January 14, 2004
Why I Love the Adopt-a-Reporter Scheme. Why I Dread It.
A weblog devoted to watching the work of a journalist is democracy in action. It is bound to be educational, for the watcher and perhaps for the journalist who is watched. But there are reasons to worry.
All the ideas, examples and disputes are here: Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004. It has more than thirty links. I stayed out of that post because I wanted to know what others think. So… no illustrations in this one. Use the links and fill in any details you need.
Why I Love It.
It’s practical. People can do it, and they don’t need permission or oversight. Tracking a reporter’s work is a good thing for a very simple reason. It’s participation in the presidential campaign, and in politics. It’s doing something useful with your own civic time. It’s what Thomas Jefferson, the botanist, did— observe nature, and record what you find. Except that culture is our nature now and media a surrounding sea. So we observe this, and try to sense its motion.
Observation is a discipline. It takes care. It improves with practice. It brings your mind down to the sensuous details of the case. (For example, a journalist’s tone.) Tracking reportage will, I think, be an education for those who do it— in fact, it is journalism education, in which all enrolled are to be self-taught by November. I am strongly in favor of that.
It was always the smart argument for pursuing better turnout in elections. (And not everyone in politics wants more voters, remember that!) Voting tutors people in democracy. It threatens to give them a stake. Every way of getting involved in a campaign has this effect, when there’s something real in the balance. Tracking a reporter forces ideas about the press through the test of enriched experience. That’s good for citizenship. But not citizenship as a duty. Not even as a right. Citizenship as a kind of public intervention is involved.
Adopting a campaign reporter, and writing a weblog about the work that reporter does, is involving yourself in the press. And you can never predict how involving things will evolve. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it’s one-to-one. That cosmic abstraction, The Media, which has no earthly address, is reckoned with by reduction to a single journalist, somebody who, far from the news wars, might be eating a sandwich when you are eating your sandwich. This gives the activity human scale, even if it’s antagonistic. Our expanding culture of complaint about Big Media could use more of that— a human scale.
Unless you intend for your tracking site to suck, you are going to spend some part of your day thinking about the correspondent under scrutiny. Even if you and the journalist seem to dwell in different worlds and disagree on important things, one of those important things is the public conversation about news—the journalism we have, the journalism we need—to which you and “your” journalist will both contribute. In parallel, as it were.
And besides all that, a good tracking site is a credit to journalism, and to the work of the reporter tracked. It elevates the importance of both.
Why I Dread It.
I have this question, seriously intended: What makes media hate any better, any more “okay,” than other forms of politicized hating? Nothing in my field of vision. Check yours.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist—floating hatred for The Media, (which has no address) addressed to individuals who in someone’s eyes represent “the” media—because I can find occasional evidence for it in comments here at PressThink. You can find it at a million Web pages in public view. Bipartisan evidence, too. Is the contempt deserved? A lot of intelligent people think so, and they act on that belief. They write of it. They sometimes commune around it. Is there contempt for an intelligent lay public by the press? There is, but right now I am not discussing it.
Now it’s ridiculous to put a powerful system like the American news media in the position of victim, and I intend nothing like that. Nothing at all. But I am curious why we don’t see hatred of the press as taking some toll on the hater. (We do when it’s racism.) In this sense I dread the adopt-a-journalist scheme, even though I support the idea, because I think dread is a fit response when people who are in some quarters hated—perhaps symbolically so—are being carefully “watched” in those quarters. And I am not talking of stalking, either, which should not be instantly dismissed or casually predicted.
Look, there is a big difference between calling out The Daily Howler (a site I admire) and serving up today’s “media whore.” The difference is in the drift toward rhetorical violence, which cannot be prevented but ought to be questioned at opportune times. This is one. Adopt-a-journalist could, in individual cases, drift that way; and to say that such sites would never succeed—because they are bound to be shoddy, unreliable—is naive at this point in Net time. They can succeed by providing 100 people with fresh material for resentment, a transaction common on the Internet. They can succeed by taking an inherently political subject—the performance of the press during an election—and politicizing it, but in the extreme.
Yet that is no reason not to do it. It is just one man’s word of caution. Finally, an apt passage from the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994):
If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible, and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment.
Practical Question: What should be the minimum standards for a good reporter’s watch weblog? If you have an idea, hit the comment button and speak.
For the background, see PressThink, Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004: The Drift of a Suggestion
Also see my comments here. (Ex Lion Tamer.)
