Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Job of the Media

[Joseph Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was executive editor of The New York Times from 1994 to 2001, and was recalled to the newspaper in 2003, after a period during which it went through a credibility crisis. He has reported from India from 1966 to 1969. In an interaction with The Indian Express staff, Lelyveld talks about American politics, reporting, and new trends in the media.]

Q: When you returned to the New York Times, it was going through a credibility crisis. How did you go about correcting the situation?

A: My theme when I returned was that we are just going back to work and we are going to do things the way we know was the right way to do them. I was also trying to push authority down, because one of the features of the previous regime was that there were a lot of edicts out there and people were afraid to do things without making sure that the guys on top were going to approve it in advance.

Q: What is the guiding philosophy of the New York Times which makes it such a standard of excellence in journalism?

Basically, the New York Times covered everything — the whole world, culture, business and finance, sports, everything. And did it in a responsible way with its own reporting and a high standard of journalist excellence. It was a general interest newspaper with a vengeance. Now the New York Times and all other papers are getting smaller because of the finances in the newspaper business and it can’t promise quite as much. . The Times in London loses money, the New York Post loses huge amounts of money. Even the New York Times had to announce cuts of over a 100 journalistic positions. They have a staff of over a 1,000 journalists and a large foreign staff.

Q: How does media shape public opinion?

The most important ways newspapers shape opinion is by what they choose to cover and the subjects they go into deeply. I don’t think it’s our job to worry about the effects of the story. Our job is to give people information so they have the opportunity of making reasonable judgments.

Q: How do you decide the balance between what the people may want to read and what you think the people should be reading? You don’t believe that what the reader wants is what you should give?

I’ve always mistrusted that phrase “the reader wants”, because how do we know exactly what the reader wants? I think you should give the reader a fresh and original paper that’s very well-written and covers all sorts of things —.social trends, fashion, the works but I think you are at your best when you give the reader something the reader wants that the reader didn’t know he or she wanted it till you gave it to her. Today, reporting staffs are getting smaller. Major news organisations that maintain large foreign staffs have gotten smaller. The number of American news organisations that still cover the world the way they covered it in 50 years earlier is two or three. And in the US, it’s also about the number of reporters the national news organisations maintain around the country. It’s just down, down, down.

[Condensed from The Indian Express : May 11, 2008. The full text is available at]