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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...