Halley Suitt comments on this post. “Bloggers instituting Adopt-A-Reporter is to journalists as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz were to your travel agent, a transparency mechanism. The big difference being what’s a stake…”
eRobin of Fact-esque, a watch site, says: “I have another concern though and that is that as a watcher, I’ll start to feel embedded in Mr. Woodward’s work and lose objectivity on that front, which wouldn’t be good either. I already think of Mr. Woodward as ‘my guy’ and am excited when I find a piece he’s written. Frankly, and I think many watchers feel this way too, I’m happier when I can say that the work he’s done is good. It’s better for my soul and better for the country.”
Al Giordano of Big, Left, Outside replies to this post: “The legitimate resentment by the public about the media is not anything like ‘hate speech’ or ‘race hate.’ It’s more along the lines of the ‘hatred’ that great Authentic Journalist Thomas Paine cited when he wrote ‘God put hatred in men’s hearts for good reason: to ensure justice.’ It’s something more akin to class consciousness than bigotry.”
Related: Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer: “The new realm of the ‘blogosphere’ has focused attention in a more vigilant way on the errors made by ‘dead-tree journalists’—and by other bloggers as well. The ease of making corrections on the Web has made the exposure of errors made by dead-tree journalists—and the pressure to correct those errors—greater than ever.”
Dave Winer jumps in: “It would be much better to track the candidates by issues, rather than watching reporters. What you’ll find out when you track reporters is that they aren’t doing their job. This has very limited value. Instead we should do the job they should be doing, raise the bar, give them an incentive to do their job.”
DocBug reacts: “Bloggers should adopt any combination of candidate, journalist, or issue to watch, and then send those posts to the appropriate aggregator(s).”
Dimmy Karras adds: “Anyone who, like me, feels motivated to bother doing something like this probably sees a purpose in it, and that purpose is probably born both of frustration with the press to begin with and a recognition of the importance of a well-functioning press in a democracy too.”
Patrica Wilson Watch is criticized by a journalist, and the criticism has an effect. (Ryan Pitts, Dead Parrot Society.)
See Comments section for remarks by Al Giordano, Ex Lion Tamer, Ryan Pitts, Craig Kingscott, Seth Finkelstein, Jay Rosen, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle and others.
A watch weblog for Washington Post reporter Dan Balz debuts: balzblog.
The Nedra Pickler Watch (AP Reporter.) What a Pickler.
Jay McCarthy reviews the discussion and comments: “It is my opinion that the best way to compete with journalism and the media is to replace it. As Jello Biafra once said: ‘Don’t hate the media, become the media!’”
Listen to a segment about adopt-a-journalist on NPR’s “On the Media,” via WNYC, Jan. 24-25. With host Brooke Gladstone, and guests Jody Wilgoren of the New York Times, Jay Rosen, and Tim Withers, founder of the Wilgoren Watch.
Downbrigade News expresses doubts on the adopt-a-reporter scheme: “Come on! That’s the most invasive, repugnant and counterproductive idea we have heard in the ‘Sphere since paid subscriptions! Who appointed us to be the Thought Police? And Who is Going to Monitor the Monitors? What a misguided, uncivil and rude waste of time!”
Adopting a tounge-in-cheek name, Scribestalker explains the approach: “My primary focus will be on Tim Russert of Meet the Press fame. I will also keep an Eye on Katharine Seelye of the New York Times since no one has taken her and her record during the 2000 election makes her a very good candidate for watching. Who am I? Just a voracious News consumer who claims the right to comment on the quality of the the news presented today.”
Noah Shacthman of Wired magazine reports on adopt-a-reporter.
Steve Outing of Poynter Institute offers his view: “what troubled me most about the blogger critics currently operating is their tendency to remain anonymous.”
Mark Gaser of Online Journalism Review did a reported feature on watch weblogs. (Feb. 11, 2004)
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 14, 2004 9:51 AM Print
I'm blogging about this as we speak. I think your points -- both of relishing this and dreading it -- are well taken. Where do you think Matt Drudge fits in this? Surely a forefather of this movement, or do you disagree? His intent, I believe, was not hateful.
Posted by: Halley Suitt at January 14, 2004 10:23 AM | Permalink
If it were all run by Cursor it would be even better.
Since we both "love" the phenomenon for the same reasons, let me try to talk you down from the ledge of "dread."
"I have this question, seriously intended: What makes media hate any better, any more 'okay,' than other forms of politicized hating?"
I think the term "hate" is a poor use of terms in the modern-day context. As they say in court, you're leading the witness, professor!
The legitimate resentment by the public about the media is not anything like "hate speech" or "race hate." It's more along the lines of the "hatred" that great Authentic Journalist Thomas Paine cited when he wrote "God put hatred in men's hearts for good reason: to ensure justice."
It's something more akin to class consciousness than bigotry. (Yes, I know, the Commercial Media also labels class consciousness as a form of hatred. But, semiotically, labeling something as "hate" can also be a form of hate.)
