December 24, 2005
"I’m Not Going to Talk About the Back Story."
Bill Keller is a "watch our pages" man. That is how he would prefer to answer your question about the Times, whether you are a reader in Chelsea, a reporter for Salon, or Charlie Rose. With him the stoic conceit continues, but under conditions of greater transparency it makes a lot less sense.
(New post alert, Jan. 1. Times Public Editor: Bill Keller Stonewalled Me.)
You can find the latest on the transparency gap at the New York Times by reading Editor & Publisher, and Salon (where I am quoted.) The facts so far: On Dec. 15, the Times published an important story that hit official Washington hard: Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. It said that the National Security Agency has since 2002 had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without a warrant because President Bush decreed it. The story was based on confidential sources.
“Without a warrant” prompted Senator Arlen Specter to promise hearings in the Senate, and outraged others in Congress. “There is no doubt that this is inappropriate,” Specter said. Questions immediately arose about how the story came to be, and especially why it appeared now. (Days before a vote on the USA Patriot Act, the same day as the elections for parliament in Iraq.) But also: should any newspaper be revealing secret programs intended to stop another terror strike? The Times did not take the lead in addressing those questions. In fact it said very little, so others began to fill in the picture.
On Dec. 17 Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reported that the revelations about the NSA are in a forthcoming book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” by James Risen, the lead reporter on the wiretapping story. The Times account hadn’t mentioned that.
On Dec. 20, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times reported that “editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush’s November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.” The Times and Keller had said the key facts became known “a year ago.” Writers at the Times who talked to Risen—alas, no names—said that was inaccurate. NPR also had the same information.
On Dec. 20, it was reported by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter that “the president was so desperate to kill The New York Times’ eavesdropping story, he summoned the paper’s editor and publisher to the Oval Office.” A significant fact, adding drama and raising the political stakes. The original had said only, “The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article.”
Then Gabriel Sherman of the New York Observer reported on Dec. 21 that “according to multiple Times sources, the decision to move forward with the story was accelerated by the forthcoming publication of Mr. Risen’s book.” Sherman added the date of Bush’s meeting with Times bosses—Dec. 6—and said Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman was there too.
In each case it appears the New York Times knows the news, but withholds it. Sherman wrote that discussion of the wiretap story “has been off-limits since it was published.” A source in the Washington bureau was quoted: “Someone on high told reporters not to talk about it.” Why? We don’t know. Heavyweights in journalism can’t figure it out. I certainly can’t. And the newspaper won’t say much.
The Times did issue a statement from Keller on Dec. 16, the day after the story was published on the Web. It told part of the history. The paper was initally persuaded not to publish on national security grounds. The Administration said: if you run this story, it will harm intelligence collection; also, nobody who knows the facts doubts that we’re legal. Keller said further reporting convinced the Times that it could publish without harm to national security, and that reservations about warrantless espionage by the NSA were felt in many parts of the government.
In this statement Keller began to make a case for the soundness of Times judgment (which includes the slowness of Times judgment) but it was brief, nothing but a down payment on a full defense of the article and the reasoning behind it. And Keller’s statement had none of the facts later uncovered by Farhi, Rainey, Alter, and Sherman.
“The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event,” Keller told the L.A. Times in second statement. “We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.” The Observer’s account contains this:
After The Times decided not to publish it at that time, Mr. Risen went away on book leave, and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source.
“I’m not going to talk about the back story to the story,” Mr. Keller said by phone on Dec. 20. “Maybe another time and another subject.”
The back story? I know what he means, but it’s hard to call it a “back story” when the president of the United States confronts the publisher of the New York Times over freedom of the press, national security, and possibly another leak investigation. (Bush later said the disclosures were “shameful.”)
Obviously there are things the Times learned that it cannot tell us about the NSA, and about its conflicts with the Administration. This may account for some of the silences and gaps. But what Keller, and his crew, and Sulzberger with his ally Catherine Mathis (Times spokeswoman) don’t seem to get is that the Times could signal to readers when it knows it’s not leveling with us.
“When you think of the New York Times, transparency is not the first quality that leaps to mind, but they have to explain themselves,” said Tom Kunkel, dean of the J-school at University of Maryland and a former newspaper editor. “Even if you can’t tell them something, in my experience news consumers always appreciate it when you make an effort to explain why you can’t.”
I’m sure there’s a story to this chronic lack of transparency at the Times. At least part of it is a matter of public record. In May, 2005, deputy managing editor Al Siegal led a committee of Times people—heavily weighted toward the Washington bureau—who examined ways of “preserving our readers’ trust.” It was an attempt to come to grips with credibility problems the Times itself had identified after going over the crash sites: Wen Ho Lee, Jayson Blair, the Howell Raines regime, the WMD story— but not yet the fall of Judy Miller.
The report (available as a pdf file) was called Preserving Our Readers’ Trust: A Report to the Executive Editor. (That would be Keller.) News accounts about it focused on confidential sources, and the rules governing their use, but an equally powerful theme was transparency— and how to create a “dialogue with our publics.”
Listen to these recommendations from twenty of Keller’s best people— the Credibility Group:
- “First, there is much the paper can do to consolidate its readers’ trust. We start with being more open and forthcoming.”
That really hasn’t happened. And so the “consolidation of trust” isn’t happening, either.
- “Explaining ourselves actively and earnestly to our various publics can only strengthen the bond between the Times and its loyal readers.”
