Oct.
10

First Look Media: a personal update

In November of last year, I said that I was joining First Look Media, Pierre Omidyar’s start-up, as a (paid) advisor. Today, I am announcing that I am no longer involved in First Look.

There is no drama and not much of a story to it. After the first six months of giving shape to the new company, the founders and editors simply didn’t have a lot for me to do. Meanwhile, it was difficult for me to comment or write about First Look because I was officially involved in it. I had joined in confidential discussions and was occasionally paid for my participation in planning. Over the summer that kind of work trailed off because First Look has a much clearer sense of where it is going now.

What did not change is the atmosphere of mutual respect between me and Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, John Temple, Dan Froomkin, Bill Gannon, Andy Carvin and many others employed by this growing enterprise. I was never an employee, only an advisor but I felt honored to be there as it took shape. I recently concluded that I could do more for First Look by writing about it from the outside, and I met with John Temple — president of the company — to let him know that.

So this parting is entirely amicable. And it was my initiative. Now I am eager to see what First Look becomes as it emerges into fuller form. Special thanks to Pierre Omidyar for letting me hang around and contribute to his idea for a new kind of news organization. I wish him and everyone he brings on board the best of luck as they bring that (still fascinating) idea to life.

Oct.
9

“Talk to the critics…” The Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Meet the Press.

A disgusted viewer and longtime critic of the Sunday shows — that would be me — interviews NBC’s Chuck Todd about his attempt to remake the most famous of those shows.

1. PressThink: You told Breitbart that your interview with them was “a step in the rehabilitation of my business… Talk to the critics. Talk to the skeptics.” We’ll get to the other steps in that rehabilitation later, but what’s the thinking behind this step? What are you hoping will happen if you do “talk to the critics, talk to the skeptics?”

Meet the Press - Season 67Chuck Todd: I think there are too many folks in my business who are too defensive and desperately hope things return to the so-called “good old days.” The media landscape has changed. We need to adapt. We need to acknowledge new players. When I say it’s time to talk to the critics and the skeptics, it means engaging, hearing new ideas. Perhaps incorporating some or dismissing some but at least explaining why. Have the two-way conversation. A lot of media critics don’t know what happens behind the scenes and sometimes that does matter. For instance, just because we don’t air a story, doesn’t mean we didn’t report it out. Just didn’t deem it worth airing.

2. PressThink: You mean the “good old days” of one-way media without a lot of choice for the users?

Chuck Todd: Exactly. Look, I have an incredible platform, I get that. But that doesn’t mean we are the only game in town. We have to acknowledge the entire landscape, maybe even change how we report. For instance, in the “good old days,” not reporting a story that didn’t pan out was enough to make sure an untrue story didn’t make it into the eco-system. Now, there are a number of ways untrue stories can go public. We in the so-called MSM should be willing to report what is not true, rather than ignoring and claiming that “well, we didn’t deem it worthy” and therefore don’t have a responsibility for debunking someone else’s rumor. I’m not sure we can defend not sharing publicly what we know is true and false.

3. PressThink: Would you agree with me that “he said, she said” reporting (and “he said, she said” roundtables!) have been a disaster for public confidence in the press?

Chuck Todd: Of course. I think there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” It’s simply “fair.” As for whether it is a disaster? I think the disaster is how the politicians play into this. It’s a two-way street. My philosophy is trying to make sure different perspectives are represented when it comes to opinion about the political landscape, but this should not get in the way of facts.

4. PressThink: The words are said to be Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s, “You have a right to your own opinion. You do not have a right to your own facts.” But if there’s one place on the dial where it seems that important people do have a right to their own facts, it’s the Sunday morning talk shows. How did that happen? Where did it go wrong? What was the fatal moment or crossing point?

Chuck Todd: Where to begin. I think the advent of advocacy TV interviewers being available helped accelerate this a bit. Then you have the coordinated campaigns on the left and right to pressure news organizations on balance. ChuckMTP3And too many executives in general felt the heat enough to then decide “make everything he said, she said” because it was deemed politically safe. Realize: there is an industry out there that feels their job is to try and create doubt about the MSM with partisans, and it really is a business decision in order to drive folks to their own POV programming.