The Commercial Media has offered up every other sector of society - by race, by gender, by religion, by nationality, by profession (lawyers, doctors, soldiers, police, teachers, politicians), and, yes, by the constant drumbeat of media-imposed class war against the poor and in favor of the elites, as scapegoats, which continues today on the air on every TV network and in every daily newspaper in the United States.
It is the Commercial Media that hardened and refined the scapegoating process into electronic form.
Therefore, it is merely a case of the process coming full circle - and of Thomas Paine's concept of justice - that the media itself now becomes the scapegoat. And I think that's a healthy turn of events, because it is the last necessary step to short-circuit the very process of scapegoating. Until that happens, the Commercial Media will keep offering us its scapegoats du jour.
In schoolyard terms, which sector is the last bully standing? He deserves a take-down or the schoolyard of democracy will remain under seige, terrorized, by the bully known as Commercial Media.
Yes, the journalists are frightened. Well, the rest of the public has grown accustomed to the same fear over a process of years. It's very scarey to take on a schoolyard bully. A blog that watches a NY Times journalist will have a press blackout imposed by the Times and Romenesko alike. It's a very gutsy thing to challenge a Timesman, and the consequences, still, roll far heavier against the blogger than against the Timesman.
But I think you sense that the power dynamic is shifting. Democracy needs this fight to happen.
"Is the contempt deserved?"
The question kind of answers itself, doesn't it? It leads you immediately to ask, "Is there contempt in the press, as well? There is, but right now I am not discussing it."
Let's stipulate that there is a mutual contempt between the general public - especially the masses without expendable cash - and the commercial press corps. They are two dancers in the same dance. They can't be pulled apart. It's useless to discuss one without providing the context of the other, because that reveals the nature of the dance.
"In this sense I dread the adopt-a-journalist scheme, even though I support the idea, because I think dread is a fit response when people who are in some quarters hated--perhaps symbolically so--are being carefully 'watched' in those quarters."
The press "watches" all other sectors with far more incivility than that which it supposedly watches itself. It is the only sector of society that sets the terms of how it is watched. "Watch me on TV! See me in the newspaper! But only on my terms and those of my boss" is not a recipe for fairness and truth in our society.
Should we trust cops to monitor cops? We can't trust "licensed" (i.e. commercial) journalists to monitor their peers either. The brotherhood is too deeply ingrained and imposed by the owning class of the media, and most journalists have gone along with this racket to the detriment of the vocation and its work.
The inevitable result of this trend that you've bravely been willing to discuss honestly is that, to survive the assault, the "official" press (that is, Commercial Media) is going to have to allow its reporters to interact more honestly, and less condescendingly, with the public.
The days when an editor or a publisher or an ombudsman could mediate that relationship are coming to a close. The handcuffs have to be taken off the journalists, and the culture of elitism that considers journalists as apart and separate from the masses - that is, unaccountable to the people - has to end.
Until the Commercial Media - which does have a thousand physical addresses, all of them faceless and corporate - unchains its own reporters it is the owners, and not the public, who place the individual journalists in an unfair situation.
There is a crack in the system right now. The public can see it, and is charging ahead, yes, with "rhetorical violence." But is not history formed by "rhetorical violence"? And is not "rhetorical violence" the historic method by which physical violence has been avoided?
They can try to throw the wet blanket of "civility" over this battle, but that would only increase the chances of physical violence. In the old Soviet bloc, remember, the masses overpowered the guards and took the TV stations by physical force, and that was the precise moment in many lands when regimes fell. I have long posited that what happened there was the beginning of a trend that will sweep capitalist media, too.
The better question is: How can it not go that far if the Commercial Media doesn't adjust its elitist attitude, and its subservience to those with advertising dollars and power already to share, faster than the storm gathering from below?
Posted by: Al Giordano at January 14, 2004 2:14 PM | Permalink
thank you, al, for articulating so well what has been on my mind, but beyond my ability to tone myself down enough to say. allow me to chime in, if longwindedly:
i think that many of us who were already blogging on or before 2000 came into it thinking of it as a vector for intellectual and emotional community [albeit virtual], and when the political climate seemed to go further and further south to the degree that myself and others absolutely refuse to watch any american network television news programs anymore, ever -- not even to gather material for satire -- and very few if any of those on the radio either, our method of finding out what was going on in our republic had to shift, and we all became amateur [or as one well-paid online journalist scoffed, 'ham radio'] news junkies. subsequently, we began to share rumors, innuendos, and sometimes even facts with our online community. the cross-linkage and networking of ideas and commentary, at least for the people i know, did not arise out of trying to compete with professional journalism in any way, much less to set ourselves up as know-it-all critics of said profession; we just saw the scarcity of our particular point of view in the media, and reacted to it out loud so to speak.