Actively and earnestly means you don’t treat the demand for explanation as a threat, an option, or something to do only in a generous mood. It means you explain willingly so people know how you operate. If they know how you operate they can more easily decide to trust you.
The Times is hardly clueless about this, as Farhad Manjoo pointed out in Salon. Just last week, Kurt Eichenwald wrote a “Reporter’s Essay,” a companion to his investigation of Webcam porn and kids. It’s an explainer for his complicated interactions with Justin, the exploited teen he wrote about and helped.
Anyone who pays attention to American politics could predict that a story based on leaks about a classified program the president wanted would get intense scrutiny and probably come under attack. And on Dec. 17, Texas Republican John Cornyn denounced the Times on the floor of the Senate: “It’s perhaps not a coincidence that just before the vote for the cloture on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the New York Times released this story.” Cornyn also said the Times was trying to push Risen’s book. (See David Folkenflik’s report for NPR.)
But with “Bush Secretly Lifted” there was no Eichenwald-style explainer, just one paragraph:
The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
Alex Jones, a former reporter for the Times, and a biographer of the ruling family, noticed it. “It’s as though there are two Times minds at work here,” he told Salon. The first is stoic, and hostile to “meta” communication, which in this view detracts from the primary work. Traditionally (that is to say up until the ground shifted beneath them a few years ago) the editors of the New York Times tried not to talk about the New York Times, or indeed to “notice” it, and you saw little in the way of self-examination. It just came out with more journalism.
In that era, the ideal answer to any question about faulty reporting or editorial priorities was: watch the paper. Don’t ask us to talk about it; we’ll just give you non-replies. In Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker profile of Sulzberger, he quotes Keller at a November staff meeting saying he was concerned about “orgies of self-absorption that distract us from our more important work.” That being open about decision-making counts as newsroom narcissism is also part of the stoic view.
Bill Keller is a “watch our pages” man. That is how he would prefer to answer your question about the Times, whether you are a reader in Chelsea, a reporter for Salon, or Charlie Rose calling. With him the stoic conceit continues, but under conditions of greater transparency it makes a lot less sense. This is what the leaks from his own newsroom are telling him.
The Times of the 21st century does talk about itself… sometimes. (A famous example.) This is what Jones meant by two minds. It knows how to run an explainer laying out Kurt Eichenwald’s dealings with sources, and opening up for examination—and criticism—the ethical calls he made. But then on other occasions, with higher stakes, it “forgets” it knows how to be self-scrutinizing and goes back to the era of “the Times doesn’t talk about itself.”
In fact, the golden age of self-examination at the New York Times began in 2000 and is still going on. But something is wrong in the execution. Which is why PressThink ran Ron Brynaert’s guest post: Does the New York Times Have a Learning Disability? (Oct. 31)
- “The executive editor and the two managing editors should share responsibility for writing a column that deals broadly with matters about the newspaper. The column should appear regularly in a fixed spot, ideally every other week and perhaps on Page 2 of the Week in Review or alternating with the Public Editor in his space.”
This column by the top of the masthead never happened. And as a result Keller’s preferred method of addressing Times readers about matters of public controversy is the leaked memo to staff that finds it way to Romenesko within ten minutes of his pushing send, and then becomes news. Why he has chosen this method is not clear to me. Twenty of his best people told him in May 2005 that he and his team should be alternating with the public editor, in a column that spoke directly to the issues of trust, openness and authority that so vex the Times today. Such a forum would have been very useful in the summer and fall of 2005.
- “The newsroom should establish a coherent, flexible system for evaluating public attacks on our work and determining whether they require a public response, and in what form.”
This was political realism by the Credibility Group. They wanted to do away with the pretense that “the work speaks for itself.” (Therefore you shouldn’t talk about it.) The Group said it straight out: “We strongly believe it is no longer sufficient to argue reflexively that our work speaks for itself. In today’s media environment, such a minimal response damages our credibility. Critics, competitors and partisans can too easily caricature who we are and what we do. And loyal readers gain no solid understanding of what the truth really is.” But this strong belief—backed by a sharp analysis—was not enough to move Keller, Sulzberger and Mathis.
- “Nytimes.com should conduct frequent Q & A forums with department heads and other senior editors.”
Didn’t happen. The Washington Post does 30-35 live discussions a week: Q & A with editors who oversee coverage, reporters who cover the news, and columnists like Dan Froomkin and Dana Milbank. This innovation hasn’t come to the Times.
- “Explore the possibility of creating a Times blog that promotes a give-and-take with readers while satisfying the standards of our journalism.”
Didn’t happen. The post.blog was able to air the controversy involving Dan Froomkin and John Harris, and it gave readers a place to talk back to the Post with a vengeance. A Times blog would be equally valuable on occasions when there is controversy about the Times— although it has to be done carefully. Instead there’s this.
- “The newspaper should improve our interaction with television and radio programs. We should devise a strategy governing when and where it makes sense for us to be on TV and radio.”
That means Keller does “Newshour” on PBS the day after the wiretapping story is released, and brings the reporters with him on “Charlie Rose” the same night, while others well briefed—investigations editor David Barstow, Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman—head to “Nightline” and “Larry King.” The works speaks, and then you speak for it. It has authority because you respond with authority when asked tough questions about judgment calls.
- “We need to be more assertive about explaining ourselves — our decisions, our methods, our values, how we operate. We need to do this with regularity and in a variety of forums. We particularly need to do this at times when we are not under attack.”
Don’t heal yourself, just hear yourself, New York Times. “With regularity.” “Variety of forums.” “More assertive about explaining.”
