Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/02/03/sbxr_bx.html
Daniel Okrent, public editor at the New York Times, recently handled the complaint put forward most forcefully by Jeff Jarvis against a Times article by Sarah Boxer on the pro-American website, Iraq The Model.
The article—it appeared Jan. 18 in the Arts Section, the jurisdiction of the Culture Desk—went into the lives of the three blogging brothers, Omar, Mohammed and Ali, who are behind the site. (They’re Iraqis.) Jarvis called it “unjournalism,” in part because it peddled gossip about CIA connections, but also because it did not seem well reported. (See Ed Cone on that.)
Okrent, who knows Jarvis, is supposed to investigate if he finds cause to investigate. Here was some of the cause:
Among the many readers who wrote to me, one, a Boston Globe reporter, was especially direct: “This story was, quite simply, vile. It repeats unsupported allegations that three guys in Iraq who run a pro-American blog are actually C.I.A. agents. It produces not a shred of evidence for such claims. And by giving the claims the prestige of The New York Times, the story has put a bull’s eye on the heads of those bloggers. This story was beneath contempt.”
That’s a signal to Times staffers: it’s not just bloggers, ok? It’s people in your own family. (The Globe is owned by the New York Times Company.) Okrent asked culture editor Jonathan Landman to respond. Landman is the one who, as metro editor, said “We have to stop Jayson [Blair] from writing for the Times. Right now.” Boxer is a staffer whose beat is “arts and ideas on the Internet.”
I reproduce the editor’s response in full because there is something strange in there. Here’s the statement. I’ll see you on the other side…
New York Times Culture Editor Jonathan Landman:
“Anytime you write about somebody involved in Iraqi politics it’s going to be fraught. No question about it. Iraq is a dangerous place for sure, and all kinds of innocent things can have nasty consequences. As Ali put it to Sarah, ‘Here some people would kill you for just writing to an American.’ When the Washington Post wrote that these guys met President Bush at The White House people got nervous and angry, saying the same thing that your Globe reporter said of us: that it put a bulls eye on their heads. Is the Washpost also vile?
”The brothers’ last name has been in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, US News, the LA Times and The New York Sun, among other places. A press release went out on PRWeb announcing the candidacy of two of the brothers for the Iraqi national assembly. In his conversation with Sarah, Ali willingly gave her his full name. So really, the notion that we are outing anybody does not hold up.
“And it sure seems a stretch to accuse us of repeating unsupported allegations that the brothers are actually C.I.A. agents. Sarah wrote that the blog had provoked a deluge of intrigue and vitriol on the Internet. She went on, ‘People posting messages on an American Web site called Martini Republic accused the three bloggers of working for the C.I.A., of being American puppets, of not being Iraqis and even of not existing at all.’ Surely that isn’t putting the prestige of The Times behind the proposition that the guy is a C.I.A. agent. It’s saying that there are lots of wild charges flying around (vitriol), of which this is one. ‘Vitriol’ is even in the headline, signaling right from the start that we’re talking about nastiness, not facts.
“Later in the column Sarah talks about one guy who challenged these bloggers based on the name of their web host, CIATech Solutions, then quickly pointed out that this stands for Complex Internet Applications, not Central Intelligence Agency.
“Buzzmachine is run by the well known conservative blogger Jeff Jarvis who, Ali wrote in one of his Internet exchanges with critics, has helped set up blogs run by some of his (Ali’s) Iraqi friends. So Buzzmachine is possibly not the most dispassionate source of analysis on this subject.
“Sarah was trying to give a sense of the befuddling complexity of an Internet brouhaha, of layers of potential manipulation what with astroturfing and blogtrolling and invisible dueling backers. (It should have been labeled a ‘Critic’s Notebook’ but the bug was inadvertently omitted.) You can’t do that without saying what the fuss was about and in the world in which we live stirring up a hornet’s nest. This we seem to have done.” (Link.)
Now for the strange part of this explanation. Landman says the aim of the Boxer article was to convey a situation in its opacity. But good reporting is ordinarily the opposite of that: the situation should be more intelligible, and less opaque, when a Times journalist gets done with it. This did not happen with the Boxer piece.
“Sarah was trying to give a sense of the befuddling complexity of an Internet brouhaha.” She was? Who told her to do that? It seems like a more appropriate place to begin the assignment. Culture Desk to Sarah: “All we have here is the befuddling complexity of an Internet brouhaha; maybe you can sort it out.” That’s the journalism part, isn’t it? The finished report is supposed to reduce the “befuddling complexity” of the online world, not produce a more exquisite sense of it.
The article, according to Landman, is “saying that there are lots of wild charges flying around.” It is? Well, why do we need that? “Lots of wild charges getting thrown around” is where a good reporter begins. That is not where the thoroughly reported piece is supposed to wind up.