then we started to get an audience, and found out that there were a lot more of us than we originally thought; and, obviously, as we started to think of our little pastime as something of a calling, we showed up on the radar of the people we were complaining about. the feelings were mixed -- a combination of "what took them so long?" and "oh lord, not another trackback ping from those guys..." admittedly, some of us -- especially the ones with lots of sponsor and charity links at our web sites -- were euphoric to log page hit increases due to the media taking interest in what we had to say, but truthfully there is a substantial subset of this group, including me, that prefers to let professional journalists be the lightning rods -- i mean, isn't that what they signed on for?
i think that the so-called "blogosphere", for good or ill, represents people from all over the global technocracy evolving from passive consumers to media participants. the growing pains of this cultural shift have already been felt by the much-belabored filesharing debate; mainstream producers of media are used to being able to tightly control the level of feedback, and suddenly the feedback is blowing out their speaker cones. but taking a paternalist attitude toward some or all bloggers is going to be a fruitless course of action for media professionals, as the blogging population increases exponentially, and the younger generation starts to expect as a matter of course that they will be able to "log on" to the media and participate in the flow of information. you and i can chuckle [or groan] at the news media devolving into some kind of "TRL" scenario, or we can lighten up, open our minds, and play along. i suspect that the blog ecosystem will tend to rebalance itself in a way that print media never could.
I'm with Jay and Halley - we need to watch out for the "hate" and for our own good. I spent a lot of time last night on a site that featured quotes from Ghandi and King and even on this comparatively small scale, it's good to remember that you don't fight hate with hate. I know that the hate that the right stirs up - and go read Grover Norquist if you don't think they're stirring up hate - is going to bite them in the butt. I don't ever want to be in that position. And it doesn't serve our mission anyway, which is to have a more accurate press.
In answer to your practical question, I'll lift here from the response at my blog:
For a watch-blog to be most useful, it has to be willing to point out the good in addition to the bad. This is different than your average media criticism, where the goal is to correct misinformation and point out fits of bias. But a watch-blog wants to portray how well one reporter is covering the campaign, so the standards are different.
A reader needs to know where a reporter falls on the spectrum of trustworthiness, but a reader can't get that information from just a catalog of mistakes. That provides as slanted a picture as if a reporter only pointed out a candidate's missteps, and that is part of what we say we won't stand for. So here, if you can't hold yourself to the same standards as those you criticize, you're not nearly as useful to the news conversation. And while some of the utility in a watch-blog is certainly in setting the record straight, some is also in learning how to read future stories. So cover the reporter's strengths, too. This is much harder than being a gadfly.
For a watch-blog to be most credible, it has to maintain respect for its subject. I'm ignoring credibility based on accuracy here because ... well, duh. And while reporting both the good and the bad, as mentioned above, also enhances your credibility, it doesn't do it to the same extent. Even if you're only pointing out mistakes, if your cites are bulletproof, you're credible.
So we have tone, which I think is a good benchmark for telling the difference between real, live constructive criticism and gleeful preaching to the media-hating choir. Again, there's some intermingling here between utility and credibility, because one of these strategies is useful, one not so much. Why is that? Because only one of them sells to someone who doesn't already agree with you. And since we presumably blog because we want to be listened to, showing respect for the subject of a correction gives you credibility in the quarters where you need it the most. I know that when someone points out to me where I've gone wrong, I'm much more likely to listen when there's no overtone of disdain or nastiness. And I think I'm pretty much like most people.
If I'm not mistaken, the purpose of Press Think is to acknowledge the "open" press of the future. Applying the "open" model to "adopt a reporter", one will get Cursors, Drudges, and everything in between. You can't make it "open" and then edit it, even for bias.
Posted by: Craig Kingscott at January 14, 2004 7:50 PM | Permalink
These are good questions to ask, Jay, and there are some good answers here on the board. As an 8-year media watcher and frequent letter writer, these are my comments and suggestions.
1. A blog, by its nature, is public. Although it's possible to maintain anonymity, that protection vanishes in the event there is real harm, such as libel or genuine threats. Therefore, bloggers have a strong incentive not to descend to the depths that are seen in anonymous e-mail.
2. A way to increase the power of that check on one's own speech by maintaining an accessible archive. Sometimes when we critique a reporter, we prove to be wrong. By leaving ourselves really open to correction, we place an additional check on misbehavior.
3. The point of adopting a reporter is to improve journalism. Therefore,
(a)bloggers should acquaint themselves with, for example, the ethical standards promulgated by the SPJ. They should understand what good journalism is.