- “We fully accept that there are those who love to hate The Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics.”
If you don’t have online Q and A’s, and you don’t go on the air to explain, and you don’t answer reporters questions, and you don’t have a blog where you can discuss it, and you don’t want to go into the back story because that wouldn’t be stoic… then how is engagement with open-minded critics going to ever take place? In soundbites and one-paragraph faxes and Eric Lichtblau telling Salon, “I’m afraid we’re referring all calls to Catherine Mathis in corporate PR…”? Not likely.
It’s tempting for Times people to say: no matter what we say, we are going to get slammed by the left and the right. But that’s an excuse for devaluing all criticsm. The Credibility Group grasped how lame that was.
- “Productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people — readers and nonreaders alike — whose opinions of The Times are not so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism.”
The modern era of transparency at the Times began with a curiosity, an editor’s note (called an “assessment”) about the coverage of Wen Ho Lee that took note of certain problems and regrets. (See PressThink, From Wen Ho Lee to Judy Miller.) It was a strained performance for those accustomed to the luxury of “we don’t talk about ourselves.” Among those who had to talk about the editor’s note—an unprecedented revision in a pattern of coverage—was Bill Keller, then the managing editor. Here’s what he told a New York Observer reporter who had asked about after-effects:
If you mean, are we going to back away from aggressive investigative reporting, the answer is an emphatic, categorical ‘No.’ If you mean are we going to select a scapegoat to hang for shortcomings in a generally excellent body of reporting, the answer is an equally emphatic ‘No.’ Beyond that, your answer will be in the paper. Watch our journalism.
Watch our journalism worked in its day. But for capturing what was wrong with “we don’t talk about the Times,” the better source is reporter Jeff Gerth, who wrote a lot of the Wen Ho Lee stories that were assessed. Gerth said to Howard Kurtz, who wanted to know what he thought about the editor’s note: “I don’t talk about the Times’ business, but as a reporter I’m glad that other people talk about theirs.”
I don’t think there’s any future for an attitude like that. People don’t trust its one-wayness. If the Times can’t learn to converse its troubles are going to get worse.
: Notes, reactions & links…
New PressThink, Jan 1. Times Public Editor: Bill Keller Stonewalled Me. “Let’s remember, as we contemplate public editor Barney Calame’s stinging Jan. 1 column, Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence, that Bill Keller hired Calame and he’s the only one who can fire him…”
Late breaking link! Editors weblog: The difficulties of increasing newspaper transparency.
How does transparency work?
Let’s take Bush Secretly Lifted… Here’s my quick sketch.
- The editors, also called the Masthead, assign a reporter to do the back story—the internal-to-the-Times part—which should run when the main event runs. That reporter’s job is to avoid getting scooped on what happened at the Times. Given the events of this year, it seems obvious that an outsider hired on a contract basis would work best. To expect Times people to report on their bosses is inhuman.
- The Mastead itself and, through its directive, everyone else at the Times has to cooperate with the backstory reporter so as to produce a more complete and truthful account. The same person writes follow-up stories as the Times itself enters the news stream.
- Several of the editors make themselves available in the first two days for interviews, call-in shows, online chats, and television programs, dividing up the work of explaining and justifying the journalism the Times just did, while making the case for its significance, like Keller began to do here.
- The executive editor designates one journalist involved in the story—on rare occasions himself, a subeditor, maybe a writer he trusts—to more actively engage in the debate that follows from publication, and to stay with it for as long as it lasts. The point person responds to Times critics when they have a point, and goes on the offensive when the story is unfairly attacked.
- Meanwhile, on the Web side, Nytimes.com prepares a concise and carefully written FAQ that has all the key facts about the story, statements from the editors answering questions smart readers would have, the historical and background material (in this case the history of the Times restraining itself at the request of the White House) and links to the additional journalism the Times has presented around and after the main story— a home page for larger narrative. This page needs separate sections for the criticism and reaction in the press, and blogger reactions.
- The Times should have its own Scoble, Microsoft’s in-house blogger with a large readership. The Scoble Figure tracks the politics of the story’s reception online, accumulates links to what’s being said about it, combats false information circulating on the Web, and engages in argument, sometimes criticizing the Times, sometimes defending it, and sometimes having two—or more—minds. In other words: a real person who can react in real time.
- The Scoble-Blog, the FAQ page, the online Q and A’s (and the Public Editor’s web journal) would all have comments as well, so that reader discussion of the Times takes place at the Times. To Scoble-ize the New York Times would probably be the best early warning system the newspaper could have.
Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times says transparency is a crock and the nation is full of paranoids making like press critics.
The New York Times deserves thanks and admiration for the service it has done the nation. Instead, it’s getting bipartisan abuse and another round of endless demands for explanations and “transparency.” (In case you haven’t noticed, “transparency” is this year’s “closure.”)
For a different view see Editor & Publisher.
CJR Daily weighs in: “Bush’s intervention to try to stop newspaper stories in the works is not just a ‘back story.’ To the contrary, a case can be made that it is the real story. In both instances, it is clear, even just from the surface evidence, that the White House had a part in dissuading the editors from, in the Post’s case, running a crucial piece of the story, and in the Times’ case, from running the story at all for more than a year.”
Howard Kurtz talks about the back story with Keller (Dec. 26 column):
“The decision to hold the story last year was mine,” Keller says. “The decision to run the story last week was mine. I’m comfortable with both decisions. Beyond that, there’s just no way to have a full discussion of the internal procedural twists that media writers find so fascinating without talking about what we knew, when, and how — and that I can’t do.”
