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February 14, 2005

Closing Thoughts on the Resignation of Eason Jordan

"Bloggers, journalists, news executives and everyone else: For any of this--blogging, journalism, citizens media, a free press, transparency--to work, the solution when you mis-communicate has to be more communication, not ex-communication."

I don’t think he should have resigned. I don’t know why he did. Neither the public overlooking this sad event, nor the participants in it know why Eason Jordan quit. No reasons have been given, beyond saving CNN the trouble of a controversy.

That’s not a reason. If CNN is a real news network, why shouldn’t it have the trouble of a controversy now and then? I think anyone interested in serious journalism would agree that what are called news values come out during times when the network is criticized, called to defend itself, attacked by political interests, or otherwise under pressure. No executive can succeed in news who is not nimble in public controversy. Eason Jordan knows that. And yet:

I have decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq.

“Prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished…” I’m sorry. The phrase is meaningless to me. The act stands unexplained. The New York Times account from today is light on cause-and-effect too: “Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, abruptly resigned after being besieged by the online community.” After, yes, but because of?

To me, a resignation or firing is totally out of proportion to any offense given in Davos (that I know of.) And in that sense it seems like an overly drastic measure Jordan took. But even more than that; it is an outcome unjust on its face, based on what I know. I am aware that many in the blogging fraternity dispute that.

So be it. I agree with the Wall Street Journal in an editorial today: “The worst that can reasonably be said about his performance is that he made an indefensible remark from which he ineptly tried to climb down at first prompting. This may have been dumb but it wasn’t a journalistic felony.”

Not a felony. I say not a crime. But here is what it was: An occasion when a news executive, a senior statesman at the network, miscommunicated about a matter of life and death, not to say a “story” of considerable (to the point of shocking) news value. And not in front of just anyone, but “representatives of the world,” an international elite, which is part of the ruling fiction at Davos.

Bloggers, journalists, news executives and everyone else: For any of this—blogging, journalism, citizens media, a free press, transparency—to work, the solution when you mis-communicate has to be more communication, not ex-communication. (And non-communication, as with spin, only makes things worse.) Our motto ought to be: “read the rest,” not “you’ll pay for this.”

I say again: The solution to miscommunication has to be more communication. But that is not the route CNN and Jordan chose. Bad move. Grant some interviews, and make some of them with bloggers. Instead of making no statements, consider making lots of statements. I’ll give you an academic word for it: when in trouble, go dialogic.

But even if you don’t open the gates and communicate more, as prudence would recommend, you shouldn’t lose your job for whatever it was you and someone else said during a heated discussion about the media and the military in Davos.

That is a bad and a troubling outcome for journalism, for CNN, for free speech, for Davos, for blogging, and for uncoerced thought. (And it’s an outcome still unexplained, reporters on the media beat.) I am with Bertrand Pecquerie of EditorsWeblog when he says: “Indeed the Eason Jordan case is much more than the question of a videotape! It’s about freedom of expression and the right to raise disturbing questions.”

But then I don’t know why Jordan quit. (Neither do you, unless someone does some more journalism.) And I don’t know what was said at the Forum, really. It’s not in the public record.

However I do understand the atmosphere at Davos since I was at last year’s World Economic Forum (Jan. 2004), and joined in the proceedings, as a speaker and audience member. I also wrote about it at PressThink. To me speaking there is in every meaningful sense a public occasion; and I would never think for a moment that with a microphone on I was truly “off” the record. See this photo, which shows what I mean. Or read Davos Newbies on the same point.

The Forum had its own idea: if people knew they weren’t going to be quoted in the press or “held” to positions stated for purposes of discussion, they might be more open. If as a consequence of trying to be more open Jordan said something he would not have said if he were trying merely to give no offense, then this is part of what I mean by an unjust and troubling outcome.

But the rules of Davos helped lead to that place. They are dangerously out of date, especially when combined with uncoerced blogging and the powers of the World Wide Web. “You have to ask, whose idea was it to introduce a weblog?” wrote Rebecca Blood today. “Off-the-record debate mixed with off-the-cuff publication is a recipe for disaster.” Precisely. Let’s see why:

In a Feb. 13 e-mail to bloggers who had asked about the tape, Mark Adams, Head of Media for the World Economic Forum, said, “All participants take part in those sessions on the understanding that their comments are ‘non-attributable.’” Got that? It means you can’t attach what Smith said to Smith.

On Feb. 7th, Mark Adams told blogger Tim Schmoyer that the discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule. It says: “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” No affiliations. The means you can’t say, “a BBC official on the panel claimed…”

Those were the rules, says the WEF. But the original report from the panel discussion in Davos—which did attribute comments to participants, identifying Jordan and others—appeared on a Forum sanctioned site, the exact title of which is: “ - The World Economic Forum Weblog.” It was a place where participants in the meeting could post reports and reflections. Rony Abovitz did that:

During one of the discussions about the number of journalists killed in the Iraq War, Eason Jordan asserted that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by US troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted.