(b) bloggers should be careful to set aside personal partisan bias. A simple way to do this is to mentally replace the name of the person one feels is being wronged by the journalist with that of someone one dislikes and the journalist's name by a journalist one admires. For example, would it be OK if Joe Conason stole a briefing book from GW Bush to help Howard Dean win a debate? If not, then it's probably fair to criticize George Will for briefing Ronald Reagan with a stolen debate book.
(c) I agree strongly with the point by eRobin that one should log the good with the bad.
(d) the goal of blogging should be to inspire others to write letters to reporters, their editors and publishers and to professional media organizations to protest bad journalism or encourage good. Those letters need to be polite and well-written. So, the blogger needs to see a portion of his/her role as activist-teacher.
4. The ultimate target of the reform effort is not the reporter. It is his/her editor or publisher. The reporter is doing a bad (or good) job in large part to satisfy what s/he perceives the boss to want.
To close, the sort of mischief and editorializing that we see in work by Calvin Woodward and Nedra Pickler; the excessive reliance on faceless sources in the works of Bob Woodward; the counterfactuality (lies) of Ceci Connolly and Katherine Seelye in reporting on Al Gore-- these are bad for the profession, as well as bad for the nation.
Don't worry too hard about the downside. Just be glad that there are a few brave and patient and idealistic people willing to sacrifice their time and treasure to make things better. They're angels, even when they slip.
Posted by: js at January 14, 2004 8:13 PM | Permalink
One more vote for Al.
On "practical standards" - Once more, I'm struck by the terrified reaction of the media on being subjected to even a taste of its own medicine. That is, a press on the press. Perhaps because they know the terrible power that can be wielded, and how someone's life can be damaged? God forbid someone do unto them as they have done unto many.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 15, 2004 12:53 PM | Permalink
CJR has jumped on the reporterwatch bandwagon:
Posted by: Grant Dunham at January 15, 2004 2:37 PM | Permalink
Thanks to everyone--especially that expert provoker, Al Giordano--for thoughtful comments so far, here and at the first post.
Al: Your points are well taken. I sympathize, whether I agree on particulars or not, with all you have written about Big Media's failures. One thing I like about your perspective is that it recognizes there are three actors here when we criticize the press, or news coverage. There's the public, Big Media, (also called commercial media, the media, goliath, etc.)and then a third group: journalists, the professionals who dedicate themselves to public service, and yet also work for Big Media companies of one variety or another, or for nonprofits like PBS, NPR, and so on.
I call this group "the press" and my weblog is about their "think," which of course includes criticism of common thinking and practice in the press. Perhaps 80 percent of what I write in this space is about that. Other times I address myself to "readers who are writers," meaning those who have a weblog or participate in the discussion ongoing in Blogistan. Rarely do I address myself to Big Media because, as I have said before, it doesn't have an address. I have no delusions about "it"--the media complex--listening.
The idea of monitoring reporters draws together the "audience" groups--journalists, critics of journalists, webloggers, readers of weblogs--and so I felt PressThink ought to do something on it. Big idea floating around our there. My thought was: present it, first, show how it came to be. But also send people to it. Links aplenty.
Adopt-a-journalist is more than an "idea," though. It is also a problem in how to pratice political journalism, the kind Time magazine does, the kind Al Giordano does, and the kind being done by the Wilgoren Watch. One of the puzzles is: how does one kind of practice (in the press) connect to another (the watch)? What do we want that connection to look like? How do we imagine the hinge working?
To me it is not a question of what the press "deserves" for past crimes. (Although that debate should go on.) And we could examine for hours what sins and errors we should charge to the press, or to Big Media and its ways, or to the political class, and perhaps to the public. Very complex matter, that one.
But if we want the reporter's watch by webloggers to work well, we do have to know what a good working watch does. There will be many answers. My point about hating the media was: it doesn't do that.
And it would be helpful, I argued, if webloggers thought out loud about hating the media, whether that's a good thing-- and also whether one might hate the media, yet want to support the press, or hate the media and "support" somehow the individual journalist being tracked.
It is a rather intimate relationship one proposes to establish with a reporter's watch, even if the reporter never visits (which you and I know is unlikely.)
For all these reasons, then, I wanted to raise the question of "hating" the media. I was well aware that many would say, "that's not a bad thing" or "that's not a good description" and of course the hope was that they would explain why. Other angles on hating the media were bound to come out. Yours are among the most articulate out there.
And there were other questions that I found emerged, like: Where is the pleasure of doing a reporter's watch weblog, the simple satisfaction of it? In hating the media, and proving it wrong? In seeing journalism improved? In having an effect? And no, these are not the only alternatives.
