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February 17, 2004

The Morals Squad at CJR's Campaign Desk

The Campaign Desk decided to police the Web on early release of exit polls. Triangulation was at work. The Desk wanted moral distance between itself and webloggers, so as to impress the traditional press. "We have standards, they don't. See....?" But the action was fraught with anxiety, and there are reasons for that.

Campaign Desk is starting to feel like the indignant moralist who loudly informs everyone within earshot that there is nudity on channel 35 at 10:15 pm every other night. Nonetheless

And in that nonetheless… is a revealing little episode in election year press think, morals division.

The prime mover was Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk. In debate with the Desk were Jack Shafer of Slate and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, with pointed commentary by Cynthia Cotts in the Village Voice. Plus others as word got around. The ostensible issue—later I will call it a pretext—was the early release of exit polling data by various players online, including Drudge, National Review, Kos, Instapundit, Josh Marshall and others. “Blogs Gone Wild” read the header on one item denouncing the practice.

But before we go into that, note the concern for sounding preachy, voiced again: “At the risk of appearing to be the self-styled moral cowboy of the blogosphere, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take up the mallet and play one more round of whack-a-mole as bloggers continue to post early exit poll results, this time from Wisconsin.”

If Campaign Desk is worried about appearing too moralistic, then it’s a good bet there is some moralizing going on, here causing a bit of anxiety. One reason is journalists are used to making fun of bluenoses, bible thumpers, true believers, and all versions of the irritating scold. Here it is a third time: “At the risk of sounding like a broken record (and a very irritating one at that), here we go again..”

And off they went again to report that even more weblogs were breaking the rules, posting exit poll results before the polls closed. This is wrong, said Campaign Desk. Why is it wrong? It might depress voter turnout, which means affecting the election. That’s bad. For according to the Desk’s managing editor, Steve Lovelady, the press has a responsibility to “avoid inserting itself into the voting process as a player.” (Now some might say the press already is a player.)

Obey the rules for once, guys and gals. Demonstrate an elementary regard for “journalistic ethics,” as Lovelady put it. Show a little super-ego. The professionals at the big news networks are doing just that, can’t you follow their lead? So said the Campaign Desk, but not without trepidation. As Cynthia Cotts pointed out, the anxiety… are we being too strident here?… might find some cause in the subject line Lovelady chose for one of his exchanges with Jack Shafer:

To: Jack Shafer
From: Steve Lovelady
Subject: The Moral Obligation of a Free Press

At risk of sounding perhaps a touch paternalistic, Lovelady also wrote: “Want does not necessarily equal need.” This came as he explained why it really is a no-no to publish the early data. And there might well be additional cause for concern—on the strident question—in this reminder to Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, from the Desk’s Zachary Roth:

If you’re happy with a situation where your community of readers and other bloggers knows to take whatever you write with a giant grain of salt, then so be it. But don’t then complain when others impugn your journalistic ethics — and don’t complain that Campaign Desk or anyone else is refusing to take you seriously. Your choice.

This being “taken seriously” has a history, Roth said, and he gave Kos a compact lesson in it. “Most newspapers recognized that it was by agreeing to uphold certain basic ethical standards that they won for themselves the right to play a major role in the national debate — the right, in short, to be taken seriously. That was a tradeoff they were more than willing to make.”

Making tradeoffs is an adult realization. Did you know that? Well, if you didn’t, Roth (28 years old, and described as a former intern for the Washington Monthly) reminded his readers, and Kos:

The problem is that you’re trying to have it both ways. You clearly want to be taken seriously, and to have a voice in public affairs… But you also relish your “outlaw” status to “gleefully flaunt” the rules traditional media try to follow. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to choose between the rewards of being taken seriously, and the rewards of behaving like a two-year-old who has just discovered he can break things. You don’t get both.

Which might well confirm the impression of paternalism at the Desk. Saying he wanted to branch out from exit polls, Lovelady likewise wrote that “too many bloggers want it both ways.” These webloggers:

They’re fond of celebrating themselves as independent, dynamic, fast-moving sources of information, and they claim, sometimes rightly, to have already demonstrated that they can and do dig up important news that older forms of media have wrongly ignored…

That’s the set up for the idea section, where Lovelady carries the argument several steps ahead:

What is too often neglected is the principal that with that influence comes accountability. Weblogs that aspire to affect public affairs, including this one, are piggybacking on the extraordinary freedoms that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the press; given that, they ought to stop yelping every time that someone suggests that there is a moral burden that comes with that charter.