I think there are some true disagreements over facts that we shouldn’t pretend don’t exist. For instance, when it comes to tax policy, the disagreement on facts comes from assumptions about consumer behavior that can change over time and not be something you can pin down as factually accurate. And let me add one more thing. As for the change on Sundays over time, I think the overall pressure from cable when cable went daily with political discussions pushed folks in charge of Sunday shows to emulate cable.

5. PressThink: Which is how Jon Stewart became your most effective critic. His show is essentially about the excesses and stupidity of the cable news formula.

Chuck Todd: Cable news has become an easy target, that’s for sure. I prided myself on how little my cable show ended up as an example. Of course, you don’t get credit for that.

6. PressThink: You said this to the Daily Beast:

I think there is this perception that the American public has about Washington right now—and they’ve thrown all of us in the media with it—that we’re out of touch. We don’t understand what’s going on. We’re all caught up in the process of the Acela Corridor. Being in Washington, we’re not experiencing what the folks ‘between the Fives’ are experiencing. We got caught up in that Washington-New York mind-set.

From what I can tell by doing my homework and by watching the show you have four answers to this problem:

One is: you’re not a Washington insider yourself, by background at least. Middle class kid from Miami, not a creature of the Acela corridor. “I’ve got my own kitchen cabinet of relatives who’ve had to live through some of the hard realities of this recession,” you have said.

Second answer: Political journalists can regain credibility by showing that they “get it,” which for you means listening to people beyond the Fives (Interstate 95 on the East Coast, I-5 in California) and then translating — that’s the key word for you, translating — their anxiety and frustration into tough questions for public officials.

A third answer is to hear more often from people involved in politics “out there” between the Fives, who are not close at hand in Washington, as with your conversation with three mayors from other cities about what’s working elsewhere.

Fourth answer: Diversify the guest list. No more “elected pundits,” office holders who are simply repeating what they read on the op-ed page. Broaden the mix, as with John Stanton of Buzzfeed or Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas.

So I have several questions about the Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Sunday morning political television. First. What did I miss?

Chuck Todd: You have done your homework. Relevancy— that’s the only other thing I’d add. Try to make sure we’re relevant to what the country should be understanding about what’s going on.

7. PressThink: How do you think political journalism, your profession, became over-identified with the politicians and insiders themselves? You’ve said that voters and viewers now lump you and your colleagues in with the people who have made a mess of politics. How did that happen?

Chuck Todd: The one-two punch of the Iraq War and the recession. Basically two huge things that the folks in charge blew and we in “the media” appeared to go along in only explaining the government’s side of “why.” So Iraq started eroding trust, then the recession nearly finished the job on trust erosion, thanks to the glorification of Wall Street by the media in general over the ’90s and early 21st century. Toss in the fact that we in the media lived in the two areas of the country that did not experience the recession, and it’s a toxic stew. Since the folks who were at fault never got punished, the media didn’t appear to be on the public’s side, but instead looked to be collectively on the side of the elites.

8. PressThink: So if I understand that answer, smart people in political journalism should have realized that the near total lack of accountability for these huge disasters was going to come back on them, that they weren’t doing enough to perform in the watchdog role they hold out for themselves. Is that a fair summary?

Chuck Todd: Yes. And let me stipulate, perhaps it is easy for me to backseat drive. I wasn’t covering the White House at the time. I was covering the political landscape, covering elections for a trade publication, then behind the scenes here [at NBC News] doing similar work. I’d like to think that when given the opportunity, I would have been more skeptical; but sometimes for beat reporters, seeing the forest can be difficult, no matter how hard you try. I now have an opportunity to constantly be the person that is hopefully seeing the forest too.

9. PressThink: I would remind you that your predecessor, David Gregory, said several times that he thought the press did a fine job in the run-up to the Iraq War, that all the important questions were asked, that criticism including Washington journalists in the list of institutions that failed is misplaced. I found that astonishing, that he would continue to say that in retrospect. Did you?

Chuck Todd: He was a daily beat reporter. I’m sure he and others did ask plenty of skeptical questions. But that skepticism didn’t always make it on air or in print and then I don’t know how editors and producers were treating those questions once the reporters made it on air or in print. It’s not an excuse, just explaining that there is a way for both things to be true.

Let’s also remember, this doesn’t happen without a slew of political leaders all marching to the same drum, all using the same sources to justify their positions. But this is where the anger at the press began. We’re mad that the politicians lied or misled us either on purpose or accident. But sadly, maybe the public expects politicians to lie or mislead. What they want is a press corps to help them hold these folks accountable, especially after the fact.