Mostly, however, my two posts were intended as forums where a web crawler can get the background, find the discussion in Blogistan, and track what becomes of this most practical of themes-- memes for insiders. Cheers.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 15, 2004 4:10 PM | Permalink
John Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle e-emails:
I think your hate speech question presupposes a series of hit peices on various big names in the journalism profession. Done right, of course, it need not be anything of the thing. By closing reading a journalist's entire output, a dispassionate observer could find hiterhto-unrealized strengths, philsophical consistencies, much wheat among the chaff. Admittedly chaff is probably what attacts the attention in the first place, but political journalists have good days and bad days.
For example, look at David Brooks, who can be denser than lead one day and just brilliant the next. Even I.F. Stone nodded; if partisan passions did not get in the way, one could deduce a lot about the media from putting together a series of snapshots.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 15, 2004 10:59 PM | Permalink
Tim Dunlop If you build it they will Adopt Blogging and the new citizenship
There's an old joke where two kids are sitting in a room and one says to the other, There's an aphrodisiac behind that radiator. And the other says, What's a radiator? The valuable lesson to learn from this piece of frippery is to define all your key terms, so that when I say, bloggers are the new public intellectuals, I will go on to give a definition of both public intellectual and blogger. And I'll begin with the latter because it is easier.
http://www.econ.usyd.edu.au/drawingboard/digest/0312/monbiot.html " >Global Democratisation: We the Peoples: Building a World Parliament...
Agreed. It would benefit bloggers to "triangulate" the forces at work here: the individual journalist, his or her specific media organization (and Big Media in general), and the public (the journalist's own readers or viewers, plus the blogger's own readers and commentators, plus the less tangible realm of the "public good" or the public sectors that are most affected by the journalist in question's stories, if that journo has a regional or topical beat) as three distinct players in this evolving process of interactive media criticism.
Now, I'll see your point, and I'll raise you one more.
As you know, I publish an online newspaper that reports from Latin America, and has historically engaged in a lot of media criticism of individual English-language correspondents for commercial newspapers, wire services, and media, in this region.
Latin America has been a fertile terrain for media criticism because these commercial correspondents historically had little or no scrutiny at all. For starters, the language barriers too often have meant that the commercial journalist's own editor doesn't speak Spanish or Portuguese, and therefore has no way of developing a feel for whether the journo is telling the truth or not from the lands of his and her beat.
Historically, the only check and balance, the only third party sources that could be consulted, came from a rather small group of Latin American pundits, academics, political consultants, and "great mentioners" from those countries who speak English and have enough of a stake in the coverage to offer their spin. Those spin doctors generally consist of US-educated upper class individuals (in Latin America we affectionately call them "oligarchs"), not to mention Embassy flaks, whose political connections and views are overwhelmingly stacked up in direct opposite to how the poor and working majorities in these countries view their own public good.
You're at NYU, and I'll make you this offer and you can see if one of your professors is interested. Find me a class of journalism students, of 10, 15, or 20 young aspiring journalists. And then pick the most influential 10 or 20 English language correspondents working Latin America for the U.S. or European English-language press or wires. Have each student pick one to blog about for a semester: to follow that journo's work, study the past history and evolution of their work, and blog it.
I'd be thrilled to donate the bandwidth via Narconews.com, and offer them a smart group of Latin American journos, most of them also young, who I know would be eager to comment on their blogs, and who know the issues in their countries very well. It'll be like jazz.
Two more thoughts on this:
One: Maybe the j-students should do their blogs anonymously, so they won't have to fear that anything they publish about, say, a Timesman, or an AP correspondent, or a Washington Post or LA Times correspondent, could possibly harm or help their future career ambitions. Also, there would then be no potential of humiliation from harsh critiques of their criticism by other journos, including some veteran journos who I bet we could recruit quite easily to add their comments.
Two: As a gesture of good faith, I volunteer my work for the scrutiny of the most conservative, carnivorous, student who disagrees with the thrust of my obvious views and who would like nothing better than to try and discredit me and my positions from Latin America. Let that student blog and critique my work. That way the Foreros, Rohters, Oppenheimers, and the rest won't be able to claim they're being unfairly singled out or picked on. My hands aren't tied like those of the commercial correspondents, so I can offer response, and perhaps offer our journalist colleagues, and their bosses, an example of how to handle this phenomenon, of why they need not fear it, and of how, in fact, it could be "good for business" if they would simply unshackle their reporters from what is, already, an outdated and ridiculous set of constraints.
I think a journalism student who has to do this for credit would both learn tons about this vocation, how it works, and how it doesn't, and would also offer a degree of discipline and investment in "doing it well" that a standard citizen-volunteer, or even one of my students with his and her time occupied working already as a journalist, might not so easily be able to make time to do it.