Question, reader: If you were serious about not wanting to sound too strident, too preachy; if you were worried that such a tone might harm your credibility, would you in your wisdom:

Is that what you would do, if you truly wished to avoid an impression of stridency, paternalism, being too tough on the kids?

Bad parenting, Campaign Desk.

Cotts of the Voice figured much of this out. The Desk ran a kind of morals test on the Web, and on major sites like Daily Kos: If, after being called on it, you do not hold back exit poll results in the name of the Voter, (which is our only interest at the Desk) then you are not going into our “serious” category. And don’t pretend like you don’t care! Here’s Cotts:

The anti-blogness of it all surfaced in early February when Campaign Desk’s Zachary Roth, an ex-Washington Monthly intern, began taking shots at blogs for posting the results of early exit polls—the theory being that journalists shouldn’t post those polls because it discourages voter turnout and undermines the democratic process. It’s a valid argument, but exit polls turned out to be a straw man for a bigger debate CJR wanted to launch: Should bloggers adopt journalistic ethics, and if not, why take them seriously?

She gets further into the game when she writes: “Though the Blog Report cleverly piggybacks on the political blogs as it rounds up their daily output, managing editor Steve Lovelady has called the Campaign Desk ‘the anti-blog blog,’ and the site bills itself as a ‘nonpartisan’ spin-off of ‘America’s premier media monitor.’”

Meanwhile, Jack Shafer noted that the distribution of early exit data was sped along by Campaign Desk itself, when it linked to the sites where one could find the political porn. “Even the journo-scolds whose job it is to tut-tut about the release of such interesting information to the public are busily helping to spread the word,” he wrote.

What I see is triangulation by Campaign Desk, of a piece with the way the site has been explained by Lovelady, 60, a former managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Most blogs are 99.9 percent opinion,” he said to the New York Times. “This is a Web site run by and staffed by responsible journalists whose job is to monitor, critique and praise the campaign press, on a daily basis.” That was back on January 15th when the Desk was being launched.

Sending the vice squad out on exit polling was not supposed to be effective in reform; it showed that nothing would be effective with children playing “shock the system” games. Between the lines the message read like this:

Yeah, we’re on the web and we’re updating many times a day and we link a lot, and we talk about the webloggers, sure, and maybe we look a little like a blog, but seriously, we’re trying to be the adults here. We’re a site, not a blog. We’re CJR. We not only have professional standards; we represent the great cause of standards in journalism.

Now that we’ve shifted some of that authority online by creating the Desk, we occasionally have to crack heads to show others: we’re here and we’re serious. And we think this will also show who isn’t serious about even the most minimal ethical standards. Blogs are okay, they have their place. But the webloggers themselves are really immature, and they could not care less about what we journalists hold dear: accuracy, reliability, fairness, truth.

We’re going to remind them of why we have neutral, fair-minded news professionals in the first place. And if that means offending some of the more celebrated bloggers, (who are 99 percent opinion, anyway) well, we’ve been around a while. We’re young. We can hold our own in a flame war. We have a sense of humor. We’re CJR: the anti-blog coming to clean things up, or at least stir trouble in the self-absorbed blogosphere.

The Desk is not a blog, got that? But it’s not the press, either. It’s a “pull no punches, grind no axe” critic of the press. Thus the need for triangulation. A police action about exit polls was the pretext. The point was to show how tough you’re willing to be on irresponsible amateurs. Here the Desk was talking to mainstream journalists, the tradition-minded readers of CJR, people very much like Steve Lovelady’s ex-colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of them think the Web is Matt Drudge, Internet chat rooms, and online diaries. They have a hard time taking any of it seriously. They love to make fun of the Web’s pretensions. They’re some of the same people Tim Porter often writes about: newsroom reactionaries. Problem: how does Campaign Desk, a Web incarnation from word one, get taken seriously by the old guard?