Kurtz also reveals a meeting between Bush and Leonard Downie that Downie won’t confirm.
Don’t miss Digby on Deborah Howell. A brilliant rant about a frustrating, play-it-safe ombudsman-ee column on military recruiting stats.
Related PressThink… Guest Writer Steve Smith: Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works. (Nov. 23, 2005)
Tom Maguire, They’re Not Going To Stop:
Look - my inner geek is finding this to be very interesting. But is there any way in the world that the Times can be persuaded that this just might not be in America’s best interest, even if it has some slight potential to embarrass Bush?
I only ask as a concerned citizen; as a vicious partisan, I think the NY Times, in combination with the Moore-Streisand wing of the party, is pushing the Dems off a cliff.
What is the Dem message here? “Oh my gosh, that evil Bush is spying on Al Qaeda and anyone who talks to them - as Democrats, we will never do that!”
Maguire says the Times is engaged in a “war on America.” Dean Esmay goes further: “Exposing such a secret program is not whistle-blowing—it is high treason.”
Here are the questions and answers I sent to Salon for this article by Farhad Manjoo:
When is it OK to bow to the government in such matters? I don’t think we know enough about what the Bush Administration told the Times to know if it “bowed” to pressure or behaved responsibly.
Should the Times have printed its piece before the election? The information we have does not permit me to say. I don’t know what national security concerns may have caused the Times to delay, do you? There could be a lot more to it than we know. However, it would be pretty bad if the Times had the wiretapping story before the ‘04 election but tried to tell us it didn’t when finally it decided to publish in 2005. That would be deceiving your readers. So I’m worried about that.
Is it serving its audience well now? Very well, yes. It is serving your audience and the American public to uncover something like warrantless wiretaps that evade the law, and to force the President to explain himself. When Congressional committees announce investigations, Senators push back, editorialists condemn, rival reporters get busy, and a storm of protest follows from publication of the story, the Times is the one making this explosion of democracy possible. It all has a common source. That is public service at its highest level— if the story holds up.
Where the Times is not serving readers well is explaining what happened in the struggle to get the story out. Here I see the same mistakes that were made during the Miller crisis— getting beat on news you own, giving out as little information as possible, devising explanations that don’t explain, limiting the authorized speakers to a two or three, forcing candor to come from confidential sources, and behaving like we’re lucky to get what little they give us. I find it baffling and counter-productive in the extreme.
James Bowman, writing in the New Criterion: What “Objectivity”?
According to Katharine Q. Seelye, writing the paper’s own account of the [May 2005] report, it had “recommended taking a variety of steps, including having senior editors write more regularly about the workings of the paper, tracking errors in a systematic way and responding more assertively to the paper’s critics.” Apparently there was no sense of contradiction on the part either of Miss Seelye or the Times between the objective of “preserving our readers’ trust” and “responding more assertively to the paper’s critics,” though surely on the face of it trust would seem to be more likely to be preserved if the paper adopted a stance of humility rather than assertiveness towards its critics.
Media Bistro asked media observers for predictions on what might happen in ‘06. One of mine was: “The paths of The New York Times and The Washington Post will continue to diverge. (65 percent probability)…”
Finally, the Daily Peg has essentially gone dead but Texas Gigs is more alive.
Posted by Jay Rosen at December 24, 2005 11:36 AM
With all due respect to craig's list, I;m not sure I see a model for the news business there. It's one thing to loosen control on an ad for a 2-bedroom apartment in Clinton; it's another to loosen control on a story on CIA prisons.
There's a tendency to shake the head at every success in the commercial world and say: Ahhh a really smart news organization would have done THAT. Well, sometimes
What makes sense to my mind is to try and co-op the successes, whether through partnerships or mimmickry or ... . Toyota started as a low rent knockoff of the brilliant GM and Ford. And, in fairness to GM and Ford, those companies have gone through several reinventions--the death knell for that industry has been sounded several times a decade since the late 1960s. Maybe this time it's different, maybe not.
Newspapers are still vastly profitable, which is not an argument for sitting back and doing nothing. It is an argument aganst the notion that obsolescence looms (Jay, I know this isn't your argument). And, as Jay notes, it's an argument AGAINST the cannibilization that Knight Ridder is now practicing.
I'm intrigued, Jay, by your prediction that the Post and Times will continue to diverge. How so?
As for your point about web literacy, most of my friends at the Post and Times read a fair number of blogs. As annoying as Delong can be on occasion, I don't know many economics writers who don't read him (Oy, a double negative ... ). The NYTimes food section editors regularly read the food blogs and so it goes.
Whether this is true of the political reporters, I can't say. I know that in 2000 I ended up pushing for and then reporting out a long look at the Ohio election results after reading the alarms raised on the blogs. These bloggers' concerns did not all pan out. But so be it ... there's a lot to be said for ringing the bell loudly.
Also, and I know that I risk sounding like a broken record (ahhh, a true dinosaur reference ... ) but one value added that newspapers should be loathe to surrender is the reliance on old fashioned street reporting, which takes troops and perhaps more skill than one would imagine. I was struck during the recent transit strike by how often I heard bloggers -- Jarvis among them -- AND newspaper columnists and TV types, assert that the strike was a disaster for the TWU, that no one supported the strikers etc etc
Hello? I pedaled over to the Brooklyn Bridge, and then to Bay Ridge and Crown Heights every single day, and I heard a very different story. There was a good deal of sympathy for the strikers, particularly from blacks and Latinos (who are not big blog readers ... ), and from many working class whites.
