Tuesday, 26 February 2008
The Peter Principle: I Make the Daily Mail
Being a columnist myself I understand the job's special requirements: the ability to feign outrage at the drop of a hat and the ability to churn out copy on deadline. I'm going to assume both things explain how a Daily Mail columnist came to mention me in that paper yesterday.
His name is Peter McKay and he visited the Reuters Fellows last month. Yesterday's column isn't online, so I'll quote the pertinent item in its entirety:
"Speaking to a group of foreign journalists at the Reuters' Institute in Oxford, I told the story of covering many years ago the homecoming of a 'lost' trawler in Aberdeen. A big story because everyone thought the crew had perished but, badly damaged, the boat had taken shelter until a North Sea storm died down. Then sailed home without knowing there had been a fuss about them. I said we'd asked the skipper to take the boat out of the harbour and sail it back in so that we could get good 'Ghost ship sails in' pictures instead of boring shots of it tied up. Being an idealistic young lad, I told my audience, I wondered if this artifice was ethical and decided it was. But a Washington Post journalist on the course said his paper would never countenance such a deception. The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors."
I'll get to that last sentence in just a bit, but first let's focus on the rest of the paragraph. McKay did indeed tell that story. But, according to my notes, he left some details out. McKay said he and the more senior Daily Express reporter he was working with paid the skipper to sail back. They'd missed the actual return and wanted a photograph that could be described as the ship making landfall for the first time. Having missed reality the first time around, they decided to manufacture it.
"Most news has been devised," McKay said. He explained that the structure of a story has been decided ahead of time and the journalist then sets out to assemble the elements that make the finished product possible.
McKay seemed reluctant to entertain the notion that journalism has an obligation to be anything other than entertaining. "Newspapering is a business," he said. It's "absolutely wrong," he said, to think that newspapers have any sort of duty to society.
Well, fine. At least you know where Peter McKay stands. Somewhere in the 1950s, but there you are. Now let's deconstruct that last sentence: "The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors." Pompous idiots? I don't think I was especially pompous or idiotic that afternoon. In fact I had just complimented--well, not complimented exactly, more remarked upon--the Daily Mail's hard-hitting coverage of women's breasts. I stand in awe of it. (From yesterday's Mail: "Christina Aguilera looks bustier than ever." Something to do with lactating, apparently.)
Next, does The Post publish "mock-up pictures"? Um, I don't think so, but to be sure I asked the Post's assistant managing editor for photography, Michel DuCille, if we did. Of course not, the Pulitzer Prize-winner said in an e-mail.
And would a Post photographer do as the inventive McKay did years ago: incent an Aberdeen fisherman to putt-putt around a harbor for the benefit of a photographer looking for his money shot? "We absolutely would never do that," DuCille wrote. "If we can't capture the real thing we don't recreate it. It is simply not the truth. Photojournalism must speak the truth."
DuCille sent along the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics. One part reads: "While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events." Sounds pretty straightforward to me.
Frankly, I can't quite understand what McKay is referring to. The Post doesn't do anything "every day" except print the weather forecast. Faked or PhotoShopped pictures of George Bush? Every day? Sharing a joke with distinguished visitors? McKay has something in mind but I can't for the life of me tell what it is. I don't think he can, either. When I e-mailed asking him, basically, WTF?, he responded with: "I am researching the WP's mock-up pictures situation." Let me know what you find out, Peter.
The thing is, I agree with some of what McKay said that afternoon, comments that were only occasionally punctuated by the tiresome "I long for the good old days" nostalgia that afflicts so many journalists. For example, he said: "If the public are interested, it's in the public's interest." This was by way of defending the Mail's take-no-prisoners approach to just about everything it covers. Which makes McKay's admission that the Mail has been sitting for months on a story involving the royal family very odd. There's some scandal, apparently, involving a minor royal. But McKay said the palace requested the paper sit on it and the Mail complied.
You'd think he would be right on it, with a camera in one hand and a wad of cash in the other.
The Money Shot
Here's the point in this post where I have to get all serious for a moment. I do not agree with McKay that most newspaper stories are decided ahead of time then assembled in IdentaKit fashion. Of course, I can only speak for The Washington Post. The best stories--the best columns, even--are the result of following the reporting where it takes you.
I won't even speculate if the unease and distrust many consumers feel for the media these days stems from the feeling that all journalists subscribe to the McKay model: loose with the facts in pursuit of a "better" story. The thing is, I'm not sure even he agrees with that. I suspect that deep down in his leathery Fleet Street heart McKay thinks that I'm right, which is why as a cub reporter he questioned his actions on that quay and why, a full month after we spoke, our little exchange still rankles. Or does that sound a bit pompous?