By publicly lecturing the young irresponsibles. By trying to police them, and “proving” that the hooligans won’t be policed. By being, precisely, the indignant moralist. I doubt that anyone at Campaign Desk thought CJR’s censure of weblogs like Kos would cause a change in policy. This made it ideal for triangulation use. And I bet they were smiling at their desks (mission accomplished, guys!) when Moulitsas sent this in. I reproduce his letter in full:

Problem is, blogs aren’t necessarily bound by journalistic ethics. As a blogger, I make my own rules. People don’t like them, they are welcome to head elsewhere to get their information.

I love your site and all, but I do find it amusing that you guys are trying to apply rules to a medium that doesn’t have rules. Blogs are the wild west of the media world. They are journalistic outlaws. We can gleefully police traditional media based on the rules they have set for themselves, even as we equally gleefully flaunt those rules.

As such, the concept of “ethics” doesn’t really apply. We cater exclusively to our readers, in a way that traditional media outlets can never match (what with the quaint but unattainable quest for fairness and balance). As such, our readers draw our boundaries. If my readership was outraged about my running exit polls, then I would stop. And while a handful of people were upset, the vast majority approved (and “rewarded” me with out-of-control traffic).

So yeah, you sound like the indignant moralist. And yeah, the fact we are blogs DOES let us off the hook.

(By which he meant your hook.) Now how beautiful is that outcome for the vice squad at Campaign Desk? By thumbing his nose at the world according to CJR—the premiere media monitor—Kos helps confirm all suspicion within Lovelady’s tribe about the Net as future home for serious, responsible journalism. “Blogs Gone Wild.”

Al Giordano of Big, Left, Outside—who is well tuned to class issues in journalism rumbling under the action—had this response, as quoted by Cotts: “Who the hell is CJR or its lame Campaign Desk to determine who gets taken seriously? No one takes them seriously. It’s obvious that CJR’s main mission … is to discredit bloggers and prop up the decaying cathedral where it once enjoyed priesthood.”

Quoted in Online Journalism Review, journalist Dan Gillmor made a different point. Campaign Desk has no comment threads. “Instead of making pronouncements, CJR and its contributors should be fostering a conversation,” Gillmor said. “They’d be even more credible if they trusted their readers to have something intelligent to add.” And here’s journalist Matt Welch, in comments at Jeff Jarvis’s Buzzmachine.

1) What are those “basic standards of accountability and verifiability,” when did Campaign Desk get to decide what they are, and how does publishing what thousands of journalists already know violate that? 2) Isn’t it, in fact, unethical behavior, not a “double standard,” that makes one “unethical”? Campaign Desk criticizes campaign coverage … yet it does no coverage itself. Double standard? Campaign Desk uses loaded, scolding, judgmental language, the kind of which it wouldn’t tolerate in a campaign piece. Double standard?… Whether or not a person takes a website “seriously” depends on a whole host of things, including whether a site’s incessantly scolding tone makes it disincentivizingly unpleasant to read.

And Calpundit had a point: “I really don’t get this: the media does stuff all the time that affects whether people will vote. In fact, that’s practically all they do.”

Josh Marshall has about 45,000 readers, and raised $4,500 from them to go to New Hampshire. He is much written about, much read by journalists. According to this count, Kos has 97,000 visitors a day, which balloons during big political events. (Among weblogs, he is second only to Instapundit, another named violator.) For Campaign Desk, the “who’s serious” question is not as simple as it appears to be. Here’s a political insider on Kos:

“I’m a reader. I think Markos has done an incredible job,” said the president of the New Democrat Network, Simon Rosenberg, a centrist who worked in Bill Clinton’s famous “war room” during the 1992 campaign and continued working for Clinton throughout his presidency.

“Kos is one of the places I go for full-time information every day,” Rosenberg said. “If people like me do that, you know it’s having an impact.”

And impact might have something to do with who’s taken seriously. I am a loyal reader of CJR, and I am proud to have written for it. (I will have a piece in the next issue about the job description of the political press.) I know and like the editors of CJR, and I think they had a very good idea in starting Campaign Desk. The Desk has already proved its value in pointing to cases of stupidity, excess and pack behavior— in most cases, doing it overnight, with sound research and a highly readable style. (For example, here and here and here.) It will get better and better as it rolls along, and as the writers, who are talented, learn what works best in the medium they’re creating.

But many things can hold it back. Assuming you have authority under seal instead of trying to create it interactively, conversationally, is one. Fleeing from the category of weblog to avoid being grouped with undesirables does not help the Desk find its place on the Web— or in journalism. Proclaiming yourself the anti-blog while building traffic by linking to popular blogs is not wise. Moralizing about early exit polls and “damage” to the electorate, and then pointing your users to the forbidden data should have set off alarms in a ethically alert vice squad.

