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Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

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Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

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Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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September 10, 2004

Tom Fiedler's Rock Concert Credibility Blues

If a food writer at the Miami Herald, a music fan, attends a Springsteen concert on the swing state tour this fall, there's a problem with journalists being too partisan, but when an executive editor and political columnist signs a petition and lobbies the Justice Department for a change in federal policy, that's somehow okay. A closer look at Fiedler's rules.

On Aug. 23, Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, warned his staff against a temptation they will face during the political season. “Don’t succumb,” he urged, except it sounded more like an order than an urging, since he is the boss, after all, and also since the behavior in question was, he said, prohibited by the Herald’s Guidelines on Ethics.

According to Fiedler, the ethically alert journalist, realizing that Bruce Springsteen, REM, Bonnie Raitt, John Mellencamp and others want to support John Kerry in a special concert tour of key states, will resist the temptation to snag two tickets and enjoy the music when the show comes to Miami, Orlando, or Clearwater, Florida. “My advice,” Fiedler wrote: “Unless you are covering one of these partisan events as a working journalist, stay away.”

Stay away from the concerts, the boss advised, because “avoiding conflicts of interest, real and perceived” is among “the compromises that we accept” as journalists at the Herald. Actually, he didn’t mean that. He meant “among the sacrifices we accept to avoid being compromised,” but the memo was probably written in haste. It later showed up at Romenesko, as memos sometimes do, and from there Fiedler’s Rules became an item of debate.

When you think about it, it’s an extraordinary little claim: that attending a rock concert like a normal person can somehow threaten the credibility of the Miami Herald. How is such a verdict reached?

Scott Rosenberg of Salon: “Note how the newspaper has revised the concept of conflict of interest—which should apply to situations where an individual can improperly gain material benefit in the course of pursuing her professional responsibilities—and turned it into a stricture demanding that all reporters neuter their civic selves.”

True: conflict of interest takes a leap in what Fiedler told his people. It “isn’t about the celebrities” but “the events themselves,” he said. They’re political:

The money generated by ticket sales to many events will be earmarked directly or indirectly to groups whose mission is to influence the outcome of the election. As you know and understand, it is improper for independent journalists—which we are—to engage in partisan politics or to advocate for political causes. In this case, buying a ticket to any of these events is tantamount to making a political contribution, which is prohibited by the newsroom’s Guidelines on Ethics.

To which Rosenberg says: “my eyes roll.” Mine tend to squint. I’d hope the top editor would be reluctant to compromise away the individual journalist’s right to a normal life, and a civic identity. Crucial to that is free expression, which includes most forms of political expression.

But Fiedler doesn’t seem reluctant to restrict. Instead, he goes out of his way to politicize a human situation— where a journalist is being a fan, buying tickets, enjoying a concert, and (perhaps) making a statement in the process. These, according for Fiedler, are not normal acts of citizenship, permitted to anyone— not if you work at the Herald.

If you work at the Miami Herald, your desire to see Springsteen team up with REM actually endangers the newspaper. For it tempts you to “engage in partisan politics.” It whispers: go ahead, be an “advocate” for causes you favor. When Fiedler says what’s forbidden, he doesn’t have to give much of an argument. Consensus press think is doing the work.

Everyone knows it’s bad for a journalist to have any part in politics, and dangerous to support a candidate. When a portion of-the ticket price will go to groups who intend to influence groups who could influence the election… that is pretty indirect involvement, but even so: steer clear of the concert trap is presented as common sense.

Take a more extreme case— journalists signing petitions, and putting them before the Justice Department or Congress, in an effort to influence federal policy during criminal prosecutions. Now that sounds political.

Yet it’s what Fiedler himself does right here, along with 32 others at the Herald. They and more than 2,800 like-minded professionals want the Justice Department to stop pressuring journalists to reveal confidential sources. There are good arguments for that position, but arguments alone are not enough. It takes advocacy— kicking up a fuss, gaining attention, petitioning the government, showing officials how much support you have. All of which Fiedler and company have done.

Readers, I present you a puzzle in press think: If a food writer at the Miami Herald, being also a music fan, drives to Orlando with friends to attend a Springsteen concert on the Vote for Change tour this fall, there’s an immediate problem with journalists being too partisan, but when an executive editor and political columnist signs a public petition and lobbies the Justice Department for a change in policy, that’s immediately okay, and others in the Herald newsroom can join right in.

(Got an explanation that makes immediate sense of this situation? Hit the comment button and speak.)

To me what’s remarkable is not the hypocrisy there, but the automatic quality in Fiedler-the-ethicist’s assumption that an apolitical life is the better kind of life for a journalist to lead. Better to abstain from civic activity if you have any association with the Herald newsroom. As Rosenberg notes, by that logic it would help with credibility if journalists were discouraged from voting on ethical grounds, and then announced their sacrifice so everyone in town would know about it.

Would it be ethical to demand that of news workers? No. Would it improve the actual performance of the press? Not likely. Answer quickly: do you want someone with school age kids reporting on the schools? Does participation in parenthood disqualify the reporter on the education beat—- or qualify her? Or recall the case of Jeffrey Schmalz, the New York Times reporter and editor who contracted AIDS and, once his condition became known, was assigned to cover AIDS for the Times. He died in 1993. (Obit is here.)

One would think these exceptions would shed more light on the arbitariness of the rules.

The most fascinating thing about Fiedler’s “advice,” however, is the hidden observer effect: the optics of his ethics. It’s like the editorial staff of the Herald is being watched wherever it travels in public space— watched for signs of bias in a field of vision that has somehow expanded, from the news columns proper to the bias someone might spot in the journalist’s civic behavior. “Even if your job here doesn’t entail covering politics, you do represent The Herald wherever you go,” wrote Fiedler. There’s an image of constant surveillance there. It came from somewhere.

“Cowardice in the newsrooms,” read the headline on Ed Wasserman’s Sep. 6th column for the Herald, which also ran Thursday at as “Newsrooms under siege.” That’s where the feeling of surveillance comes from, he says. “It’s hard now even to write for publication without being aware of just how thoroughly what you say is going to be inspected for any trace of undesirable political tilt and denounced by a free-floating cadre of rightist warriors.” The press has been intimidated into “an abject negotiation with a loud and bullying sliver of the audience.”

Journalists, says Wasserman, can be found telling favorable stories “not from a principled desire to deliver a factual account that is broadly emblematic of significant happenings in Iraq, but from a gutless attempt to buy off a hostile and suspicious fragment of the audience base.” Thus, the surveillance is real, and it’s having an effect, which he compares to “extortion.”

Leading Glenn Reynolds to say yesterday about Wasserman’s “siege…”

HERE’S A COLUMN by an old-media guy who isn’t happy about having his work fact-checked by the great unwashed.

What Wasserman calls extortion is just accountability to people who do their homework, Reynolds believes. Scott Rosenberg points to “consumers of journalism, who have—sadly but understandably—taken the profession’s traditional avowal of objectivity at face value, and then become outraged at its failure to achieve that pristine state.”

I draw a different connection. A feeling of being under siege would explain both the Rock Concert Credibility Blues (alternate title, “Don’t succumb to the music, newsies”) which is a policy in absurd flight from politics; and Let’s Band Together and Petition the Justice Department, which is an openly political move and a challenge to the Administration.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

In the News: Republicans in Minnesota, acting through the state party, call on the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune to fire an editorial employee: the pollster, for under-predicting Republican strength.

Tom Fiedler, Miami Herald staff warned about political concerts (Memos to Romenesko)

Scott Rosenberg, Newsroom codes of ethics: Let’s pretend our reporters don’t think at all!

For clarity here, let’s distinguish between the unattainable standard of objectivity — a scientific absolute poised as subjectivity’s opposite — and the entirely attainable, and laudable, standards of fairness and accuracy and honesty and transparency that any journalist of good mind and heart will subscribe to. Fairness: If you’re presenting one side of a story, you owe it to your readers, your subjects and yourself to weigh the other side’s case. Accuracy: Observation should always trump preconception, and you just don’t publish something that you know is untrue, even if it helps make an argument you cherish. Honesty: You do your best to present the truth as you have witnessed it and understand it, knowing that your witness and understanding are shaped by who you are, yet also knowing that honesty will sometimes require you to report things that make you uncomfortable or call your own beliefs into question. Transparency: You do your best to avoid financial conflicts of interest, and where you have an unavoidable interest in a story you’re covering, you reveal it up front.

“Now I see the world through the prism of AIDS,” Jeffrey Schmalz wrote.

“I feel an obligation to those with AIDS to write about it and an obligation to the newspaper to write what just about no other reporter in America can cover in quite the same way.” He spoke of his situation as a reporter in the context of women who cover women’s issues, or blacks who cover issues of importance to blacks, calling it “the cutting edge of journalism.”

“Some people think that it is the journalism that suffers, that objectivity is abandoned,” he wrote. “But they are wrong. If the reporters have any integrity at all, it is they who suffer, caught between two allegiances.”

from PressThink May 1, 2004: Of Course Ted Koppel Was Making a Political Statement. So What?

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 10, 2004 12:46 AM   Print


1. Go to the concert.

2. If a newspaper's journalists could be more transparent about their bias, would it lessen the scrutiny? Is the cover-up still worse than the crime, in a metaphorical sense?

3. "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." - Thomas Jefferson

4. "The trick is to not just believe what you read in the papers anymore. Naw man, you got to swagger in like you goin' into a used car dealership. Then you got to show them [mature language] you ain't no easy mark, that you ain't nobody's two bit skank, never was, and got no plans to be." - Who Knew?

Posted by: Tim at September 10, 2004 2:06 AM | Permalink

Sure, this makes sense in the bizarro world that you call PressThink. There's two different things going on here. In the first example (the rock concert), the issue really isn't any expression of political opinion, it's that the reporter would be affecting the political horse race. Since the horse race is the essence of politics in the PressThink world-view, reporters must be held to highest possible standards in avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. They probably shouldn't even use Heinz ketchup in a public restaurant.

Now, in the second case (petition-signing), the press has arrogated to itself a position that it would never allow any other industry. The press has a moral imperative to protect its rights and privileges. Any action it takes to protect its position is, by definition, apolitical.

And yet, the most troubling view is expressed by Scott Rosenberg when he says:

"Fairness: If you're presenting one side of a story, you owe it to your readers, your subjects and yourself to weigh the other side's case." This complete and utter distortion of reality so thoroughly permeates our culture that most people won't even see it. The idea that there are two sides to every story is at the heart of what leaves the press open to manipulation by the most corrupt and venal segments of our society. As long as you can frame an issue as "us vs. them", you can get the "objective" press to do your dirty work for you. There are no stories with only two sides, but you can bet that only two sides of any story will ever take hold in the press's consciousness.

Posted by: John Cavnar-Johnson at September 10, 2004 9:55 AM | Permalink

Funny. I've attended Springsteen concerts, but I won't go to this one. Alice Cooper had a point when he said, "If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are."

My reporters and editors can attend any public event they want to attend. To be sure, attending is not the same as running an event. If the president of the Roger Rabbit for Mayor committee presumes to report on political campaigns, he'll more likely be reporting the Garden Club for the duration of the campaign.

I'm more torqued that as publisher I can't, in good conscience, run for our local school board, even though I want to. It has nothing to do with ethics or policy, but with having the good sense not to complicate the affairs of the community and its news coverage.

[BTW, it is peculiar to single out signing a petition. Newspapers advocate all the time on the editorial page (and in story selection).]

We don't have an ethics policy. We don't want one. We want our staff involved in the community. Even in politics. We just trust staff to use good judgment. Where we have concerns, we'll discuss it.

Posted by: sbw at September 10, 2004 10:30 AM | Permalink

Here's a Herald letter to the editor the other day that speak to Fiedler's "neutrality":

"I watched Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler on C-SPAN on Thursday talking about the Republican convention. The moderator asked Fiedler about the two different comments that President Bush had made recently about winning the war on terror.

Fiedler said, ``I have to give the president a pass on this one.''

When I heard that I almost choked on the fruit I was eating. The media have been giving this president a free ride since 9/11. When are the media going to stop giving this administration a free ride and start doing the job they are supposed to do -- be the watchdog for the people, not an arm of the administration?