10. PressThink: I have been a faithful viewer of the Sunday shows for more than 20 years, and I felt my own frustration grow during that span. One thing that jumps out at me as a critic who switches among them is the unbelievable uniformity of these shows, not only in basic format but in the guest list, the questions, the topics. When Fox and CNN entered this derby with Chris Wallace and Candy Crowley, their shows were almost carbon copies of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week on ABC. It’s like a single mind is producing them, but it has 50 pairs of feet. If you’re going to change that, it seems to me the first step is to figure out: how does that happen, that kind of group think. So why do you think it happened?

Chuck Todd: Well, TV has a history of copying what works. When CNN and Fox came along, they looked at what was working (in this case MTP was number 1) and that became the formula to copy. This has happened in the radio and TV biz (both news side and entertainment) since the day after Marconi invented it (I kid, sort of.) Now, the issue of booking has become a lot more complicated, even more than I realized before I took this job. An amazing number of folks simply are afraid to go out on the Sunday shows, so there’s that.

As for the topics, I am trying to change that. I think there is an expectation (and as a viewer, I would have it) that the Sunday shows delve into the most important issue of the day or week, and we are living in a big news period so I imagine you won’t see the diversity of topics for the leads of these shows. ChuckMTP4But where I’m trying to do things differently is at least have diversity of topics in the middle of the show. Use that space, frankly, to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. But to not be afraid. I did the tax cuts segment (using Kansas as the backdrop) a few weeks back, about a week before the New York Times and others did. Don’t think any other show has even done it yet. Specifically, the issue of how the Kansas governor’s race could actually change the tax debate. That’s a big deal and could change the tax debate in Washington and all 50 states.

11. PressThink: Here’s another thing that really puzzles me about the Sunday shows. I get why you have the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee on when Obama is about to go to Congress for authorization. He’s a player. I don’t get why a certain class of insiders — professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, “party strategists” — are regularly invited on. I don’t think they should ever be on.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Reince Priebus. Mike Murphy. Bob Shrum. Four names that stand for many more. We know going in they’re not going to be anything but boosters for their side. I mean, if you wanted to stoke people’s frustration with politics, a perfect medium for that would be a “he said, she said” segment with Wasserman Schultz and Priebus, which has happened in past years on Meet the Press. You just had Priebus and Murphy on last month. I don’t get it, Chuck. The whole practice makes no sense to me. Can you explain?

Chuck Todd: I think it’s unfair to lump some of these folks into one category. Priebus is the head of the GOP; he attempted to release a series of principles that I think was designed to be the GOP’s message for the midterms. He’s the head of the party. The party is trying to win the senate, so it seemed appropriate to probe that. He was relevant that week. I agree, you don’t just put him on because, well, “I need a GOPer,” why not him? There has to be a reason. He unveiled something that appeared to be an attempt to be a sequel to the 1994 Contract with America. So it’s worth questioning him.

As for the use of political strategists, some are good and plugged in and have information that will help the viewer understand the why. For instance, why a party or a candidate is doing something. Murphy is someone who isn’t predictable when it comes to assessing his own party. And he understands campaigns at a granular level that can be helpful to the viewer who wants clarity and the answer to the question “why.” I understand your larger complaint, and that is, folks who spout the most predictable answers. If I thought Murphy was doing that, I wouldn’t use him.

12. PressThink: Do you think you are part of the professional political class? Would you include yourself in it?

Chuck Todd: I don’t think any political reporters should be categorized in that, and I wouldn’t want to be classified in that group. I’m not an operative. I’m a reporter and analyst.

13. PressThink: Amy Davidson of the New Yorker said something I found interesting in a review of your first show:

“Meet the Press” has been on the air since 1947; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each appeared on it seven times, Obama a dozen. It trades in a sense that it’s an important thing for important people to do. Todd, too, has probably been reminded more than once that a large part of his job is theatre. And Todd is good at it, in a character-actor sort of way, which is probably the best approach; it leaves open the possibility of acting up.

What I found interesting is her suggestion that Meet the Press is theatre, not in the negative sense of “show business” when it should be serious, but more in the positive sense of: drama, urgency and an acting out of the country’s passions through politics. So my question is: can Meet the Press be good theatre and how do you make it so?

