Leah Letter

The ‘Spotlight’ problem

Things about journalists are mainly for journalists.
Leah Letter

The ‘Spotlight’ problem

Things about journalists are mainly for journalists.

A good question for the amateur or professional media critic to ask about news articles is “Who is this for?” (For grammarians, it is fine to pose the question as “For whom is this?”)

Let’s go through a few recent articles and try to answer this inquiry.

Article: “Trump is wrong if he thinks symphonies are superior,” The New York Times, July 31.

Who it is for: Anyone who lives above 59th Street and is over 59 years of age, so, essentially, the Times’ target audience.

Article: “Kentucky doctor, about to go into labor, pauses to deliver another woman’s baby,” The Washington Post, July 31.

Who it is for: Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, women who talk about “lifting each other up” and how “all boats rise” but are fine with the gender pay gap because they are really rich and it doesn’t affect them.

Article: “Trump, ‘Mooch,’ and the rise of the New York Douchebag,” The New Republic, July 28.

Who it is for: People who think they are not New York douchebags but actually are, also Washington douchebags and select douchebags in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, Toronto, and Miami.

So you see, if an article is worthy of existence, it should be fairly easy to answer the question of who it is for. I may not like the bulk of The Times’ content, but there’s little question as to what sectors of the population it serves (and for the paper’s noble commitment to carrying out the class war, I commend it). Most articles at least meet this extremely low bar. They exist for someone. Someone will find them interesting, chastening, depressing, or amusing.

But there’s a particular strain of article whose existence I cannot justify: the fake media rivalry article. What is a fake media rivalry article? Well, imagine a pro-wrestling match. Then imagine the two pro wrestlers are Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, and Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post. Then imagine that instead of body-slamming each other they sit side-by-side in the ring typing on laptops. Boxing ring noise Whoever sends the most emails wins.

When this scenario is carried out to its bitter conclusion, we end up with splashy profiles of the editors typing side-by-side, depicting them as titans of content in a fight for their existence instead of kinda boring middle-aged men who perfected the art of newsroom jujitsu to make it to the top. This sounds like a nightmare but it’s real, and it has happened two times this year. The first was in June, when Politico published an 8,000-word piece on “the not-so-bitter rivalry” between Baquet, Baron, and their papers. The second was yesterday, in a 7,000-word Vanity Fair story on basically the same thing.

Here’s Politico.

“I should say that I love our competition with the Washington Post, I think it’s great,” said Baquet, grinning as if he was about to do something that might get him in trouble. “But I actually think their slogan — Marty Baron, please forgive me for saying this — sounds like the next Batman movie.” Later on, Baron shot back, “No apology necessary from the people of Gotham."

And here’s Vanity Fair.

There are days when you can swear that the Post and the Times are giving you every goddamn word on Trump. The Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” may seem a bit overwrought as a slogan — “like the next Batman movie,” Baquet has said — but crusty Walter Burns would probably pound a table, slam down a candlestick telephone, utter a few choice words, and growl, But it’s true!

These are trying times. Must we suffer through 15,000 aggregate words on invented newspaper wars? If The Post and The Times are at war with anyone, it’s themselves — the former grappling with its status as an Amazon subsidiary and the former workplace of Chris Cillizza, the latter fresh off its latest gut-wrenching buyout round and the new employer of Bret Stephens. But the articles really fight for the rivalry premise, going so far as to… anonymously quote people saying nice things about their bosses? Here’s an anonymous source in Politico, talking about Baquet: “I never left a meeting with Dean where I didn’t feel happy.” In Vanity Fair, an anonymous source said that Baron would “rather beat the Times than eat.” As a critical reader I can only conclude that these anonymous sources are Baquet and Baron, respectively.

I’m now going to change gears and talk about the how the movie Spotlight was one of the worst things to happen to modern journalism, after the internet and Hulk Hogan. Please — stay with me. It will be worth it, I promise. Spotlight, for my readers who were born in 2015 and later, is about how The Boston Globe, at the time edited by Marty Baron, uncovered the widespread sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in 2002. It’s a fine movie if you like Mark Ruffalo and bringing Catholics to justice. But the movie has some slight problems. For one, The Globe did not break the Catholic Church scandal. It was broken by the Boston Phoenix nine months before The Globe; allegations against clergymen had been reported on as far back as 1985 in the National Catholic Reporter. The Globe connected the dots on a larger scale, but gave no credit to the Phoenix in its reporting.

Whatever, a small footnote in the larger course of media history. The movie got made, Rachel McAdams wore frumpy clothes, it won an Oscar, journalism was seen as a force for Good, and Trump became president despite all of this.

A few months ago, I read the book that inspired Spotlight, titled Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church. It’s a truism that books are always better than their movie versions, but this book was really, superbly better, not just because it hadn’t been wrung through the Hollywood wringer, but because it plainly told the stories of the victims and perpetrators in the church scandal instead of those of the journalists who reported it. This reminded me why I hated the movie: in the best journalism, journalists are neither seen nor heard, they work without ego and travel without a documentary film crew. I truly believe that nothing could have been worse for journalism’s outsize opinion of itself than a movie about journalism that was not How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days winning an Oscar. Who are the stories? Journalists! Who are the stories for? Journalists? Am I part of the problem? Absolutely! (Also, weren't the lawyers really the heroes in Spotlight?)

Anyway, back to the question that justifies this newsletter’s existence: Who are articles about the fake rivalry between The Times and The Post for? The best answer I can come up with, besides employees of the respective papers, is ambitious high school students, media Twitter, and/or fans of the Rory Gilmore student-newspaper story arc on Gilmore Girls. I’m so, so sorry.

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