Print Journalism Snobbery?

Yesterday, while going back and forth with Brian Stelter over the Alan Murray CNBC shot, Stelter tweeted the following to me…

i’m at your service. i would add: this is what i love about Sorkin on “Squawk:” he’s a journalist who happens to be on TV.

I let that comment pass on Twitter because 140 characters just isn’t enough space to properly respond to it and I wasn’t 100% convinced that my read of Stelter’s tweet was what he was trying to get across. But after getting egged on by Stelter and others, here’s my response…

Maybe Stelter didn’t intend it to come across this way, but I took that comment to mean that print journalists like Andrew Ross Sorkin when they’re on TV are better at it on TV than traditional TV news journalists; the sort of dismissive print journalism snobbery we see from time to time when the TV medium gets discussed by the print press. TV news has its faults but to compare print journalism and TV news is an apples to oranges scenario. The rules and processes are different.

National TV news, especially live TV cable news, is basically news by committee; far more so than print journalism. You have editorial directors, writers, producers, and the talent all working together in real time on the product – a journalism assembly line if you will – where viewers get the news in a steady stream as it unfolds. As with traditional assembly lines there are people on the line with specific knowledge who only contribute when the need arises. Because it is an assembly line approach and basically has no controlling authority outside of a set of guidelines sent down from the Editorial Director, we are presented with something of a paradox where the news anchor is considered to be the authority and gatekeeper by the viewing public because of their position on the air yet their input, what there is of it, comes extremely late in the assembly line process. This is why if you talk to a grunt at any network you will hear at least one story about a talent going to the control room and chewing out the staff for something the staff did that ended up making them look bad. It’s also why I have a lot of sympathy for news anchors. They get all the blame by the public but have comparatively little input in the news as it unfolds.

Print journalism is less structured and inflexible. Unlike live TV news, print journalism doesn’t use an assembly line approach. Think of it more as a few chefs working in a kitchen preparing a meal. The head chef is the print journalist himself but he has a dual role as both cook and knowledge expert. He has to. He’s the one going out working on the story. Unlike live news, we don’t see a final product until it’s published. The reading public considers the print journalist to be the authority and gatekeeper but unlike TV news the print journalist has far more input into the final product – though you will most certainly get an answer in the affirmative if you ask any print journalist about whether they ever had a story ruined by an editor.

Having said that, I will draw a distinction between live TV news and packaged TV news segments. The latter tend to more closely mirror the print journalism model. It’s less of an assembly line approach and more of a co-operative effort and, like print journalism, we don’t get the story until it’s published. But since Stelter’s comment specifically addressed Sorkin and Sorkin, in his role on CNBC, is operating in the live news format and not the packaged story format, the distinction between packaged news vs. live news is not germane to this discussion.

There are exceptions but most TV news anchors, especially at the national level, have a journalism background. It’s not like they switch it off when they get on the air. Maybe that’s what irked me most about Stelter’s crack – the implication being that print journalists stay journalists if you put them on the air but TV journalists do not. That’s just silly. More importantly, it infers a kind of infallibility about print journalists on the air…that their judgement is better and more accurate more often. Hogwash. Print journalists are human beings. They make mistakes and can have flawed judgements just like TV news journalists.

Because Sorkin has been plugged in to the assembly line system of TV news that CNBC and everyone else cable news uses, he’s just as vulnerable as any other news anchor to the perils of that approach. Being a print journalist with an extensive business journalism background makes him a very useful asset on the air for CNBC because he can rely on that when he’s doing interviews or analysis. But it doesn’t make him bulletproof, incapable of error, or less susceptible and/or corruptible to the theatrics of TV news. Or, put another way, if CNBC had put Jayson Blair in the anchor chair would we be discussing the merits of journalists who just happen to be on TV?

In any case using Sorkin on CNBC works primarily because Sorkin and CNBC both cover the same territory but that makes this journalist on TV marriage an exception and not the rule. Plug Sorkin in on MSNBC, FNC, or CNN – where, unlike business news CNBC, the news focus is wide open – and Sorkin’s business news journalism asset becomes an albatross whenever Sorkin has to stray outside of his comfort zone. That’s the big difference between a Sorkin and a traditional TV news journalist/anchor. The former can get away with being narrowly focused if the format of the show matches it. The latter has to be on top of everything all the time which, let’s be honest, very few can do successfully. It’s a tough job having to be on top of everything all the time and pull it off on a daily basis without having a failure of some sort and drawing ridicule by the public.

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6 Responses to “Print Journalism Snobbery?”

  1. With Twitter and blogs, we now have nearly live-stream print journalism and editorials. Sometimes they come with images and video attached, just like what we see on the telly.

  2. I think what is interesting about ARS on Squawk Box is what comes out in the banter that goes on between the anchors. This is a guy who may be very book smart but AT TIMES seems not very common sense/worldly smart. I think he has a lot of “growing up” to do in a common sense way before he has can be what Stelter seems to think he is already.

  3. With Twitter and blogs, we now have nearly live-stream print journalism and editorials. Sometimes they come with images and video attached, just like what we see on the telly.

    You’re comparing final products without accounting for the process that generated those products…processes which are totally different.

  4. Indeed. In fact, Twitter is often more a snapshot of the process unfolding than it is any sort a product, itself.

  5. Whether Sorkin has a jouralistic background or not is not nearly as important as how good a performer he is on set. There are plenty of ‘jouralists’ who have never made the tranisition to live TV and there are also lots of non-jouralists who have.

    Sorkin is very good because he is Ezra Klein smart and has Willie Geist looks and performance skills. The fact that he is an excellent writer and journalist means he tends to try and ask questions and not always just give his opinion.

    The difference is evident on ‘Squawk Box’ when you compare his and Becky Quick’s (also with a journalistic background) performance with Joe Kernan (who was a stockbroker). Kernan is much more comfortable as a opinion giver; not asking others their opinions.

    I don’t agree he is a one trick pony who would be out of his element discussing anything but business. His work on Morning Joe showed he was a nimble and at ease performer on many topics.

    I think he will be very sucessful at CNBC and move on to bigger and better things quickly. If Ali Velshi can host a general news morning show then Andrew Sorkin certainly can do the same or more.

  6. sucessful > successful

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