Chuck Todd: I can’t escape the fact that most folks will only judge the show’s success by numbers, not by content. I happen to think the content will drive the numbers over time; so that’s my bet and clearly my bosses are making that bet. I’m not exactly someone who was created in a TV lab. But right now, there is a tendency to try and be splashy and so urgent that it risks actually under-cutting what a Sunday show should be and what viewers actually want, which is content and clarity. That said, you have to be watchable.

Mary Poppins had it right: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I love politics and I respect the potential our democracy provides us. I want more folks to care about what’s happening. Part of that is to help them understand the game (when necessary) and then help connect the game to the impact on their lives and on the Republic as a whole. So, I want to make the show watchable and fulfilling. Does that mean some will think we are creating “good theater?” Perhaps, but if that so-called theater helps give context and clarity, then it’s worth it.

14. PressThink: It seems to me that one of the most powerful things a show like your could do is bring into legitimate debate people, causes, ideas and problems that have been placed in the “sphere of deviance” or marginalized by the rest of the political class and by journalists. As in literally never spoken of in power circles. Is this something that has occurred to you, since you are overhauling Meet the Press?

Chuck Todd: 1,000 percent. I have a list of these issues that I want to get to. It is why I keep bringing up the middle of the show concept. So the show doesn’t change at the top with the important news of the day/week, but [we] use the platform to also introduce topics that haven’t been touched (or dealt with in a while.)

Look, on this, you are preaching to the choir. The challenge I’m discovering: it takes time to produce the show you want. This is an aircraft carrier. I’m turning it. Come back in six months and let’s assess how I’ve done.

PressThink: Fair enough!

* * *

My commentary: I think you have to give Chuck Todd some credit. He realizes the Sunday shows have failed. He knows they have to change. If he doesn’t change Meet the Press enough, he can be criticized for that. He understands that viewers and voters regard Washington journalists as part of the political class, even though he does not see himself that way. What interested me most was his reply to question 7. Journalists as a class failed to appreciate how they participated in the utter lack of accountability for the failures in Iraq and after the financial crisis, he said. Most people in his profession are still in denial about that. Chuck Todd is not. I was disappointed in his answer to No. 11 on the “professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, and party strategists.” I think that’s where he showed himself to be trapped in his professional skin. He didn’t understand my question about “good theatre” (no. 13.) He treated it as: how do you get viewers to eat their vegetables? (Spoon full of sugar, natch.) But that was my fault. I should have clarified it, and re-asked. Slipped up there. He had a robust reply to No. 14 on “the sphere of deviance,” pledging to — in effect — give voice to the voiceless. That’s impressive, and something we can hold him accountable for. Amy Davidson’s characterization is right on. Chuck Todd is more of a character actor than a “leading man” type. That makes him less predictable. But it leaves open the question of what kind of character he intends to be.

Photo credit: Pete Williams, NBC. Used by permission.

Sep.
6

Some old-fashioned blogging in the link-and-comment style

Bring back the fun. Scott Rosenberg — who literally wrote the book on it — says blogging is enjoying something of a revival lately.

Nicholas Carr senses a mood of exhaustion with what he calls Big Internet.

By Big Internet, I mean the platform- and plantation-based internet, the one centered around giants like Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and Apple. Maybe these companies were insurgents at one point, but now they’re fat and bland and obsessed with expanding or defending their empires. They’ve become the Henry VIIIs of the web. And it’s starting to feel a little gross to be in their presence.

“Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet,” Carr writes. In a follow-up post, Rosenberg speculates that as “waves of smart people hit the limits of their frustration with Twitter and Facebook, many will look around and realize, hey, this blogging thing still makes a great deal of sense.”

After this episode — Twitter flirting with a filtered feed — I am feeling that way myself. One good thing about a revival, as against a trend: fewer journalists rushing to declare the revival “over.”

Hit piece bombs. Almost everyone who has tried to “take down” Glenn Greenwald, as opposed to just criticizing him, has wound up looking bad in front of his journalistic colleagues. Memorable examples include David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin. This week Politico published an embarrassing attempt at a take down by Michael Hirsh. Has Greenwald, Inc. Peaked?

“Politico Magazine’s Michael Hirsh has written a hit piece on Glenn Greenwald. It is terrible,” wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. For example, the headline “signals that Hirsh doesn’t want to stand behind his convictions but just wants to trial-balloon them for clicks.” Gawker’s Tom Scocca explained what Politico was up to:

Under the rules of the buzz process, once a person or entity—Mike Huckabee, The Help, the panoptical security state—has been established as the subject of sustained public attention, the eventual next step is to inform the public that the public is no longer interested. This generates new attention. Ups and downs.

