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November 14, 2003

Exit, Voice and Loyalty at the Los Angeles Times

Dean Baquet, number two at the LA Times, went to New Orleans and preached that old time religion: Don't kill the messenger. We're not here to be loved. We print the truth and some don't like it. But when 10,000 readers have quit in anger, that script needs work.

“Does managing editor Dean Baquet regret his decision to run the story?” wrote Gordon Russell of the Times-Picayune on Nov. 13. “Not one bit, he said Wednesday at a luncheon in his native New Orleans.” The big decision, of course, was to publish on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, just days before the recall election, the tale of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a serial groper of women. This outraged enough people in California to bring 10,000 cancelled subscriptions in its wake. Not a normal event:

Recounting the paper’s controversial decision, Baquet said the fallout was “swift and angry.” His first e-mail of the day, which arrived in the predawn hours of the day the story broke, read simply: “You bastard.” …By the time Baquet arrived at the office, he had hundreds of messages, most expressing similar sentiments. On TV, conservative commentators brayed that the Times was a tool of the left, and even nonpartisan critics questioned the paper’s judgment. The paper made the call to publish the story in spite of an “unwritten rule” in journalism that it’s unfair to print bombshells as campaigns wind down, Baquet said. But he viewed the alternative—not printing the truth—as worse

He viewed the alternative as worse. Whenever journalists take a view of the alternatives in a controversy like this, they hand you some of their press think, because that view reveals what the range of choices is thought by journalists to be. There are ideas under that range. Alternatives talk is press imagination speaking up. In New Orleans, Dean Baquet’s alternatives told a lot.

First example: “I’d prefer you respect us than love us.” This is part of the religion of the metropolitan press: they aren’t going to love you if you do your job well, an observation that newsroom experience tends to confirm— daily. Still, that experience is not the only experience that counts in the reckoning after. Okay, Baquet would have rather be respected than loved. Who can argue with that? But his alternatives—aim for respect, or crave to be loved—are stale and cramped, and they can be argued with.

When 10,000 people (who follow politics well enough to feel outraged by an editorial decision during election season) get angry and quit the newspaper, it might be wise to think anew, not about the love you don’t need from people, but the hate you now have from some. Yet Baquet said he had “no second thoughts about the decision to publish,” according to Russell. “To him, the episode sheds light on a newspaper’s role in the community: to be a cranky watchdog.”

Well, I doubt that “crankiness” explains 10,000 gone. And the alternatives Baquet poses—“we stand by our story” vs. “on second thought, we made a terrible mistake, so sorry!”—are not the only ones to contemplate. There’s “we stand by the story, and see the rage as the price you pay for being tough,” vs. “we stand by the story, but see the rage as a sign of things seriously wrong in our connection to a large part of California.” Which of these seems smarter to Baquet? The decision to go with the groping stories, (which I think is defensible) is followed by other key decisions that Baquet could have addressed but did not.

There’s deciding how to explain news of sexual allegations to those skeptical about your motives and upset that their election was taken over by this story. “I think the newspaper should kick you around sometimes,” Baquet said. “It should make you mad. It should upset the community.” Here we’re deep into newsroom religion, bravely defended. Most (but not all) journalists would admire this kind of stance. It connects to some powerful press mythology and local history in every town on the map with a decent newspaper.

But by the logic of this explanation—and it does have logic—the fact that an Angelino is very angry with the Times should, according to Baquet, be understood by said Angelino as evidence that the Times is actually doing its job. He said this in the context of 10,000—that’s ten thousand!—mad enough to quit. A good newspaper should make you mad.

Let’s agree there is a class of cases where this strange-to-the-ear reasoning holds. If the bureaucrats at the bumbling transit authority “hate” the reporter who covers the transit authority, (because he reports on their bumbling) this might indeed be proof of a job well done. But it does not follow from this specific class of cases that a wave of hatred for the Los Angeles Times is “proof” of reportorial success. People don’t trust it when their deeper emotions are explained away so easily, almost by a trick of logic.

Let’s agree also on the wisdom in Baquet’s “the newspaper should kick you around sometimes.” In fact there is some moral sense there, and it’s not confined to journalism. A good accountant should kick you around at times by way of raising hard questions. An honest attorney, the same. A doctor, at times. Even a football coach. If it never happens, you might worry.

