone can be a "journalist" online, how do libel laws apply?
The three of us didn't know the answers, and neither did the 150 conference attendees. Opinions are all over the map. Maybe the media need a kind of existential MapQuest to help them chart their route. Meanwhile, citizen journalists are taking over the roads.
Our talk turned to Rupert Murdoch and his recent purchase of The Wall Street Journal.
Means, whose politics tend toward the liberal, lambasted Murdoch and any potential meddling in The Wall Street Journal's news operations.
Then she snapped: "They should just throw away or burn their editorial page anyway."
Kilpatrick, whose politics are historically conservative, shot back: "You don't even see their editorial page."
Means countered: "We get it at the office and I read it there."
Kilpatrick retorted: "You just read it to get your adrenaline flowing."
As I observed their journalistic joust in fascination, it occurred to me that the two of them might revive "Point/Counterpoint." They could do "mixed doubles" with James Carville and Mary Matalin.
At the "Journalism That Matters" conference, I had convened a small group to talk about what I called "The TAO of Journalism — Transparency, Accountability and Openness." Most mainstream journalists now realize that they must better explain themselves to the public, and be accountable for what they do — in the same way that they demand other professions be publicly accountable. They must invite citizens in, and welcome them. "News is no longer a lecture, but a conversation," as Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media has stated.
I described the mission of the Washington News Council, of which I'm executive director: trying to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance.
"You waste your sweetness on the desert air," Kilpatrick quipped, quoting Thomas Gray.
"Well, we have to do something," Means countered.
"What's that quote," Kilpatrick asked, "something about 'reach' and 'grasp'?"
I offered tentatively: "A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?"
"That's it," Kilpatrick said. But neither of us could remember who said it.
"Let's Google it," he said. So, the old lion still can hunt. (Answer: Robert Browning.)
As I left, I reflected on the fact that our conversation had encapsulated all of the issues debated at the "Journalism That Matters" meeting — who is a journalist, what sources can we trust, how do we ensure accuracy and accountability, where can we get reliable information, how can the "new" media be sustained economically, what is the role of the "old" media — and, most importantly, what does all this mean for the future of democracy, where citizens still need accurate and reliable information to make informed decisions?
Outside, I jotted some notes in one of the reporter's notebooks they were handing out at a New York Times information table. The blue cover said: "Inspiring Thought/The New York Times/Knowledge Network." No doubt some highly paid consultants spent hours on those "branding" words. The Gray Lady has become a "knowledge network."
Well, they're trying. We have to do something. But what?
Sorry, Mr. Kilpatrick, but this time, it truly does ... remain to be seen.
John Hamer, a former staff writer at Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C., and a former editorial writer at The Seattle Times, is now executive director of the Washington News Council, www.wanewscouncil.org, based in Seattle.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company