Journalistic crimes and misdemeanors


I've been worrying abou the state of modern American journalism more than usual, so things much be pretty bad. With ill-conceived federal budget cuts threatening to create more unemployment at a time when the biggest problem facing America is long-term unemployment, and with the Voting Rights Act under assault, CNN's journalism program "Reliable Sources" led off this morning with...Woodward-gate, plunging ony briefly into sequestration before moving on to something something Michelle Obama something. Weak.

There seems to be a downward spiral of people paying less attention to the media, which causes some media outlets to try ridiculous attention-grabbing stunts, which leads to even less public trust in the media. And if you think newspapers are having problems, you probably don't work for a print magazine. They are the font of all desperation these days.

Consider Newsweek, which trivialized itself out of printed existence with covers like the one declaring Obama "The First Gay President." Just like the old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity, there's no magazine cover that's too ridiculous, as long as it creates "buzz." Just ask the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek, who apologized last week for using racial caricatures in a WTF cover meant to illustrate housing issues.

Then we have Philadelphia Magazine (Full disclosure: I've written for the magazine before, but not since May 2005), a publication that has come under fire over the years for too often offering a milky white version of one of America's most diverse cities, presumably to appeal to an upscale suburban readership. This probably isn't going to help that reputation: A March cover story on what apparently is an overlooked problem here in the Delaware Valley: "Being White," or as Daniel Denvir of the Philadelphia City Paper characterized it: "Whites must criticize blacks more."

The piece is by a talented writer who's done some very good things over the years: Bob Huber. But Huber probably should not add this one to his portfolio. It certainly seems to contain a lot of canards and tropes about African-Americans as vewed anthropologically by a suburbanite, or as Denvir puts it in his skillful takedown, "treat black people like inscrutable extraterrestrials whose moral shortcomings might be responsible for their own poverty."

To me, the bigger problem is that Philadelphia Magazine felt the need to do this story in the first place. The magazine is well-placed to advance the conversation in the city, for all races, and here is how. First, hire more non-white editors and writers (in the more than two decades I've been here, the top editor has always been white AND apparently 'Mad Men' is not just a show.) After that, turn them loose -- let them write about their own experience as a black (or Latino, or whatever...) man or woman in Philadelphia, but more importantly, sic them on some of the issues that affect all Philadelphians but fall disproportionately on people of color, like lousy public schools and the even lousier plans afoot to destroy them.

If you do those things, you’ll draw some brand-new readers to your magazine -- without lame and pandering covers like "Being White."

On the misdemeanor front, there was a lot of Twitter buzz -- and head-scratching -- about an op-ed in the Inquirer by a former assistant editor named Matt Zencey that, speaking of tired old tropes, complains that the sport of soccer of boring and too low-scoring for the personal taste of one Matt Zencey and then suggests some really ill-advised rule changes to, in his words, "capture my interest." (Apparently this is "the Matt Zencey decade.")

I was able to keep my reaction to less than 140 characters on Twitter  ("1987 called. It wants its anti-soccer op-ed back.") but others went longer, like this unhappy Union fan and this one and also my friend Brian P. Hickey, who wrote: "I think you’ve missed the fact that fewer goals bolster the strategic beauty of a game in which every point counts."

Here's why I even bother to discuss this. We are fighting for our life here, and a key part of that fight is trying to woo younger readers who will never ever pick up a newspaper and who also have a lot of choices like the web. Young Americans are embracing the sport of soccer, from the Union (who pack PPL Park down in Chester for every home game) to the English Premier League broadcasts on Saturday and Sunday morning. Instead of running "Grumpy Old Man" pieces like this one to pander to our rapidly aging print readership, how about taking soccer (or football, sorry Brian) seriously -- assuming you're really serious about being here two years and a month from now.