Something else Boxer was trying to give a sense of, according to her editor: “the layers of potential manipulation what with astroturfing and blogtrolling and invisible dueling backers.” Potential manipulation is what journalism is supposed to overcome, not be “about.” That is true in cultural reporting, in arts journalism, and in every other kind I know of.
“Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol,” read the headline on Boxer’s piece. Now I know there’s intrigue. Now I know there’s vitriol. When do we get to the journalism?
Landman explains: it should have been labeled a “Critic’s Notebook.” But that means way more to insiders than everyone else.
Buzzmachine by Jeff Jarvis: now that’s a critic’s notebook! We can page through it and find Jeff’s thoughts—good and bad, right and wrong—on just about everything he cares about, including Iraq The Model, which Jarvis has championed.
Landman says this counts against his complaints: “Buzzmachine is run by the well known conservative blogger Jeff Jarvis who… has helped set up blogs run by some of his (Ali’s) Iraqi friends,” he wrote. “So Buzzmachine is possibly not the most dispassionate source of analysis on this subject.”
Okrent took care of that one: “Labeling Jarvis… a ‘well known conservative blogger’ is both inaccurate and irrelevant. Either his charges are justified or they are not.” (Jarvis voted for Kerry.) But notice how the Times is the more dispassionate source of analysis and the Boxer analysis should have been labeled “critic’s notebook.”
I guess the Culture Desk looks for those dispassionate critics.
Here’s what I think: Sarah Boxer’s article about Iraq the Model was really about the Net and how you can’t trust anyone or anything that originated on it. Leaving the situation opaque, at the level of a brouhaha, was part of the point. (And in that context, suggesting a CIA connection served quite well.) It remains, however, a strange assignment.
“The internet isn’t a gallery…” Jeff Jarvis responds: “… Sarah Boxer and Jonathan Landman: Start your own blogs. You want to be on the fuzzy edge, then be the first on your block at 43rd Street to put your own views. After all, you are critics. Critics are allowed to have opinions. So share your critical perspective with the audience — and learn what comes next.”
Seth Finkelstein, author of Infothought, in the comments: “When one boils down the dispute, the core issue is that the Times article treated it as a joke accusation, that basically wasn’t to be taken seriously. It’s a SNARKY article. The hawkish (not ‘conservative’, and I’ll avoid ‘pro-war’) bloggers find that viewpoint itself unacceptable.”
Ed Cone, same day the Boxer article came out: “Sarah Boxer reports (to use the term loosely) on Iraq the Model, a pro-US Iraqi blog. Some critics ask if it’s a US-backed propaganda tool. Fair enough, good question, interesting aspect of understanding blogs, let’s start digging… or not.” His conclusion: not much digging.
Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer, NYU’s online review of religion and the press, in comments:
I needn’t defend Boxer’s article to disagree with one of Jay’s key assumptions here: “Landman says the aim of the Boxer article was to convey a situation in its opacity. But good reporting is ordinarily the opposite of that: the situation should be more intelligible, and less opaque, when a… journalist gets done with it.”
Is that really true about all kind of journalism? I ask with some defensiveness, since my goal when writing a long feature is to reveal the situation as MORE complex, and perhaps less immediately intelligible. If I write about Clear Channel, for instance, I don’t want the reader to come away thinking, “Ok, now I know: Clear Channel is good/bad.” In that instance, I want to convey, the opacity of a massive media company.
Plus… My reply to Jeff.
Daniel Radosh at Radosh.net:
I disagree with Jarvis and Rosen that a “critic’s notebook” must always illuminate and untangle murky debates — there is a place for simply informing people that a murky debate is taking place, and wallowing in the murk — but unless the writer really understands and respects the milieu in which these debates take place, the result is always going to obscure more than it informs.
Charles Cooper of CNet narratizes: “Did a New York Times story raising questions about the affiliations of the authors behind an Iraqi blog blow their CIA cover —or did the story just blow?… The paper’s public editor Daniel Okrent has responded with a detailed post on his Weblog but reverberations continue to echo.”
A new study profiled by Peter Johnson of USA Today says journalists are among the most ethical of occupational groups. “No significant differences were found among various groups of journalists, including men and women, broadcast and print reporters and managers and non-managers. But journalists who did civic journalism or investigative reporting scored significantly higher than those who did not.”
But I’m not sure what “scored higher” means. Or if it means anything. Here’s more about the study from Missouri. And here’s more about the Defining Issues Test, which purportedly “measures moral development.” Hmmm…. really? This page suggests the test is “aimed at gauging the ethical decision-making patterns” of professionals “based on responses to dilemmas and ethical consideration statements.” Dialing edu-blogger JennyD: this is up your alley. What do you think?