We could say, “that’s one of the dangers of having amateurs who think they’re journalists, they get the rules wrong,” but for two things. First, the Wall Street Journal, in its Political Diary newsletter, got the rules even more wrong. Bret Stephens of the Journal’s editorial page quoted people at the meeting; Rony Abovitz of Forumblog did not. This went unmentioned in today’s piece from the Journal Editorial Page, which was partly about being a grown-up. (They’re not that grown up, I guess. But see this.)

Second, Rony Abovitz was obeying rules: the “rules” of blogging, which I put in quotes not because there are none, but because they aren’t codified. Someone says something interesting and newsworthy—juicy, debatable—and you are there, a participant in the event. If you have a blog, you post about it. “You can’t believe what happened, here’s what I think.”

Say your post catches fire, meaning: other people talk about it. If you’re a blogger, you keep blogging about the thing they’re talking about. In such a manner blog “storms” can happen. They can also happen because people will them to happen for political reasons, or react opportunistically to events in hopes of gaining from the whirlwind that follows.

Overlooking the larger scene, Michael Barone of US News writes: “The focus of hatred in the right blogosphere is not Kerry or the Democrats but what these bloggers call Mainstream Media, or MSM. They argue, correctly in my view, that the New York Times, CBS News, and others distorted the news in an attempt to defeat Bush in 2004.”

Barone, a friend to blogosphere right, is correct— and he’s being candid. The focus of hatred in the right blogosphere is the Mainstream Media. (For the Left it’s Bush, he says.) I want to know what the right says back. Not to me, although that’s fine too, but specifically to Michael Barone.

In an effort to go dialogic, I asked Will Collier of Vodka Pundit (who got into it with Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily) a question that I hope is both pointed and open ended: Is the point to have a dialogue with the MSM or help cause its destruction? (Or is there a third and fourth alternative we should be discussing?) This is something the blogging world should take a moment for and reflect upon.

Collier said he is thinking about it, and writing a reply that (he tells me) will be out in a day or so. Excellent news, that. I can’t wait to read what he says.

UPDATE, Feb. 16: read what he says. “MSM, Heal Thyself.”

What I’m interested in is not destruction, but rather disclosure, transparency, reform. You can boil all of the above down to one term that ought to be the watchword for everybody in all of journalism’s myriad forms: honesty. I don’t mind a biased press (more on this later), but I do mind a dishonest press.

See Lovelady’s reply at Vodka Pundit. Plus: CNN reports on PressThink’s exchange with Collier.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Here’s the transcript of the PBS Newshour from tonight (Feb. 14) with me, Jim Geraghty of National Review Online and David Gergen of Harvard’s Kennedy School and several White Houses. Host is Terence Smith.

The Newshour gig—my first time on that show—went well, but it was not as inspired as this rant from Chicago Tribune senior correspondent Charlie Madigan:

Shut up with your whining and appreciate the fact that after generations of stagnation, something new has arrived. And like all new things, it’s going to take awhile for it to work itself out.

Conventional journalism seems aghast that a whole collection of independent voices from all sides of the political spectrum are popping up now to pick and smear and slander and point accusing fingers, wreck careers, cast aspersions and introduce something besides a century-old sense of entitled hierarchy to the formula for news presentation.

The title: Bloggers from hell —or heavensent?

Striking a different note is Corey Pein, at Romenesko’s Letters (2/14/2005 12:59:27 PM).

Arguing that we need to pay more attention to certain blogs and get on top of non-scandals like “Easongate” is a weasely way of saying that journalists should pander to reactionary sentiment. But more time spent in front of computers will not save journalism. Nor will looking to Fox News as a model of integrity and audience relations. What journalists do need to understand is why so many people prefer Pravda.

Captains Quarters: “I’m not a newspaper.”

(That’s style of blogging I learned from Scripting News.)

Mike Moran at MSNBC’s Hardblogger: “Was it wise for CNN to provide the enemies of free expression, critical thinking and The First Amendment with a victory on this count? Are they so lost as a network that they abandon basic principles? Is the main stream really now just a trickling tributary that can be diverted with just a few well thrown stones?”

Scott Rosenberg on Eason Jordan: “His story is now a routine one — that of the media pro who does not realize that the world has changed around him, that there is a new activist sphere of journalistic review and criticism happening collectively in real time, and that no gaffe, error or deception is likely to remain hidden. Until media people fully and deeply learn that they are responsible for their words and their work, and that this scrutiny is a good thing for their profession, careers will continue to fall casualty.”

“Transparency requires forgiveness.” David Weinberger.