There is a vast gulf in this city between Manhattan and the Manhattanized sections of the outer boros and the rest -- which is to say the majority -- of the city. And I'd argue that very little of this is picked up by the "new" media. which can be a pretty insulated place. (NOW, there IS a good argument that the unions need to get hip to the web as well--a couple of good bloggers and a union ride board for the general public might have helped the TWU's cause as well ...
Anyway, enough. As always, this site raises criticial questions and it's clearly provoked me to go on at too great length ... So thanks again
ami... special to M Powell -- please continue to 'go on at length'. Your comments are consistently informative and incisive.
Yeah, the low-flab long ball is fair territory, as I'm sure Michael knows.
From my point of view, as blog publisher, it's what sort of comments create value for PressThink on the Web? The most developed often do.
Blogging is welcoming to obsessives--hounds--of all kinds, and this includes ranters and re-cyclers but also factual sticklers, people who accumulate a great deal of knowledge about a few big, important things and notice any flicker of the new, which they then blog about.
Also why journalists who are good writers and natural reporters could, will and do make great bloggers: in many ways, its an activity made for them.
On why I think the Post and the Times will diverge, a real answer takes a post. One reason is Sulzberger does not seem to have mastery of his surroundings. Gay Talese, certainly no enemy of the Times, certainly familiar with its culture, told Auletta: “You get a bad king every once in a while.”
His point was not that a bad king leads to revolution. The king stays king because the people believe in the monarchy, and so the kingdom weathers through. I don't think the Washington Post is in that situation. Graham is far more aware of his surroundings, from what I can tell. You get the sense he has a strategy, but he's also taking lessons from reality.
Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was kind of shocked by how unaware Sulzberger seemed to be on Charlie Rose. I don't think he understood the challenge before him, "where" he was. Or at least it didn't come through in his answers, reactions, and presentation of self.
Auletta's portrait only deepened my view on that.
Another reason is actually a series of observations bound into one over-simplified and hazardous one: Both newspapers are highly regarded among journalists with the experience to judge. The Post is known among your peers as more of a writer's paper, with strong editors, while the Times is more run more by the editors, and of course it employs strong writers too but keeps them more hemmed in-- at least in news coverage. So the Post is looser.
That jives with what I observe, even though it's not that simple. This has a lot of implications, but one is that it seems harder for orthodoxy to rule at the Post, and there aren't the same hang-ups about univocalism. The difference may be slight, the exceptions real, but as you know a small variance can lead to a big change in direction when plotted over time.
Those things all feed into the freer and more inventive use of the Web, although I would say the Times has made equally brilliant use of the Web. It's major innovations are not in openness, interactivity, or establishing a "writer's paper." But I would add that I don't believe there is "one" known way to succeed on the Web, or that all good ways are known. That's why I am for pluralism in the press think of the modern, with-it news organization. (I don't use the term dinosaur, by the way. Nor do I say MSM. I think both are insulting to people in your line of work.)
Put them all together--Sulzberger vs. Graham, editors vs writers, orthodoxy vs. pluralism, freer use of the Web and you get... divergent paths. That's my free hand sketch.
Looseness is a good way to describe it, Jay. And it may begin to describe why Craigslist is more used, more trusted even, for speedy, reliable info on the transit strike. We're seeing this preference for looseness everywhere; Jon Stewart's success is as much about loosening up news presentation, as much as it is a critique of media.
Let me add to the Post/Times comments. As the papers diverged post-Watergate, the Post made some key business decisions to make sure it could maintain high penetration in the D.C. metro area. Though it has been seen print decreases in the last several years, like most dailies, it still has one of the highest penetrations in its market. Likewise, online, it has enjoyed one of the highest local user penetrations, staving off the local efforts of Yahoo, for instance, better than others.
Key to its relative (to other newspaper sites) success has been an ability to start to become a local site, not a local newspaper site.
Its City Guide site really helps locals and visitors enjoy the city, unlike so many other news sites hampered by mid-'90s entertainment platforms.
What I've seen lately is willingness to raise the Post flag by lowered the drawbridges to the castle.
Its Discussions page is a good effort, jumpstarting conversations by its own journalists and then enabling community comment. It is trying to provide some contextual blogging additions to Post content with its Technorati-supplied service.
And I'm impressed with Post Remix. Again, here's the attempt to get a little bit loose. When mash-ups of Craiglist and Google Maps became public, many newspaper companies scurried to figure how to protect themselves -- how to make sure nobody got at their code. Post Remix invites in mash-up artists to make more of the Post content, connecting it up with maps, quizzes and search utilities. This, too, is a right step in embracing the change, rather than keeping the bridges up.
"While there may be certain things about doing it that don't vary much from country to country, I don't think journalism as a rule is "universal" or blind to national origin. PressThink, Each Nation its Own Press.
Each Nation its Own Press
2005 Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures
by Jay Rosen, New York University & PressThink
In a state of nature there is no such thing as a free press. It has to be created— typically, we think, by law. Therefore we have not one press in the world, (which would be frightening) but one for each nation that has launched a free press, and kept the experiment going. ...."
So, we all root for our respective teams? There is nothing like balance or fairness, even-handed treatment of the subject? Just project the home team in the best possible light?
