om?pha?lo?skep?sis (om-ful-lo-SKEP-sis) n. from omphalos, Greek for navel, and skepsis, examination: contemplation of one's navel as an aid to meditation.
First, the Los Angeles Times' editorial page editor resigns because his publisher spiked a special opinion section that was "edited" by some Hollywood movie bigwig. Publisher David Hiller said the section was canceled "in order to avoid even the appearance of conflict ..."
It turned out Andres Martinez, the aforementioned editorial page editor, was dating a public relations executive whose company was employed by the Hollywood bigwig, but no one suggested the woman steered Martinez in his selection of said bigwig.
In a fare-thee-well blog posted on the Times' Web site, Martinez heaped blame for the dust-up on "navel-gazing newsrooms" out to find conflicts of interest where none existed. (This was the same newsroom that published a 14-page apologia over the fact that the newspaper had not revealed an unusual profit-sharing deal when it printed a special supplement about the then-new Staples Center arena.)
Then, in a column a week ago, the putative editor of the Las Vegas Sun, one Brian Greenspun, takes up the navel-gazing position with a curious dig at one of his own writers. He castigated Jon Ralston, his own vast-vocabularied columnist, for questioning City Council candidates on his television program only five days before the election about questionable personal behavior. Greenspun also faulted his own newspaper for reporting about the TV show the next day.
He wrote that he learned from his late father, Hank Greenspun, that it is unfair to raise new issues too close to Election Day because the accused do not have enough time to rebut. (Yes, this is the same Greenspun who, on the eve of the hard-fought Harry Reid-John Ensign Senate election, penned a bylined banner "news" story quoting his old collegemate Bill Clinton as saying Nevada would surely have nuclear waste shoved down Yucca Mountain if voters failed to re-elect Reid. An about face? Or just two-faced? Your call.)
Such issues were a near-constant topic recently at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, D.C., where I was the only Nevada editor in attendance, as usual.
Though these are tumultuous times for editors across the nation, with newspapers being sold or merged and newsrooms facing layoffs and/or declining circulation, there was a lot of upbeat talk about the journalism of accountability and verification, as opposed to the rumors and innuendo that fly in the rarefied ether of the Internet and the so-called blogosphere.
Outgoing ASNE President David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., talked about how newspapers will survive because we have more boots on the ground.
"I'm told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch," Zeeck said. "Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we -- newspapers -- write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow, it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: The lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn't produce a single BTU of intellectual heat."
It is about reporting, about verifying, about asking questions, not about shirking our responsibility just because a deadline or an election is nigh. It is not about gazing at our navels, but about getting down and digging with our bare hands to give our readers information they need to make informed decisions, such as for whom to vote.
Also at the convention, we heard from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. From the floor I asked, "As an editor, I'd like to know who on the court is the best writer."
Without pause or reflection, Breyer shot back: "Nino."
Nino is the nickname of Justice Antonin Scalia, who would've been my choice as well.
Breyer went on to explain that Scalia suffers from "writer's disease." He comes up with the just-right word or phrase, and even though it might be a stinging rebuke of his own colleagues on the court, he simply cannot resist using it. He must. It is a disease.
Now you know the truth. This entire column was not really about righteous journalism or supercilious editors and publishers. Not about the future of newspapers.
It was simply a way for me to use the word omphaloskepsis before Ralston could.
After all, it is a disease.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.