Sunday, March 13, 2011

David Broder: The 'Interactive' Journalist?

"The future fascinates us, because we hope to live in it. But the press has a responsibility to bring the discussion back to the concerns that really matter in people's lives."

-- Washington Post columnist David S. Broder, in a 1999 online chat, answering a reader's question about why the the public and the press "is so obsessed with predictions as opposed to issues."

David, who was my first boss in Washington, died Wednesday. He was 81. As the Post's Dan Balz wrote, David was "the best political reporter of his or any other generation."

Generationally, David was more of a typewriter guy than a laptop guy. My own remembrance for NPR ("Broder's Shift Key") focused on how David's commitment to "lowercase-'I' interactivity" gave him a prominent -- albeit unlikely -- role in the early stages of the Post's transformation into a multimedia publishing company. That online chat from 1999 quoted above was just one example.

Alan Shearer, the editorial director of The Washington Post Writers Group -- which syndicated David's twice-weekly newspaper column -- remembered first hearing David speak about journalism in 1979, when Alan was still a wire service reporter. The striking, almost prophetic passage that Alan recalled was a version of language I heard David use many times:

"I would like to see us say -- over and over, until the point has been made -- that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours -- distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from your doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version.

"If we did that, I suspect, not only would we feel less inhibited about correcting and updating our own stories, we might even encourage the readers to contribute their own information and understanding to the process. We might even find ourselves acknowledging something most of us find hard to accept: that they have something to tell us, as well as to hear from us. And if those readers felt that they were part of a communications process in which they were participants and not just passive consumers, then they might more easily understand that their freedoms -- and not just ours -- are endangered when the search warrants and subpoenas are visited on the press."

NOTE (11-28-2012): The remarks Alan quoted came from a speech David gave at the National Press Club in 1979. When I first posted this I'd forgotten that David included a longer excerpt in his 1987 book Behind the Front Page. I tweaked a couple of introductory sentences above accordingly -- if only to underscore David's point about "corrected and updated versions."

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