So what makes a war correspondent a non-combatant? So, Mr. Bush would be well within his rights to bomb Al-Jazeera, and Al-Qaeda in abducting and killing Daniel Pearl?
No wonder nobody (other than a dwindling minority of die-hards) believe it when we claim that we are spreading democracy. What do they know? We are the do-gooders and we know what is best for the world .... what, nobody agrees? Hey, did we ask you? By the way, how about these three people in this corner that do agree? Let us put them on the front page. Oh, the Pentagon paid them to agree? never mind, we do not want to really mention that .... the readers are suffering from story fatigue, anyway .... Let us give them some feel good fluff on how well Dow has done today. Oh, no WMD? doesn't matter, we thought there were, and that is all there is to it. The public is souring on the adventure because their appetite has been vetted but the kill proved to be elusive? no problem, let us declare victory anyway and get the hell out .... our job is only to wreck .... while we are retreating, let us bring in the airforce and carpet bomb, just to make sure .... if the Iraqis do not know how to democratize, it is their problem and they have to learn to deal with it .... that is of no consequence to us really .... that is why we are fighting the war there and making sure we do not have to deal with the nastiness here .... so that the pundits can pontificate with a clear head on the finer points of the fourth amendment and what the founding fathers intended .... on why the telephone tap story was withheld from publication .... We are working hard to compile a text book on the roles and responsibilities of the forth estate so that when the Iraqis eventually get democracy right, they will have something to guide them.
Sorry for the rant, but very few journalists even have bothered to notice the absurdity of it; there is only one side fighting the so-called war.
The other big issue is why/how Howell could allow her piece to present a completely erroneous accusation (i.e. that the NPP analysis was based on only 20 counties) as if it were factually accurate?
But ami, you're misreading Howell. Here's the section you're referring to from her column:
In particular, the Pentagon said the NPP considered "the Army's top 20 counties for recruiting." Though those counties produced an above-average number of recruits, the counties "account for a minuscule number and proportion of total recruits . . . 275 out of 180,000 recruits (less than 0.2 percent). One would be hard-pressed to conclude much about income levels from such a small sample size."
Rand Corp.'s Orvis said, "You just can't look at the top 20 or the bottom 20. You have to look at the entire distribution." Data for 1999-2004, he said, show that the income of recruits' families is close to the national average for homes of youths 17 to 21, and family income among recruits has increased every year since 1999....
That doesn't mean Howell's allowing the Pentagon and Orvis to falsely say NPP only looked at the top 20 counties. Instead, the Pentagon and Orvis are saying NPP made too big a deal about what was going on in those counties because they're such a tiny slice of the pie.
Tyson: All of the Army's top 20 counties for recruiting had lower-than-national median incomes, 12 had higher poverty rates, and 16 were non-metropolitan, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan research group that analyzed 2004 recruiting data by Zip code.)
The fact that those to 20 counties account for only 275 out of 180,000 recruits is what they're objecting to. That minuscule sample size wasn't mentioned in the story. If you know anything about statistics, it should have been.
Your incorrect accusation is belied later in the column, when Howell quotes NPP's Anita Dancs:
She said that while the NPP did not have access to family income data, "we did base our analysis on Zip code data of all of the recruits."
All the recruits. Not just those from the top 20 counties.
Village idiot: (Man, I wish people would use their real names. I feel like a jerk answering an idiot.) When I said that in a state of nature there is no such thing as a free press, therefore it has to be created, and we have not one press in the world, but one for each nation that has launched the experiment, it does not follow and it does not mean that "we all root for our respective teams," or "there is nothing like balance or fairness, even-handed treatment," or journalists should put their nation "in the best possible light."
I don't know how you made those leaps or why you would pose the alternatives that way. Clearly, legal systems are the creation of nations, but that doesn't mean they cannot be dedicated to justice, fairness and truth-finding. For press systems it's the same thing.
But this whole area--the relationship between journalistic truthtelling and community membership, between press and nation--is complicated, and not explained or explored very well by anyone: journalists, professors, critics, soldiers, complainers. It is rife with confusion and demagogic claims, as with Powerline:
The Post's reporters are part of a lavishly funded and monolithic media effort to misreport the Iraq war for the purpose of bringing down the Bush administration.
To expect from the press "rooting for the home team," or "my country right or wrong" is unreasonable; to expect deracinated truthtellers and fact-collectors obeying the universal laws of reason is wrong too; to expect journalists in their reporting to make the case against a war their country is involved in-- also wrong.
I'm sure that clears it up.
Brian B: "I think a lot of journalists who got into the biz to make a positive difference (a group that includes me) take the benefits of the process, whereby one doesn't get involved on an individual basis but brings about change through his or her work, as an article of faith."
If I understand what you are saying, Brian, this is an unexamined belief among most in the press who sincerely hold it. I agree with that. Wanting to "make a difference" with your journalism, but also wanting to answer "none" when asked "so what are your politics, Mr. Difference Maker?" may not be reasonable at all. I think this basic issue is responsible for a lot of the credibility problems in the press.
Abigail hit upon a profound question in between the trolling and screeching: "how we should judge the press."
Since the national press is part of the permanent DC bureaucracy and cannot be fired or voted out of office, how should we proles judge press effectiveness? Or are we just supposed to shut up and listen to our betters?
PressThink itself is dedicated to the idea that we should not just "shut up, and listen." There are different answers to this problem.
* The free market will sort it out (a bad press outlet will go out of business.)
* Judge effectiveness against the aspirations and standards the press has for itself.
