Is AP 'desperately seeking Pulitzers?'

In the latest print issue of the conservative Christian magazine World (which arrived in my mailbox a few days ago), editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky makes the case that The Associated Press is "desperately seeking Pulitzers" and relaxing its news standards in a way that will result in "more bias."

Liberal bias, that is.

The top of Olasky's column:

Some journalists will do anything to win one of the Pulitzer Prizes scheduled for announcement this year on April 16. The Associated Press has 243 news bureaus and lots of writers, but in the past 45 years the AP has won only four Pulitzers for articles. Even in their own home the writers have no bragging rights: AP during those 45 years has won 22 Pulitzers for photos.

From the AP perspective, Something Must Be Done. So what if AP traditionally performed the useful role of getting out lots of stories quickly? The way to win awards is to give more "perspective," which typically means a move from reporting the news to propagandizing for liberal views. And AP is heading in that direction.

AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes recently sent a memo to 3,000 AP staffers announcing "The New Distinctiveness." He wrote, "AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two we're often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative." He wants writers to follow up breaking news with more perspective—which means they'll scratch their heads instead of pounding the pavement and working the phones to break the next story.

Coincidentally (or not), the AP this week claimed the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for "spotlighting of the New York Police Department’s clandestine spying program that monitored daily life in Muslim communities, resulting in congressional calls for a federal investigation, and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence gathering."

Olasky's column interested me for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is my role as a media critic for GetReligion. Second, and more personal, is my past experience as a religion and enterprise writer with the AP, based first in Nashville, Tenn., and later Dallas.

Most of the column appears to be hidden behind a pay wall, but Olasky seems to make three main assertions:

• 1. More thorough and innovative reporting by AP is a bad thing.

More from Olasky:

Oreskes wrote that the AP is also "going to be pushing hard on journalism with voice, with context, with more interpretation." He said AP will enter the business of "putting the dots together, adding two plus two and saying it equals four." Or three. Or five. He wants "Thematic Thinking. We're going to be much more aggressive in identifying themes off the news—angles the world is thinking about—and digging deeper." He wants AP to be "refining our thinking and slightly resequencing our journalistic DNA."

The AP editor's elaboration on what "more interpretation" means did not make it into Olasky's column:

This does not mean that we’re sacrificing any of our deep commitment to unbiased, fair journalism. It does not mean that we're venturing into opinion, either. It does mean that we need to be looking for ways to be more distinctive and stand out in the field -- something our customers need and want. The why and the how of the news are as crucial as the who, what, when and where.

Alas, much of the AP push for more complete, insightful journalism sounds strikingly familiar to the emphasis when I joined the wire service in Nashville a decade ago. In 2002, after nine years as a reporter and editor for The Oklahoman, I was burned out and ready for a fresh start.

At Oklahoma's largest state newspaper, I had excelled as a beat reporter, covering everything from education to prisons to religion. My experience developing sources and digging below the surface on stories appealed to the AP. At the time, AP's reporters were second to none on covering explosions and legislative hearings and rewriting member newspapers' front-page stories — but they were less adept at "owning" second-day and long-term stories and crafting weekend enterprise pieces that could generate prominent play.

The change in AP philosophy has, as you might imagine, alarmed some of its newspaper customers, who prefer that AP stick to the nuts-and-bolts reporting to fill the bowels of their publications while their own reporters focus on the important stuff. The Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds notes:

A governance oddity for AP is that it’s a not-for-profit cooperative owned by its newspaper members at a time when American newspapers account for a progressively smaller share of its revenue. The big growth opportunities are in broadcast, digital, photo and international markets.

My own perspective: I'd respectfully disagree with Olasky's suggestion that AP reporters can't pound the pavement, work the phones and take their journalism to the next level.

• 2. Liberal bias and political correctness afflict AP reporting.

Olasky cited a review of AP stories that he and three interns performed last summer:

The AP reports were not balanced, and it would be silly to expect them to be when mainstream journalists see opponents of homosexuality as defenders of social cancer. No one sees the need to balance news of a new anti-cancer drug with statements by pro-cancer proponents. But AP's liberal bias on political and economic questions was also evident. AP often tells the story of person A, who has a problem, and person B, the bureaucrat or politician who purports to have a solution. AP typically forgets about person C, the one paying taxes so that the politician can get credit for sending aid to person A.

I have not attempted a full-scale review of AP reports on the aforementioned issues. I read a lot of AP news stories that impress me with their fairness and thoroughness. In other cases, I am frustrated by AP stories that need work, both in terms of their journalistic completeness and balance. Often, we here at GR highlight ways in which specific AP stories fall short and could be improved.

• 3. Mainstream journalism, and specifically AP, need more reporters with a conservative worldview.

From Olasky:

In February 2011, I interviewed Tom Kent, AP's deputy managing editor and standards editor, and asked him about studies showing that conservatives are rare in major mainstream news organizations and conservative Christians nowhere in sight. Kent responded, "I don't see this as an issue because we don't focus on it. There are people whom I've worked with for 20, 30 years, and I don't know how they vote. That would not be useful information for me to know."Kent is an honorable man, but it seems to me that the lack of discussion indicates this should be an issue: When an organization includes a diversity of views, people know it.

In my time with AP, I never felt my colleagues were biased. In fact, the notion that anyone had an agenda — outside of breaking news and writing important stories — is laughable. Given my conservative Christian background, I came up with story ideas that no one had pursued before — and my editors welcomed them. I won a number of internal AP reporting awards and even wrote a primer on beat reporting distributed on the wire service's internal website.

But was I in a minority as far as my personal worldview? Probably.

From conversations with other AP writers — and this is a totally unscientific figure — I'd say 80 percent or more of my colleagues leaned progressive on political and social issues. Al Gore was brilliant. George W. Bush was an idiot. You get the idea.

From that perspective — and this isn't exactly breaking news if you've read GetReligion for any length of time — AP and other mainstream media giants certainly could use more journalists with a different worldview. Not to be advocates, mind you, but to make sure the newsroom better reflects the society as a whole.

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