A project like this could become an online, public, teach-in on the job of foreign correspondents, in a very hot and newsworthy region, and with a ready-made public audience of commentators - as well as our students and professors at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, who I know would be eager to interact with NYU or another j-school's j-students doing this kind of work - and all of whom which are already interested in the subject matter.
The main challenge with blogging is the time it takes to build an audience of readers who can and do respond with knowledge on the subject matter. Hard to do in a semester. But for this to succeed it has to interact with the world outside of academia. I can offer that already to the student-bloggers on the Latin American beat. Perhaps NYU, or another school, could provide the j-students by giving them credit for pioneering this fledgling monster of what we call Authentic Journalism, which certainly embraces and includes the concept of blogging and watching individual journalists.
Posted by: Al Giordano at January 16, 2004 12:21 AM | Permalink
There's one thing left out of the debate so far: what is the source of the blogger's credibility, and how is it superior to that of the reporter covering events seen with one's own eyes.
When we went to war in Afghanistan there was all this criticism of guys like Ted Rall and Robert Fisk who were on the ground writing stuff that angered people back here, safe at their PC's pounding out pro-American invective and inventing the process of "Fisking." It infuriated me to think these people 10,000 miles from the fray could presume to know more about the story than the person on the ground who's risking life/limb to report it.
I realized over time that the better warbloggers weren't presuming to have more facts than Fisk, Rall, et. al ... they were merely pointing out how these reporters' biases were coloring their interpretation of the facts.
Nevertheless, if you want to have credibility as a blogger you have to constantly demonstrate why your version of the story is better than the one peddled by the press. That means energetic counter-reporting. It's hard work, and you'd better be ready for that.
Posted by: tom mangan at January 16, 2004 12:15 PM | Permalink
Tom Mangan's earlier point that blogger critics are focused on the Big Boys - the NYTimes, the Washington Post, AP, etc. is on target.
Press criticism has targeted major players for what is perceived as a steady slippage of personal political agenda into the reportage. By and large, bloggers don't find the grunts from the local press being all that much a problem - or all that important.
What I don't understand is Mr. Mangan's insistance that blog critics have journalistic credibility and intimately know the mechanics of reporting. Why should bloggers have any more "journalistic credibility" (and I'm not real clear how that's being defined) than anyone else who gets pissed reading the newspaper or watching TV news.
If the blog critics gets all wrapped up in his/her own political agenda, that will show. But if they, like many folks in the press biz, are dismayed and frustrated at the continually blurred lines between factual reporting and commentary/snarky one-liners that pop up in news columns and the evening news, you don't really have to have pounded a beat at City Hall for 15 years to know its wrong.
If journalism won't/can't clean its own house - and the recent Columbia Journalism Review's efforts are a great start - than someone else will. And people will continue abandoning traditional news outlets.
Posted by: Dave Mclemore at January 16, 2004 1:56 PM | Permalink
I definitely like the idea of having more transparency in the press, but I am concerned that going after individual reporters doesn't speak to the biggest problems with the way journalism happens.
I'll use coverage of the SCO/IBM lawsuit as an example. Overall, coverage of this lawsuit in the mainstream press has been poor to mediocre. During the first few months of the lawsuit, the majority of press accounts simply parroted SCO's press releases uncritically, padded by quotes from "analysts" who could charitably be described as shills. More recently, the coverage has become more critical, but you can still find plenty of examples of press-release journalism in the mainstream press, for example Dan Lyons' pieces in Forbes, or the Jan 9 Reuters article "SCO approached Google about Linux license", or the Dec 22 Reuters "SCO loss narrows, broadens copyright fight", which contains significant factual errors. The Motley Fool has spotlighted SCO recently, and basically got it right. Then there's the Oct 13 John Markoff story in the NYT, which had a scoop on a fairly minor issue, but contained serious errors, quoted one of the shills (Rob Enderle) without pointing out his conflicts of interest, and generally missed the main point. So there's a mix of awful, ok, and pretty good out there. Not surprising.
But the reason why this example is interesting is that there is truly _excellent_ coverage in the blog world, namely Pamela Jones's Groklaw site. There, you will find detailed analysis of the various legal filings, investigation of financial arrangements between SCO and its investors, careful sifting through the evidence, and, last but not least, brilliant writing by PJ summarizing the torrent of raw info.
I think the question we should be asking is this: why is PJ able to do such an excellent job, while the mainstream media can't? Is it because individual journalists (such as John Markoff) are incompetent? I don't think so. To me, it's obvious that there's something structurally very wrong with the media. I don't know exactly what it is, but it manifests itself in a strange allocation of resources (Michael Jackson gets a sizable army of reporters, but many important issues go unnoticed).