* Judge effectiveness by how well press accounts support pre-existing belief.
* Judge by whether proper truth-collection and fairness procedures were followed.
None are very satisfactory.
Finally, has anyone ever noticed that Jack Shafer will go out of his way to pretend that PressThink doesn't exist, and that this blog isn't a part of the conversation he thinks he is having? It gets amusing sometimes. His most recent column is about exactly the same subject as this here post, deals with the same facts, and asks the same questions. (Mine was posted four days before his appeared. And it was linked to by Romenesko, as Jack's column was.) In fact the last quarter of his column is almost identical to the first quarter of my post. Shafer will link to what Michelle Malkin and Daily Kos say about the Times and the wiretapping story, but then it's PressThink... what's that?
This is silly and it's petty because I frequently link to Shafer, and when he makes good points I will write about them.
So at least you're not completely making this up, though I still think you need to accept the validity of the Pentagon's and Orvis's criticism that 275 recruits out of 180,000 doesn't tell you much.
Chris, the Pentagon and Orvis used the term "sample size" as if NPP based its analysis on that miniscule sample, rather than used the "top counties" to simplify for the "statistically illiterate" how their analysis played out in real terms. I personally agree that the NPP's website over-hyped the "extremes", but there is a significant difference between falsely accusing someone of a flawed analysis based on a grossly inadequate sample, and accusing someone of over-hyping one aspect of their conclusions.
"Anecdotal" evidence presented by studies (or journalists) can't tell you much about the "big picture" in and of itself -- it is used to bring the "big picture" down to a scale that a "general" audience can understand, and its use is valid as long as the anecdotal evidence is consistent with the "big picture" analysis.
As I've said before, I don't think the Tyson piece was flawless, but the criticism levelled at her article is misdirected. The biggest "flaw" that I found in the piece was her over-reliance on anecdotes that presented the "worst case scenarios" --- one gets the sense that recruits are (metaphorically) being dragged kicking and screaming into the service.
But over-hyping ones story like this is one of the most common, and most venial, of journalistic sins that is an inevitable result of "humanizing" the news.
His most recent column is about exactly the same subject as this here post, deals with the same facts, and asks the same questions.
I was tempted to say something along the lines of "great minds think alike", but then I remembered who Jack Schaffer is, and realized that based on his output, he doesn't qualify for that kind of comparison. :)
Since the national press is part of the permanent DC bureaucracy and cannot be fired or voted out of office, how should we proles judge press effectiveness?
I agree that Abigail's question is a good one.
I wrestle with my students on how to judge source credibility -- particularly online. Typically, I consider "mainstream" news outlets to be credible, because they are vetted by factcheckers (ideally), have reputations to maintain, and when it comes down to it, there is someone responsible for the quality and veracity of the content. You can call the writer and hold her accountable. Or talk to the ombudsman ...
The very first thing we need to do, before we judge, is to be willing to listen to what we don't want to hear and consider that it might possibly be true.
Then, we need to weigh what we read against our own impression of what is going on in the world -- and against other news accounts.
This means reading a lot, watching, listening, to as many sources as possible. And comparing.
Is "the press" telling us what we want to hear (the problem with the "let the market decide" model)? What the reporter wants us to hear? What the corporate entity wants us to hear? What the government or other third party wants us to hear? Or some reasonable representation of the world as we perceive it to be?
Are advocacy pieces pushing their theses because if we believe what the writers want us to believe, it will be good for us, or are they trying to convince us because if we follow their recommendations, it will be good for them?
This is where bias detection plays a key role. Is an op-ed writer with a liberal or conservative bias telling us that X policy will be good for the country because he really thinks it will be good for the country, or because it will be good for, say, his stock portfolio?
Do news accounts provide us with enough context -- enough background to understand the story in the greater scheme of events or the sweep of history? Or are they disconnected and presented as factoids (like the headline ticker on cable news channels), devoid of context?
I suppose context is another place where bias comes into play. But we need to understand that bias does not necessarily mean agenda-advocacy. Bias is what we bring to the table before we sit down to debate an issue -- the sum of all our experience.
That's why different journalists see events unfolding in different contexts. That's why it is so important to grok as many different news accounts -- from diverse sources -- as possible.
It's the old story of the five blind men who come across an elephant. They run their hands over it. One believes it is a python, another thinks they have found a tree. Yet another believes it is a giant bat. Another a worm. Not until they put the divergent viewpoints together do they get a sense of the reality.
Where did you get the idea that "the BBC is run by the British Government?"
Sorry -- that was part hyperbole and part ignorance. I guess it would be more accurate to say that BBC is (in 2005) a quasi-governmental entity in the same way that NPR is in the U.S. Funded by the state, with editorial independence as part of the design.
The Bush Thesis
The Bush Administration can not entirely control the press, which is why it marginalizes and vilifies the press outlets and individual journalists that it can not co-opt. Fox News good. New York Times bad.
The Bush Administration can not control the output of Hollywood, which is why it marginalizes and vilifies the Hollywood that it can not co-opt. Schwarzenegger good, Michael Moore bad.
The press, of course, is unrepresentative.
Are members of Congress really any more representative of the public than journalists?
Look -- the studies show that the average journalist is more socially liberal and more fiscally conservative than the average member of the public.
I would venture to say that journalists -- print journalists, that is -- are also more literate, more typographic (as Postman would say) than the Average American.
Most are better informed (it is their job to be!) and many are better educated.
We have two problems here.
