The Digital Journalist
Time Gone By

by Peter Howe

Okay, guess which magazine cover this was.

The headline read:

Lose That Spare Tire! Special Report on How to Get Fitter Faster.

The sub-heads declared:

Choosing the Right Workout

Can You Be Fat and Fit?

The Risks of Overexercise

Closing America's Fitness Gap

Give it your best shot. Cosmopolitan? Self? Men's Health? No, wrong on all counts, although by now the smarter of you, or at least those who do more crossword puzzles, will have connected the question with my headline.

Yes, the correct answer is that former bastion of news reporting and analysis, Time magazine. It was yet another attempt by the magazine's editors to halt the slow, painful slide into irrelevance. The reasoning is that if the readers aren't interested in genocide in Darfur give them something they really care about -- love handles. Although their analysis of reader interest may be correct, the problem with this reasoning is that the people they're trying to attract already get the same information from other publications more qualified to provide it to them. The other problem is that I don't know what else those editors running the magazine can do. If it were my thankless task I would probably take the same defensive measures.

The reality is that Time's format is ironically not of its time. As technology improves, or at least speeds up, the delivery of information via the older methods slips back a notch. Like many of you my primary news source is now the Internet. If I want more detail I will go to one of the cable news channels (although few of them provide more detail than If I want thorough news analysis I read The New York Times the following day. By the time the weekly news magazines hit my doormat I usually know all that I want to know about any event that occurred during the week. Actually I am a subscriber to Time, or more accurately, I subscribe to Time's on-line archive, which is an invaluable research tool; I get the print magazine thrown in at no extra cost, thus becoming another addition to the advertiser rate base. These are the things that you do in order to make your old lady look as hip and dateable as possible. It's a dispiriting process that I know well from working at LIFE magazine.

Time's editors also have one more hurdle to surmount on a daily basis -- they are no longer owned by a company dedicated to the production of excellent magazine journalism, but are part of a huge entertainment conglomerate. This was never made more apparent than by the deplorable actions that Norman Pearlstein took with regard to the confidentiality issues surrounding the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA operative. Time reporter Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times had been ordered to reveal their sources to a federal grand jury investigating the case. Both had said that they were prepared to serve jail sentences for contempt of court, but in the end only Miller was sentenced. Cooper said that he had been released from confidentiality by his source after Pearlstein, who has the misleading title of Editor-in-Chief, decided to hand over his reporter's notes to the grand jury. Falling back on his training as a lawyer he did this to an accompaniment of sonorous and somewhat pompous pronouncements, such as Time "shall deliver the subpoenaed records to the Special Counsel in accordance with its duties under the law," and, of course, the old saw that always surfaces with this issue, "Reporters cannot hold themselves above the law."

Judith Miller clearly did not consider herself above the law, but expected - and got - time behind bars as the result of her actions. The difference between the attitude that her employer took and Pearlstein's was that it was the reporter's, not the company's, decision to make. It is after all the reporter who will be losing his or her freedom, not the Executive-in-Chief. Furthermore, it will affect the reporter's ability to do his or her job for the rest of their careers, regardless of who employs them. Journalists are not above the law, and do not claim any such status. What they do claim is the right to civil disobedience when they feel that the law threatens their freedom to report on issues of importance. A good reporter, and Miller is a Pulitzer Prize winner, works as much for our democracy as for any individual media company, and like many who helped form and preserve our social system, civil disobedience is a tool that they must use when and if they think it necessary. I'm sure that George III felt that those damned rebels thought themselves above the law. Certainly the more racist elements of the Deep South during the Sixties wanted to put Martin Luther King Jr. in his place by cooling his heels in some of the less savory penal establishments of the time. Without his acts of civil disobedience few of the civil rights that we take for granted now would be in existence. It's not that Cooper and Miller robbed banks, murdered or raped; they simply wanted to preserve their professional credibility and were prepared to be incarcerated when its preservation clashed with the forces of the law. One was allowed to, and the other wasn't.

How does all this affect photojournalists? I think in several ways. First of all a photographer has sources as well. Say you're doing a documentary project on militia groups in Idaho. You find a source to set the story up and to take you to the group's location. It's very likely that the FBI or some other federal agency will want to know who that source was, and however little sympathy you may have for the group, you're dead in the water if you reveal that name, and your project ends there. You may also be working on a story with a reporter and be privy to his or her sources; law enforcement may see you as the easier target from which to extract that information. But apart from the day-to-day logistics of reporting either through words or images there is a greater threat lurking here. Every time we imprison a journalist we move a baby step closer to a state-controlled press and, furthermore, lose our leverage when we criticize regimes such as in Iran or Myanmar for doing the same thing -- not that I've noticed the Bush administration doing much criticizing on this issue lately.

So while Norman Pearlstein makes lofty corporate decisions in his lofty office on a lofty floor of the Time and Life Building, Judy Miller languishes in Alexandria Detention Center. I suppose the only consolation that she has is that she courageously stayed true to her principles -- oh, and one other consolation. She will likely break more exclusive stories in the future than Matt Cooper, and they will appear in the publication that stood by her and allowed her to be the decision-maker in this matter. As she said to the judge before he sentenced her, "If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press." Well said, Judith. Norman Pearlstein couldn't have put it better. No, I really mean that - he would be incapable of putting it better.

On a much brighter note, in these days of content providers and the industrialization of photography, it's refreshing to discover that the personal touch of someone who cares is still around. It's even more heartening when that person works for one of the big image conglomerates that many people think killed off such contact in the first place. The caregiver in this particular instance was a woman called Pat Bergin, an employee of Getty. She recently e-mailed me to ask whether or not I was the same Peter Howe who photographed in his earlier days, as she tactfully put it, for an agency called FPG, which Getty subsequently bought. In fact I never did shoot for this outfit, but it turns out that they syndicated the work that photographers produced for the London Daily Telegraph magazine, and for them I did shoot. A few days later a package arrived on my doorstep with some of the most mediocre photography I have ever seen on such compelling subjects as handbags for men. To show what a forgiving, gentle organ the brain is I had no recollection of ever taking them, but when I turned one of the prints over there was the caption in my handwriting, and authorship could no longer be denied. Although I was not thrilled to receive this reminder of the lower depths of my career, I realized the trouble that Pat had taken to make sure the work was returned, and to the right photographer. She not only hunted me down but also was meticulous in establishing that I was who I said I was and the correct recipient. The experience was a bit like adopting a rather flea-bitten mutt from a non-destroy shelter. It would have been much easier for her to shred them, and nobody would have blamed her. Not even me! It's nice to know you're out there, Pat, finding good homes for orphaned black-and-white prints.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor