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November 11, 2004

What Does a Great Newspaper Want From its Critics? Accountability Committee at the Times

New York Times assistant managing editor and head standards guy Allan M. Siegal lays out plans for a special committee to improve "accuracy and accountability." I give you the memo, and my read on it. You hit the comment button and give yours.

Here’s how it made news today at Romenesko, “Your daily fix of media industry news, commentary, and memos.”

NYT committee to study ways to improve paper’s credibility

Times assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal announced the committee’s formation yesterday in a memo titled “Re-examining Our Credibility.” Jack Shafer posts it, and writes: “If the past predicts the future, we should expect the memo to inspire the anonymice to start reproducing in the New York Times faster than tribbles on the starship Enterprise!”

The first Siegal committee (see PressThink on it) investigated the Jayson Blair mess and the Howell Raines reign. It led to the formation of the Public Editor’s position, and to Daniel Okrent, who is himself a revolution in accountability, since he is creating the office of ombudsman where never there was one. The story of that committee’s work is told in Seth Mnookin’s new book on the New York Times during the Blair agony and after. It’s getting attention from press watchers. (For the first Siegal report, click here.)

Here’s the Siegal memo about setting up a second committee, verbatim, with my commentary on its bullet items:

Memorandum for: THE STAFF

In the last year and a half, The Times has deepened and widened its efforts to deserve readers’ trust. Most notably, we have appointed a public editor and given serious consideration to his questions and advice; we have required that every unidentified source quoted in the paper be known by name to at least one editor; we have tried to describe our sources and their motives more candidly and usefully. We’d like to believe we have reduced our dependence on anonymous sources; certainly we have begun trying and intend to push ahead.

Now, as Bill Keller told us in his town hall meetings before the election, we want to examine our practices, and our readers’ demands, even more thoroughly. We especially want to examine the measures we have NOT yet taken, asking ourselves why not, and whether they could improve our accuracy and accountability.

For that purpose, Bill has asked me to put together a committee of news people to collect and evaluate those possibilities. It will be a small group, but a central part of its mandate will be to reach out to everyone anywhere in the news department who offers a useful idea. Some of our first thoughts about proposals to examine include these:

Background briefings allow administration officials to give out news and views “on background,” meaning the reporters there agree to use no one’s name. Instead it’s: “senior officials in the Bush Administration.” The advantages for the Executive are obvious— and insidious.

There’s no question you, the New York Times, “can” pull out of this sordid arrangement, the background briefing. You just make it Times policy never to go to one. Problem solved. There’s a reason this item makes the list: reporters competing for news are not sure of the consequences if they exit the arrangement.

If you knew it wouldn’t cost you in the competition for news, you would have pulled out a long time ago. But you don’t know. If everyone in the press stayed away, the practice would end. But again, you don’t have confidence that everyone would stay away. That’s why you end up going, hating that you “have to go.”

(By the way, New York Times, there are many social scientists and amateur students of game theory who could tell you about your situation, since it has elements of a tragedy of the commons case, and a prisoner’s dilemma case. Why not sick a reporter on some of those sources?)

I think the question should be re-phrased. Rather than “can we cut out our attendance at…?” ask: What role does the New York Times wish to play in resisting devices like “background briefing by Bush officials?” This is the actual policy question, I believe.

One option: In a public and pro-active approach, Bill Keller, the boss of Times journalism, signs a decree, forbidding his reporters from going to any such briefing. He writes an op-ed about why he took that step, then does a few talk shows—Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer—where he says: “the Times staff is behind me and we’re not going back.”

If you are willing to be pro-active, you just act, then make your case in public so people will know why you acted. Predicting what others in the game will do is no longer a factor. Seizing the argument is.

Think about it: who is going to come forward and make the case for background briefings when Keller makes the public case against? When Jim Lehrer’s staff calls up the White House press operation and asks them to send someone over to defend the practice when Keller goes on the air to denounce it, will they send someone over? My guess is no. And a small point will have been made: that was an indefensible practice. These small points may add up. It is certainly the business of the New York Times to start making them.

But maybe the Times is not ready for a public and pro-active role. “We don’t want to be out front on this…” is a coherent policy, too. If you want to be passive in your approach, then make it Times policy to “discourage” attendance and leave it at that. Nothing changes and you had the benefit of “looking” at it.

This is either a continuous improvement problem (doing the right things, we just have to do more) or there’s a disconnect between official Times policy—demanding strict reductions in use of anonymous sources—and a plausible Times practice. (See Okrent on it.)

Jack Shafer of Slate, who has tracked the nameless sources story (he calls it the “anonymice”) writes: “Despite the fact that nobody in American journalism professes to like anonymous sources, they keep replicating in newspapers like flesh-eating bacteria.” I would be surprised if some crackerjack game theorists couldn’t help the newsroom think through why this keeps happening, and shed new light on options.

First hurdle always with a subject like this: journalists think they know the subject already. Often this is half their problem. “We already understand the ‘game’ of anonymous sourcing; after all, we’re in it.” A more intelligent attitude would be: there’s something we’re missing because we keep falling into the same trap.

I’m no expert in game theory literature; maybe there are PressThink readers who understand how it applies to the game of news sources, reporters, and the agreements between them.

One meets them all the time. Journalists who always call sources back and check quotes with them. Many are top flight magazine reporters who meet a very high factual standard. The fear is this gives too much power to the source, who will say something in candor and then try to take it back or fuzz it up. The people who practice quote checking have the same fear, yet they find it doesn’t work that way. The committee should ask them: Why not?

If there is, it will probably be found in another industry, not the manufacture of news. Rate of error, being accurate within a range, are big problems in other fields. Maybe those fields have something to say to journalism. Check it out, Siegal Two.

No. Best practices period. “In our business” sets the bar too low.

Can’t hurt to experiment. You might learn something. Journalists, in my experience, like to argue the merits of things based on their savvier-than-thou prediction of what will happen if you try it. In an experimental approach you avoid holy wars based on someone’s anticipation of what will happen. You try something and actually see what happens. Then you modify your aproach, and try again. Simple, right?

Well, if you are still agonizing about this in 2004, it’s probably best to let those who are comfortable with it put their e-mail address in the paper. But stop for a second: will the Times give reporters and writers the help they may need to tame the information tide and get something useful out of a rising IN box?

I think the puzzle is how to help reporters use that more public e-mail address to start pulling in more knowledge. It’s setting up a kick-ass feedback system for them, in which e-mail is only a part. The first reporter to ask for that will be demanding a newsroom innovation. (And the first reporter for a decent-sized newspaper who learns how to use a reader feedback system to improve, guide and correct her reporting is going to be a hero to those who follow.)

Progress on this question will vary in direct proportion to the numer of people on the Times committee who have read and absorbed Dan Gillmor’s We the Media. (See The Guardian’s review.)

No view.

Here, I think the direction is all wrong. Except for the part about the editor having a column. The editor of the New York Times should have a blog, and use it to explain himself and his thinking. (One example.)

In regard to critics…who attack our believability for political or commercial reasons of their own… That happens. Ax grinders will grind their ax. When criticism is totally politicized (which happens) it loses its value. But some critics attack the Times believability because they think they’ve been asked to believe things that aren’t true. To reason from their “motives” does not seem fair, or especially illuminating. All critics have reasons of their own. And partisan critics often make excellent points. As Matt Welch argues, this is because they have the motivation to watch closely.

But seriously: what use does the Times have of these “outside” voices? That’s what I want to know: What does a great newspaper want from its critics in the public-at-large?

Does it want for them to go away?

Does it want for them to be heard?

Does it want them less partisan, more capable of taking an “objective” view?

Does it want them to be better informed about Times journalism?

Do outside critics offer anything of value, in the eyes of Times writers and editors?

Find out what your people think, New York Times. Is the newsroom in a state of “criticism overload” most of time, or does it actually lack for intelligent feedback? And isn’t the handling criticism question related to the being more accurate question?

Before you can start “responding systematically,” it helps to know the answers to questions like these. Siegal:

The membership of the committee is listed below. Our introductory meeting will take place on November 11. We expect to meet for a few weeks, but not in marathon sessions like those of the 2003 Siegal Committee. We’re trying to blend many kinds of expertise. We’ll be grateful to everyone in the newsroom who has an idea to add to the list above, or who is willing to share thinking with the committee members.

Hey, I know this memo wasn’t addressed to me. Yet I’m willing to share thinking with you, New York Times. Add a few ideas to your list. And I like that phrase, “blend many kinds of expertise.” Does it include expert readers?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links.

Okay, I gave you the memo, and my read on it. Now hit the comment button and give me yours.

More from Matt Welch: New essay in Reason is a must. Biased about Bias: The hunt for ideology becomes an ideology.

Developing hypersensitivity to hidden ideology can easily become a distorting ideology of its own, especially when inconvenient facts, such as journalism’s culture of rejecting overt political agendas, are brushed aside. “It is the tragic story of a ‘mental short circuit,’” Vaclav Havel wrote in a marvelous 1985 essay on a different topic. “Why bother with the never ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth when a truth can be had so readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. Think of all the difficult questions which are answered in advance!”

Chris Geidner reacts to this post at his weblog, Law Dork: “It’s not enough to set up an insiders-only committee and say that you want to improve your accuracy and accountability. The number one way to improve your accountability is to go outside the paper and to the readers, however that might be construed.”

The Washington Post’s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines.

Related: The Chicago Reader’s editorial: Tribune, Explain Yourself.

Long and intricately-constructed essay criticizing PressThink for becoming tedious and “academic,” in the negative sense. From To give you the flavor:

Rosen writes in a professorial tone – fair enough, he’s a professor – but if you recall your college lecture courses you might remember the specific variation that professors enjoy using, the “I’ll ask the questions” tone. “I’ll ask the questions” means that we will all acknowledge the essential questioning, challenging, and terribly important nature of the dialogue going on here, but the dialogue’s premise is going to be determined by me and certain obvious questions will simply not be entertained.

There’s more, and this is someone who has PressThink on his blogroll.

Members of Siegal Two: The Accountability Committee

David Barstow, Metro
Dana Canedy, National
Rebecca Corbett, Washington
Steve Crowley, Washington Pictures
Kevin Flynn, Metro
Steve Holmes, Washington
Christine Kay, Investigations
Charles Knittle, Metro
Patrick LaForge, Metro
Mike Leahy, Managing Editor’s Office
Eric Schmitt, Washington
Terry Schwadron, Newsroom Technology
Al Siegal, Chairman
Phil Taubman, Washington
Duff Wilson, Sports
Diane Cardwell, Metro
Fred Andrews (Rapporteur)

The first Siegal Report is here, a pdf file. It would be great to have it in HTML. Update: Done.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 11, 2004 11:40 PM