Great minds think
Washington bureau reporter for The New York Times
Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, Lichtblau has written for The New York Times since 2002. He previously wrote for the L.A. Times for 15 years. And he is the author of Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice.
Q: So, do newspapers matter?
Sure they matter. Even if we assume that basic, breaking news would still somehow get out on the Internet without newspapers, think about all the things dug up in just the last few years by newspaper reporters—whether you're talking about the national level (CIA water-boarding and black-site prisons, NSA wiretapping, abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the Jack Abramoff scandal, etc., etc.) or at the local and state level in California (the city of Bell salary scandal, scandals at the LA county hospital and the LAPD, etc etc). The public would know little or nothing about any of those topics if it weren't for newspapers. So yes, we better care.
Q: Your characterization of the state of journalism today.
It's obviously a time of great transition and uncertainty. Newspapers are trying to figure out how to make money on the web. Deep-pocketed investigative journalism efforts like ProPublica are marketing a new brand of journalism. Some groups are experimenting with non-profit models. No one is certain how it will all shake out.
Q: What's the role of industry in contributing to the direness of the situation?
Some of it is self-inflicted. Newspapers were slow to see the advent of the Internet and the tremendous impact it would have. Then again, we weren't the only ones. If more media executives had tried to position themselves five or 10 years ago as information providers—providing instant business data like Bloomberg, for instance, or government data like the Center for Responsive Politics—rather than through the traditional news prism, we might not be operating so dangerously close to the margins right now in our financial schemes.
Q: Howard Gardner describes the central mission of journalism as "finding out the facts, speaking truth to power, sharing information that powerful people don't want shared, providing the citizenry with information that is essential to democracy," and doing so at a community, city, state and national level. Is that still the mission or has that mission been diluted or otherwise changed?
That is still the central mission, and it always will be, as seen in the current Wikileaks story and the diverging reactions to it. In the last five years, newspaper editors have had to take a lot of controversial stances to push information out to the public, and I think they've shown real courage in doing so, considering the heat they've taken for it.
Q: How do you feel about crowd-sourcing, social media, blogging, wikis, etc?
At the risk of sounding like a crotchety newsman, it sounds like noise to me. I remember reading a recent article by a writer for one of these automated news sites that assigned stories based on popular algorithms. She described with some shame the task of writing stories assigned to her on how to rub your puppy's tummy and how to knit a sweater vest. If that's the kind of thing we want to read about it, have at it.
Q: What's a great piece of recent investigative journalism you can point us to?
I thought the stuff the Los Angeles Times and reporter Jeff Gottlieb did on the city of Bell was terrific. So was a bunch of Sebastian Rotella's stuff on the Mumbai attacks and the role of the U.S. DEA informant. A lot of the Wikileaks stuff, while not really investigative in the traditional sense, was critical in providing necessary context about really complex topics. I'm sure there are many others I'm forgetting. Investigative reporting—while under attack by budget cuts—is still alive and well.
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