By far, the biggest symptom is the ease by which PR flacks can manipulate the media. SCO proves this on a regular basis, every time one of their press releases is printed as "news", while the detailed analysis of the truth, readily available at Groklaw, is ignored. Again, is the press so easy to manipulate because of bad individual journalists? Again, I don't think so.
It's taken me a while to become this cynical, but now when I see a story in the mainstream press, I know it's far more likely the reason it's there is because some PR person did their job well to get it placed there, rather than because a journalist decided it was a story worth covering. If these choices _were_ actually made by journalists, I would have a lot less problem with the mainstream media.
I tend to think of codes of ethics such as the SPJ's as somewhat well-meaning, but obviously not effective in addressing the deeper problems. After all, did not Arthur Andersen subscribe to an equally carefully-considered code of ethics when they did their audits of Enron?
And, for all their weaknesses, blogs for the most part don't have this structural problem. When I read an entry in one of my favorite blogs, I'm pretty confident it's there because the blogger felt it was important to write about. My readers expect the same. I do worry that PR hacks will develop the magic formula for manipulating the blogosphere, but fortunately, that hasn't happened yet.
I apologize for rambling here, but I hope I got across my feeling that the mainstream press has serious problems. I don't believe that belief is "hate". I think it's important to focus scrutiny on the institutions that are ultimately responsibly for the problems, and not so much individual journalists. I'm not sure what's the best way to do that, but we're all learning. Right?
Posted by: Raph Levien at January 16, 2004 5:57 PM | Permalink
Sorry to spam the comments, but perhaps there's a better example than the SCO case to illustrate what I mean about press release journalism. After all, SCO is merely a stock scam of the scale of tens of millions of dollars, as opposed to tens of billions like Enron or Parmalat, so there's no reason to expect people to be familiar with the details.
So I'll pick on a paragraph from this story to illustrate my point about the pervasiveness of press release journalism. Here's the relevant quote:
Clark released Friday full transcripts showing he urged that the Bush administration do everything possible to win United Nations support for any action against Iraq and not to go it alone.
Why do I have a problem with this? Because it identifies Clark's release of the transcript as the news-worthy event. The controversy here is, of course, over Clark's testimony to the Armed Services Committee, and whether it shows that Clark's position has been inconsistent. Now, to my way of thinking, whatever press releases the campaigns want to put out now have absolutely no bearing on the question at hand. The facts are a matter of public record, and have been so since well before the PR mastermind behind this media storm decided to use distorted quotes from it to make their own political point.
So I'm trying to point to several problems here:
1. It should be obvious that this whole smear is only in the news at all because some highly-paid PR person has earned their money well to place it there. Josh Marshall has been doing an excellent job triangulating it, noting the remarkable coincidence that this testimony appeared the same day on Matt Drudge's site and in Ed Gillespie's RNC speech.
2. The press played its role in spreading the story, just business as usual. As I say above, I don't believe it's primarily the fault of the individual journalists whose bylines appear on the stories. It has more to do with a culture in which disseminating press releases is considered quite acceptable.
3. A minute or two on Google easily turns up the transcript. For journalists still living in the pre-Internet age, I don't think it's too much to ask to send an intern in the Washington Bureau down to the House archives to pick up a paper copy of the transcript. However, most reporters picking up the story didn't obviously bother to do so. I do think this is at least partly the fault of the reporters involved, but more so the cultural lack of expectation that reporters do even cursory research.
Indeed, in my news-watching, I find that many of these "disseminated press release" stories fail to hold up under the five-minutes-on-Google test. It's hard for me to tolerate the old-style press sneering at the comparative lack of "professionalism" and "resources" in the blog world, when they so often make such poor use of the resources that are available to everyone, not just the elite journalist class.
4. Much of the followup I've seen is of the form "Clark defends himself against accusations", rather than "reading the transcript shows that Gillespie and Drudge are twisting Clark's words". As I tried to discuss above, this suggests that press releases (speeches, official statements) are significant, but easily verifiable facts really aren't, at least until somebody packages them up into a nice "release".
Don't get me wrong. Not all journalism is journalism by press release. But on issues where the parties involved stand to gain or lose a lot depending on how the issue is portrayed, a lot of it is. Perhaps instead of watching an individual reporter, people should watch a particular publication, and count the fraction stories run that can be traced to a PR-based source. I'm most familiar with the tech press, which is especially bad at this, but suspect that the problem is fairly broad.
Posted by: Raph Levien at January 17, 2004 2:21 AM | Permalink