But again it does not follow that a given kick received by citizens of Los Angeles is the kind of kick they deserve just for being citizens confronted with a tough newspaper in a tough town, edited by tough editors who make the tough calls and hang tough when accusations come down. “Our job is to ask tough questions of government,” Baquet said. “We should be tough, we should be believed, we should be vital. And that’s a whole lot better than being loved.” That the public’s love must be foregone by tough journalists is mostly an irrelevant sacrifice, however, since what mature person expects press and public to love each other in a huge, divided metropolis like L.A.?

Let’s agree that the cult of toughness pays many dividends to journalism. Being unafraid to ask hard, even grating questions is a clear virtue in those who have to raise issues and deliver bad news. It takes some imagination to see how toughness is also a vice. It is a vice because it seduces journalists into thinking that the only alternative to being extra tough is being extra soft, caving in, losing nerve, listening too much to critics— tanking. So if toughness—an attitude supreme in newsrooms—requires you to ignore critics, and its alternative, going soft, means you have caved into your critics, when in that scheme do you actually listen to your critics and puzzle through what they are saying? The cult has no answer to this question.

For even if you are proud of your call in the groping mess, comfortable with the reasoning and would do it again, (Baquet said all this) there is still the matter of what you learned from the bitter public reaction, what you take away for use in future crises of confidence. And there’s how to explain what you learned to the public you learned it from. On the evidence of the speech in his hometown, Baquet learned that the old time newsroom religion, powerful in its call and response, answered all his doubts. But is that the belief system of the 10,000 who quit? Does it answer any of their doubts?

Thinking there might be more to what Baquet said, or perhaps some missing context, I called Gordon Russell of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the reporter on the scene (and an NYU Journalism grad.) He gave me this:

About the 10,000 subscribers, he did say a few more things. He called the loss of so many readers an “astonishing shock”— clearly it bothered him, but he also made clear that the loss has not caused him to re-think his decision. He also did not seem to think more cancellations are on the way.

Instead, he said he took comfort in the public’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which was to turn to newspapers for information. And he said that as long as his paper does its job—part of which is to “kick you around sometimes—people will come back to it eventually.

He didn’t say anything specific about the people who canceled their subscriptions. But he did talk generally about how he thinks some media— particularly cable news—have been cowed by critics, leading them to avoid doing things like the Schwarzenegger articles…

He doesn’t put a lot of stock into the liberal-media theory, which came up in some of the questions (and obviously was a big part of the Schwarzenegger flap). Someone asked him about the political makeup of his newsroom, and he said he had no idea. “I suspect most reporters don’t think of themselves as political animals,” he said… He added that there’s no such thing as pure objectivity, but said essentially that good newspapers “struggle to be objective” every day.

Finally, I need to suggest a better way of viewing events that Dean Baquet and his boss, editor John Carroll, have unwisely simplified. (For PressThink’s earlier critique of Carroll’s public stance, click here and here.) “Please people, don’t slay the messenger,” put forward when you lose 10,000 readers, is, I believe, far too simple. It’s a reflex and it does nothing to make the messenger any smarter. But the economist and all-around clever thinker, Albert O. Hirschman, had some ideas that might help editors like Carroll expand the alternatives available to a proud, tough, intelligent and determined newspaper like the Los Angeles Times.

In a little book called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, (Harvard University Press, 1970), Hirschman said that when customers are dissatisfied with a firm, or constituents are angry with any organization, they have three basic options: exit, voice and loyalty. Exit is when you stop buying the product, cease your contribution to AARP, quit the PTA, or refuse to vote because you don’t like your choices. Voice is when you speak up: hey, you aren’t treating me right! I object, and here’s why. (This option presupposes someone to listen.)

The third and complicating choice is loyalty, which “holds exit at bay and activates voice.” A loyal reader of the Oregonian might well get angry at her newspaper. But loyalty means she will stick with the paper, despite that. It also means she will choose voice— speak up, write a letter, make a call to the public editor. “To resort to voice, rather than exit, is for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies and outputs of the firm from which one buys or the organization to which one belongs.”

Newspapers need the loyalty of readers, precisely because there are bound to be stresses and strains in the relationship. This is a truism. But how good are newspapers on voice? And when 10,000 people choose exit over a single incident, it may be time to question the reasoning that explains this mass flight as an inevitable consequence of doing a good job, a price the tough and determined must pay and accept. “They’ll be back,” Baquet’s speculation, shows again the poverty of alternatives in the standard script. He did say he was shocked then. But he sounds very calm now.

Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News, comments on this post.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 14, 2003 12:53 AM