Lovelady may not know it, but his reading of the First Amendment tradition is a highly ideological one. He does say that webloggers are “piggybacking on the extraordinary freedoms that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the press.” But the Daily Kos community, exercising its freedoms in a new kind of political space online, isn’t riding on someone else’s First Amendment legitimacy. Its connection to both the law and legend of press freedom is direct, not derivative. And “responsibility,” whatever CJR thinks, cannot be exclusively defined by the press, even if your institution does hand out the Pulitzer Prizes.

To reach its own maturity as an editorial vehicle, Campaign Desk should accept its providence as a creature of the Web, broaden its moral imagination, stop trying to appease reactionaries in the newsroom, cancel the vice squad, and tune into the possibility that there are some standards emerging online where webloggers reach the mark and the press falls short.

One is interactivity: do you allow comments? Kos, with many more readers, does. The Desk (which uses Movable Type 2.64) does not. But why not? “The Desk aims to decrease, not enhance, the self-referential and self-enclosed tendencies of the campaign press,” according to Nicholas B. Lemann, Dean of the Columbia J-School. And yet with that goal, widening the conversation, comments have been disabled at Campaign Desk. Sound like courage to you? Like setting a standard? When you break into an interactive medium, and promptly limit your interactivity (“write us a letter”), your credibility as the new sheriff in town may be affected.

According to Dave Winer in The Rule of Links, “when a reader reasonably would want to know more about the subject, the Rule of Links says you should link to it.” Here is an informational, and a kind of ethical standard in pursuit of which mainstream news organizations lag well behind. They are less generous to other speakers on the Web than webloggers, who promote democratic conversation by linking a lot. Where are the credentials of the Los Angeles Times (or of the linkless features at on this count? Campaign Desk, to its credit, is here taking cues from webloggers, not from journalists, about how to do linking right. Recognizing that might give Lovelady pause the next time he crows about being the anti-blog.

If the basic purpose of journalism is to inform, and this maxim holds online, then webloggers are ahead of the press in setting the standard for informing readers via links. And links are not just a nifty feature of the Web but close to its essence as an effective public medium. Links diversify. John Ellis, writing in Fast Company two years ago, caught on to the bloggers’ leadership here:

What distinguishes bloggers in general is that they fit the new architecture. They link to anything and everything that they consider worth reading. A good story in the New York Times? Just click, and you’re there. A good article in some godforsaken journal? Click, and you’re there. Bloggers are not devoted to keeping you on their page. Their purpose is to take you to other places. They figure that if they do that well enough, you’ll return to the peer group that they host.

That’s horizontal authority. It’s not the same animal as a professional hierarchy. Things are changing under the pressure of a platform shift that is creating more players, amplifying other voices, exposing the need for new standards in a more open field for journalism, and upsetting the very terms of authority by which America’s premier media monitor originally gained its reputation.

Newspaper editor and weblogger Tom Mangan comments on this post: “the whole ‘watchdog’ model CJR has adopted makes no sense online. Nobody can plausibly declare themselves the final authority in an arena where everything is up for grabs…. I’m guessing that over time the folks at CJR will have their Come to Jesus Moment and realize this. They’re smart and capable so it can’t escape them what what they’re doing now, though admirable, is like trying hold back the ocean with their bare hands.”

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit comments: “Ethics are important. Ethics authorities, however, usually aren’t. But in one sense I think that Jay misses the important transitional role the CJR blog is playing. Many among the more hidebound segments of the press are scared of blogs, or ignorant of them. Institutional blogs like CJR’s will help to introduce them to the blogosphere. Wonkette can come later.”

Steve Outing of Poynter (and other gigs) on journalists employed at commercial news outlets and the perils when they have a weblog: “One newsroom-employed blogger… complains about the common restriction on staff journalists expressing opinions. There’s much that journalists know or have keen insight into that they can’t express— even on their own time. This journalist suggests that blogs are perhaps a way to get that voice out. Most newspapers, trying to maintain an aura of objectivity, are bland. In time, he hopes that the voice of blogging will enliven newspapers and humanize journalists.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 17, 2004 5:37 PM