Posted by: Mark Time at September 10, 2004 10:32 AM | Permalink


The first example in your puzzle (barring attendance at the rock concert) can be debated, but the second one seems pretty straightforward. When it comes to government policy that directly impacts journalists' ability to do their jobs - whether that's curbing of access to records or forcing reporters to identify confidential sources - who exactly is supposed to present the thinking of journalists on that, if not the journalists themselves? A change in policy that directly impacts working reporters is much different from an act that could be perceived as participating in partisan politics and the financing, however indirectly, of electoral campaigns.

Yes, I would hope that Fielder would trust his staff to know the difference between being a music fan and being engaged in partisan politics, but I also hope any journalist would not hesitate to let people know about government policies that could have a negative impact on the his or her ability to do journalism.

I know of many cases in which reporters, having been stymied by a government agency or official when requesting documents or information, make *that* the story, and often with the result of getting the policy or decision reversed or altered).

Maybe Fielder's rules about attending political rock concerts are silly, but they are not of the same standing as advocating for freedom of information or against a government chill on reporting. Setting them against each other as equal events is not a particularly fair characterization.

Posted by: Derek Willis at September 10, 2004 12:59 PM | Permalink

1) Go to the concert.

2) The AIDS reporter is a much more interesting case. On the one hand, he has the best first hand knowledge and really can produce the best stories. But he is also likely to become an activist, and many AIDS patients are, distorting his objectivity.

3) The idea of being "fair" by giving both sides is a weak substitute for thinking. Not all arguments have two valid sides, and this can sometimes be easily discerned. Also, some issues have more than two sides. Furthermore, I have seen issues, for example in the SBVT issue, where you could just hear the journalist thinking "I've got side A, I've got Side B, it's fair" on some piece of bilge.

4) Journalists petitioning - this is tough. If you feel the need to petition, you do it. It makes you a political player. How do you report on it? Do you report on it? I didn't know there was a petition campaign going on. Is it a stealth campaighn?

Posted by: John Moore at September 10, 2004 3:31 PM | Permalink

To Tim
"If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government,"
Even here in Sweden we know that one *l*

Posted by: mark at September 10, 2004 5:10 PM | Permalink

"There are no stories with only two sides, but you can bet that only two sides of any story will ever take hold in the press's consciousness." John Cavnar-Johnson writes.

There is a lot of truth in that. Predisposed to "two-ness" is very characteristic of the mainstream press's vision.

I also agree with John Moore's way of putting it: "The idea of being 'fair' by giving both sides is a weak substitute for thinking."

Stephen: I agree it's possible to have good ethics and no ethics "policy." One could even argue that it's more likely.

Derek: I think journalists have a right to speak up about things like open government, and to press for changes-- as with the petition Fiedler and others signed. To me, there's no "scandal" in his doing that.

Journalists can sometimes shame other actors or institutions into action, as you suggest. They can bring pressure to bear. And when they engage in that way, it's critical that they understand themselves as political actors.

This is where consensus press think falls short, in my view. It wants to preserve indefinitely the status of observer.

"Fielder's rules about attending political rock concerts are silly, but they are not of the same standing as advocating for freedom of information or against a government chill on reporting. Setting them against each other as equal events is not a particularly fair characterization," Derek writes.

I am not suggesting these two things have the same standing or are similiar consequence. So you're right: They aren't "equal events."

To me the interesting part of the puzzle is how the person who thought up one--the rule against rock concerts--thinks about the other: petitioning the government for special treatment.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 10, 2004 7:01 PM | Permalink

Jay: You included in an earlier essay a link to "Giving new life to a free society"