One is that you have an executive branch that is actively working to convince the people that the press is the enemy -- when the Constitution protects the free press as a check on government.
Two is that the free press becomes less and less free under corporate consolidation. Newsrooms that must consider profit margin as a near-top priority, and make editorial decisions that way (like programming more entertainment than news on your average local news show) ARE failing to do their job.
Who ever said that journalists are supposed to be representative, anyway?
The question is: Who gave Bill Keller the right to break the law and decide for himself what constitutes our national security needs?
Bill Keller didn't break the law. His source may or may not have broken the law, but the New York Times has the right to publish such information under the First Amendment. (This was pretty much established in the Pentagon Papers case.)
Indeed, it is only because of the right of the press to publish information such as the illegal domestic spying story that citizens have any means of finding out when politicians use specious claims of "national security" to avoid disclosure of politically embarrassing information, or information regarding illegal actions taken by public officials.
When we stop writing and reporting for the folks out there - whether they want to know the information or not - than journalism will collapse into itself. I don't believe that has happened.
I disagree to a very substantial extent. Most reporting is done at (not for) the public, the intended beneficiary of the efforts of reporters are now the advertisers and media corporation stockholders, rather that the public at large.
The single most pernicious factor in the decline of journalism is (IMHO) the creation of the news "corporation". Corporate officers are required by law to place the interests of the stockholders first, which means that the interests of the public cannot, under the law, be paramount.
The quality of journalism in a corporate environment is no more important than the quality of the hamburgers at Mcdonalds. Only if the decline in qualify affects the profitability of the corporation is "quality" an issue --- indeed, if a cheaper, lower quality product can be sold at higher profits, the corporation is practically obligated to lower the quality of the product --- and it doesn't matter if the product is reporting on matters of national interest, or a double-cheezeburger.
"While no fan of the conglomerization of the media and how it's chewed up journalism into tidy little bites, I disagree heartily with Ami's contention that the intended beneficiary of the efforts of reporters are now the advertisers and media corporation stockholders, rather that the public at large."
A long time ago, in business school, I had this same argument with a professor teaching a marketing class. I was arguing (mistakenly, I now believe) that the customers of a newspaper are its readers. The professor suggested that the newspaper's customers are not its readers. The readers are the product that is served to the advertisers. We then went on about how to segment and position the product, i.e., how best to slice and dice a paper's readership with targeted content so as to maximize advertising effectiveness and thereby revenue.
So, a given piece may be intended for a certain section of the readership by the journalist, but that is just a part of an overall design to package a slate of readers with a certain profile that would fetch the best possible price in the advertising marketplace. As (if) the value of the package declines in the advertising marketplace, the employability of the journalist concerned declines accordingly (unless s/he is willing to retool her/his readership packaging skills).
In the advertising marketplace, this feedback loop works in long cycles (24-36 months, perhaps?) and therefore the linkage may not be transparent, even if one is a participant in this business model. I suspect many of you have known this for a long time (or should have, given all the job losses in the industry).
It is an inexorable trend. I don't see how anybody can stop it (one would have to be an economically irrational actor to even attempt to stop it). That said, it is also true that chances of effecting a different outcome can only diminish with time. I get the sense that many posters here seem to (understandably, given their training) have a propensity to seek balance and nuance in everything. This is also likely to result in folks not recognizing the transformation of the news market that is underway, probably until well after a point when all hopes of engineering a more favorable outcome are lost. It is sort of like the dotcom bubble, or the housing bubble. There are always going to be plausible explanations that support what we see on the surface, and it is very tempting to accept these and ignore underlying realities. By the time the core logic becomes sufficiently clear, the bubble has already burst.
You conflate two different questions. Is there too great a reliance on anonymous sources for routine political and government coverage? Yep, you'll get no argument from me. If the WP runs a story saying that Bush has weathered this year's political storms and relies on anonymous officials to make that point, that's highly problematic. A reader who has paid a bit of attention the past year might justifiably ask: SEZ WHO?
But breaking a story based on documents or leaks is a very different matter. No one, not least the President, has tried to deny the provenance of the NSA and CIA Prisons stories. The identity of the leaker/source/whatever is of less moment than the FACT that our government is engaged in behavior that may be illegal and unethical and extra-constitutional.
In these cases, the WHO pales in comparison to the WHAT, the meat of the story. To harken to the granddaddy of such stories, the substance of the Pentagon Papers was far more important than the identity of the leaker. The same held true for Watergate. To tarry on the latter example, would it have been interesting to a reader to know that a top FBI official was leaking, no doubt for rather self interested reasons? Sure.
But learning details of Nixon's myriad illegalities was of far greater interest to a reader, and importance to the nation. Which circles back to the NSA/CIA prisons stories, where the same test holds.
As for Rx for BDS (whazzat?), oy vey. You posit a fascinating view of Executive Power, sort of John Yoo squared. While Louis XIVth would dig it, I don't. Presidents of both parties often insist that their most dubious covert acts are defensible because of National Security. Thank God a lot of reporters and pols and bloggers and common citizens don't let it drop there.
As I and others have noted, there's precisely no evidence that any intelligence operation has been foiled by the Times report, much less that thousands have died. And if the president's actions are illegal--about which there is much debate--then it's awfully hard to argue that those who revealed this are traitors.
The NYT's took an entire year to confirm this, if we're to believe the public narrative. And I know the WPost took many months to nail down the CIA prisons story.
You call it traitorous; I call it a free press with a spine. Nice to see some evidence of that now and then.