How to sell newspapers…

There are certainly important ethical questions to be asked about the New York Daily News breaking the law to get a story about airport security. For now, I’m going to let the big ethics question–Is it ethical to break the law to get a story?–ride because so many news outlets and blogs are covering it. I want to pick on something else, namely this quote in the Boston Globe:

“‘The … reaction we’re getting is that people want to book [the reporters] on TV shows,’ said a clearly pleased [Edward] Kosner [editor of the New York Daily News], when asked about the story’s impact.”

[Note: The following relies on my interpretation of the reporter’s subjective observation of Kosner’s attitude. So I will assume a hypothetical editor rather than Kosner.]

There are so many things wrong with this attitude that I hardly know where to begin. First, the editor is pleased with the publicity. The feeling I’m getting here is like that old Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Akroyd playing William Randolph Hearst. He pulls out a gun, shoots into the street, and then hollers: “Headline! Mad Gunman Shoots Up the Streets.” (I may not remember the exact quote…it’s been 25 years…but you get the idea.) Second, the editor is happy about the medium of that publicity: television. There is an epidemic of newspaper reporters showing up as talking heads on television, a practice that, like James Fallows, I wish would end. The lines between newspaper journalism and entertainment passed off as journalism should not be crossed. I think editors should be annoyed when their reporters are sought out by television. Third, the “impact” of the story that most pleases this editor seems to be its sensation rather than anything it might actually say about airport security–a sure sign of entertainment-creep in journalism.

Consider this:

“George Naccara, federal security director at Logan Airport, said he found the Daily News’s approach troubling. ‘I understand the job of a journalist; someone is trying to sell papers,’ he said. ‘I think there are limits, and I think there should be ethics in how we approach our job. … We’re doing the best we can. Things will improve.'”

Now, I think it’s a safe assumption that Mr. Naccara is a smart fellow. So how is it he so misunderstands what the job of a journalist is? Could it be that editors, pulling publicity stunts in the name of news, teach him that selling newspapers is the job of a journalist. Obviously, I’m defining journalist narrowly here, i.e. a newspaper reporter.

UPDATE: Following from several pointed and cogent criticisms of this entry by Rhetorica readers, I have edited for clarity–something I should have done better when I first posted this. I realize my criticism is based on a text fragment and that I am assuming context and intention for the sake of argument. My thanks to those of you who wrote!