We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands – the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment – and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all.
And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town – Greenville, Mississippi – with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community’s fabric.
Can a journalist be indivisible from the community if restricted to only attending a community concert in an official capacity? Certainly not. But the "media" is perceived to have power - and wield that power - which attracts (hyper)scrutiny:
MR. THOMAS: There's one other base here, the media. Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox. They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points.
MS. GULLAND: Before we went on the air we were also talking about, you just dismissed him, essentially as cute, before we went on the air we were talking about his personal story, and how compelling it is. That is something that will be told, whether the Edwards will talk about the death of their son, that turning point in their life, his decision to go into public office. That will be told.
MR. KRAUTHAMMER: I really admire him for the reticence and the dignity with which he and his wife have handled this tragedy and their past death of a son, which is unlike a lot of politicians who ruthlessly exploit family, living or dead. So in that, I have a lot of admiration, but in the end I don't think either my admiration, or Democrats, or blacks, or southerners or rural people is going to essentially affect the outcome of the election. If anything, I think Evan is right, it will be slight it will make the Kerry ticket look slightly more glowing than it did otherwise, but with a bias in the media in favor of removing the President, it will be a slight help in reaching the media constituency.
MR. THOMAS: The question is whether it may be more than a slight help. The Republicans are talking about a 15-point bulge by the time the Republicans are ready for their convention.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Norvell:
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, "by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only." Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers....
That seems to be the greatest weakness of "big media" and what seems to be a common thread between Hodding Carter's comments and Stephen Water's. A small newspaper is better integrated in the community, strives to behave ethically without the mind-numbing restrictions of bureaucratic policy or codes.

mark (from Sweden): Jefferson saw centralized government a greater threat to liberty than newspapers, it's true. But I would be hard pressed to call that an endorsement of newspapers in a letter fromThomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

Posted by: Tim at September 10, 2004 8:13 PM | Permalink

"[if reporter is involved in story] Some people think that it is the journalism that suffers, that objectivity is abandoned," he wrote. "But they are wrong. If the reporters have any integrity at all, it is they who suffer, caught between two allegiances."

There's no reason to assume that the reporters have a monopoly on suffering - their reporting can suffer at the same time.

Here's a scenario. You the reporter believe in Cause X, which is being pushed in your community by Faction Y and opposed by Factions W and Z. You get involved with the Ys. Your now-insider position results in your discovering that some Y individuals (and/or political approaches) have feet of clay (the politics and sausage saying applies here). You don't have the inside view on Factions W and Z, so can't evaluate them at the same level.

Do you write about the sleazy things you've learned about the Ys, when you haven't subjected the Ws or the Zs to the same level of scrutiny? If you do, you're not being fair to them (or to Cause X) - if you don't, you're showing favoritism and bias.

It's not a good set of options.

Posted by: Anna at September 10, 2004 9:09 PM | Permalink

Oh for heaven's sake. It's sad that we should even feel the need to discuss this.

Yes, the food critic should go to the concert. And take the political writer. And they should vote. And sign petitions. Not to mention worry about health insurance. And get mad.

Reporters live in the world and are affected by the litany of events that affect us all.

The Miami Herald guy operates - though he may be loath to admit it - on the same wave length as those who are just sure reporters...excuse me, journalists...hold meetings each weekend to prepare the liberal agenda for the coming week's news.

It doesn't happen that way.

I know liberal reporters. And I know conservative ones. Those who favor abortion and those who believe it's a mortal sin. Some are for peace; some for war. Pretty much like the rest of the world.

Somehow, they go about their days writing stories without regard for the politico-social POVs. The ideal is not objectivity. The goal is factual reporting honestly delivered on deadline.

(Though I will say it is going the way of the dinosaur. Newspaper have lost their way, thanks to the perceived need to do everything like network news and cable talk shows do. Which is to say, trivialize the news. Make it shorter, meaner, dumber and louder.If not careful, they'll be as shrill and partisan as the newspapers in Jefferson's day.)

Going to a concert isn't going to taint you with liberal bias anymore than watching JAG will make you support Bush. Life is too short. Enjoy it.

Posted by: Dave In Texas at September 10, 2004 11:25 PM | Permalink

Where do Fiedler or the Miami Herald stand on media deregulation? That, to me, would speak more to how corporate media interests commonly converge with Republican activism in an invisible and unmarked way, whereas Democratic party advocacy or living standard advocacy is often treated by journalists as somehow more "activist" or dubious because not unqualifiedly pro-corporate.

Posted by: Ben Franklin at September 11, 2004 2:24 AM | Permalink

According to, P. Anthony Ridder, chairman and CEO of Knight Ridder, gave $1,000 to George W. Bush in 1999. Polk Laffoon IV, KR corporate spokesman, also gave $1,000 to Bush in 1999.

So it's ok for the people who control Fiedler's fate to participate but no Herald staffers?

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