Jack Shafer: “I Would Have Fired Eason Jordan.”

Dan Gillmor: “Thin Skins in the Blog World, Too.”

“And about Eason Jordan: More myopic blogger triumphalism.” Anil Dash talks to political bloggers:

This is inside-baseball cliquishness at its worst. I’m not saying these guys didn’t screw up, I’m saying that you didn’t win. It won’t temper we liberals who control the media to be more moderate, and it won’t keep the White House from trying to spin the media. Net effect? Lots of negatives, few positives. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re hurting us. You’re hurting all weblogs.

Rony Albovitz: “I am unnerved by what has happened, at the ferocity of the blog swarm, of Eason’s fumbled retreats, evasive maneuvers, and an inexplicable refusal to have his own words played back to the world on a videotape (which does exist). The head of the largest news organization in the world, afraid of himself.”

The Guardian weighs in: “Jordan’s demise may be much more significant than it first appears.”

The Guardian piece has Steve Lovelady’s remarks about “salivating morons” originating in what he told the New York Times, but of course the Times got them from PressThink, a blog that it failed to name. It’s happened before: the Times will say “online” rather than “PressThink,” as it did Feb. 14: “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail,” he lamented online after Mr. Jordan’s resignation. (Another example.) Next time I quote the New York Times I think I will do it this way: “As Paul Krugman said in newsprint last week…”

Steve Lovelady at CJR Daily: “The Captain Eds, Jay Rosens and Jeff Jarvises of this world have always celebrated the blogosphere as a self-correcting perfect democracy where the participants supply accountability and oversight. The other side of that coin is to say that the mob is headless, and that neither the best efforts of the deacons, nor those of anyone else, can mediate the wrath when the headhunters smell blood.”

Perfect democracy? When did I say anything like that? Sheesh.

(Jeff Jarvis replies to Lovelady: The Mob Times.)

Howard Kurtz in his Tuesday (Feb. 15) Media Notes: “I lean toward the view that the rise of blogs is a healthy development and is forcing the MSM [to] become more accountable, rather than display their old we-stand-by-our-story arrogance. There is, to be sure, plenty of partisan noise and mean-spirited attacks out there, but also a lot of thoughtful and ground-breaking posting on stories, or angles, either missed or minimized by the MSM types… The power of the blogosphere, I’d suggest, is not in raw numbers but in ideas that garner attention. And now, for the first time since Gutenberg, you don’t need access to a printing press (or radio mike or TV tower) to reach an audience.”

James Lileks: “I think the Eason Jordon case is less important than the Dan Rather case, for obvious reasons. But it seems to have produced the same amount of enthusiasm. At some point this amount of glee is going to be applied towards someone who might actually turn out to be innocent. What then? Well, it’ll kill the credibilty of those who led the charge, and help the reps of those who turn it away. It’ll be a big self-correcting moment, but the self-correcting won’t be the story; the story will be the mistake.”

The BBC’s Kevin Anderson, American media vs the blogs: “One thing both bloggers and some journalists can agree on is that business as usual is over in the American media.”

CNN finally covers the Jordan story (“Inside Politics” transcript.)

Jeff Jarvis writes a letter to the editor:

Mr. Keller: I propose that we hold a one-day meeting of webloggers and Times editors and reporters to discover how the interests of both groups are aligned and how we can work together to improve news.

“Dear Jeff: It’s hopless,” says Dave Winer. “Just remember when Times reporters say they’re superior, objective, and independent, that they actually write about blogs like French monarchs, with an axe to grind, and a huge undisclosed conflict of interest. We don’t need these guys anymore, and the smart ones are getting a clue about that. That’s certainly what I saw in North Carolina. My guess is that the news will take a bit longer to reach NYC. They ought to be helping us expose their incompetence, much the way a good software vendor seeks out bug reports.”

Michael at Reading A1 called me an “enabler” of the Hugh Hewitt agenda last week because I gave attention to the Eason Jordan episode. This week: “Not so much an enabler, perhaps, more like a fellow traveller.”

Sean Hackbarth at The American Mind. It’s not conservative to destroy what you cannot replace:

Those webloggers seeking another MSM head have yet to offer a replacement to mainstream media. They destroy but don’t build. That’s not conservative. Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France writes about tearing down the state:

“[W]e have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”

Replace “state” with “media” and you’ll see Burke’s wisdom still applies today.

Michael Wolff in a speech to media executives: “At some point in the ’50s Truman Capote was asked about Jack Kerouac, and he said, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing,’ which is to some degree how I feel about blogs. I even hate saying the word blog. I hate being forced to say the word blog. When I look at that particular blog piece of software I react viscerally. I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want this. I don’t want to be part of this.’… By all rights, 18 months from now we should be looking back at this and all kind of embarrassed to say the word blog — I hope.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 14, 2005 5:27 PM