New media outlets should demand accountability from New York Times

Published in the Daily Illini April 2nd, 2012

The New York Times’ influence on American journalism has been unmatched for the past century. The newspaper still shapes the national news agenda to a remarkable degree, but for how long will it retain its relevance in the revolutionized media environment?

“The New York Times effect,” as was uncreatively coined, describes an actual phenomena from the olden days: When television news producers woke up, they’d grab a coffee and The New York Times on their doorstep, then go to work and tell Walter Cronkite to investigate what they read in the paper that morning.

Now, it seems like the “News Feed” on Facebook tells us more about what’s going on in the world than print newspapers do. With this restructured social-media world, how will the old school stay competitive?

After all, when the rules of the game are changed, the players must change too.

This is the underlying premise of the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which is an all-access pass into their bustling newsroom. It offers a rare opportunity to see how stories are crafted in real time by some of the most diligent and well-connected reporters in the country.
What cannot be clearly distinguished, however, is how our own political and social opinions are subtly framed by how the Times’ staff frames them. The new media model supposes that this hierarchical order of news distribution can be uprooted and replaced with a more democratic form of sharing information, where the only gatekeeper is the guy with the Wi-Fi password.

The shining example of this new media order is WikiLeaks. In 2007, they released the video footage of a U.S. Army helicopter shooting down innocent Iraqis, and the reporters at the Times immediately recognized the site’s importance. When a small group of activists can make such an impact on public perception with the relative ease that it takes anyone to post a video, the Times slowly loses the authoritative edge that characterizes every other chapter of its history.

When Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, it helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. Back then, there was a vital connection between the whistleblower, Ellsberg and the information distributor, the newspaper.

But times have changed. Bill Keller, former executive editor of the Times, put it succinctly: “The bottom line is WikiLeaks doesn’t need us. But Daniel Ellsberg did.”

Do we still need The New York Times? The paper does offer is a comprehensive outlet not just for political journalism but also for art, business, sports, science and so on.

Grassroots media outlets, like the website Democracy Now!, are children of the Internet Age and have taken the responsibility to be a check on the Times’ authority. Lest we forget, it was The New York Times’ reporting that repeatedly published the dubious evidence for the Iraq War on its front page, and it was Keller who waited for more than a year to publish the article that revealed Bush’s warrantless wiretapping scandal until after he was safely re-elected.

The documentary “Page One” crystallizes a romantic notion of the Times’ investigative reporting during a turbulent new age. Its track record shows it to be a valuable cultural institution, but now its survival is at stake as other news sites battle to carve out their own niches. By challenging the Times’ authority, new media’s goal should be to demand a higher level of accountability from it. And if history serves as any guide, when the Times changes, so does the rest of the American readership.