Just as Politico wants to be the first to say something is a trend, it wants to be first to notice what’s “over.” This is rather different from trying to figure out what’s actually going on. (Disclosure.)

You cannot be serious. I’ve been marveling at this all week. On Sep. 1, Frank Bruni, who occupies expensive real estate on the op-ed page of the New York Times for no reason I can detect, dropped on us a column claiming that Obama was weak in responding to the threat from ISIS. Nothing remarkable in that; dozens of other columnists were saying the same thing. But watch:

He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.

Dig it: Obama is speaking truthfully, treating us as adults, and being prudent, but there’s a problem because Bruni wants better P.R. Is this what we need journalists for? He quotes two other journalists, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz of the Washington Post, making the same point. Obama, they said, was speaking candidly but in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness.”

This style of analysis is so common among American journalists that it passed by without comment. As your blogger, I cannot allow that. Worrying about image projection and the degree of savviness in the Administration’s P.R., asking “Where are your infantilization skills, Mr. President?”— these are signs of a press corps that can be deeply unserious about international politics.

And there’s another problem. Bruni’s column, which couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes to produce, is a sign that people at the New York Times still don’t get it. By “it” I mean the economic age they are living through. The value added for this kind of writing is essentially zero. It does not bring a new perspective. It does not add any previously unknown facts. There is nothing distinctive in the analysis. It is all professional reflex (which is why I wrote about it.) The New York Times thinks it can still afford commodity opinion on its op-ed page. That is incorrect.

Aug.
19

When quoting both sides and leaving it there is the riskier call

If the weight of the evidence allows you to make a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you’re behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious thing.

It’s my job to notice when a piece of standard brand pressthink “flips” around and no longer works as intended. I have one.

For a very long time, the logic behind “he said, she said” journalism, and “get both sides,” as well as, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave it there” was that operating this way would reduce risk to a news publisher’s reputation. (See my 2009 post.) When you have both sides speaking in your account, you’re protecting yourself against charges of favoring one or the other. By not “choosing” a side — by not deciding who’s right — you’re safer.

You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?

Increasingly that is not right. More and more — but not always — the “no position” position is the chancier move, especially when disputes turn on factual questions and checkable claims. A newsroom that goes with “he said, she said” when a call can be made is engaged in reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face. That wasn’t true ten years ago. But it is now.

Let me illustrate. On August 4, the New York Times ran this story: Reagan Book Sets Off Debate. It’s about Rick Perlstein’s new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” Much of the story talked about accusations of plagiarism aimed at Perlstein by Republican operative and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. The Times used the classic “he said, she said” form. Shirley and his lawyer make accusations. Perlstein and his publisher defend themselves. The Times stays in the middle:

Mr. Perlstein, 44, suggested that the attack on his book is partly motivated by conservatives’ discomfort with his portrayal of Reagan. Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter.

But Mr. Shirley and his lawyer contend that Mr. Perlstein paraphrased original research without properly giving credit. “The rephrasing of words without proper attribution is still plagiarism,” Mr. Shirley said in an interview.

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice, even though it still feels like normal practice and, as I said, the safer choice.

The risk the Times was taking was exposed the following week. After receiving complaints from readers, the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took a closer look. “We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story,” said deputy media editor Bill Brink. “We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context.”

The most responsible way possible? In Brink’s mind, maybe. But that’s the problem! “The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had,” Sullivan wrote.

And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.

The readers are ahead of the editors. The old standard isn’t good enough. But that news hasn’t reached the middle managers in newsrooms who grew accustomed to reducing risk by leaving it there. Climate change is probably the most famous (and most serious) example of the shift I’m talking about. Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing.

Last month, the Telegraph in the UK reported that 200 senior managers at the BBC had to be re-trained not to insert “false balance” into stories like climate change, where a call could be made. “The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.” That’s a form of distortion, practiced by the BBC against itself. But instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. Still distortion, but it looks more innocent.

Editors have to be on the lookout for those points. They’re dangerous, as I’ve been telling the New York Times for… oh, about five years.

Aug.
10

“Wrong side of your Orwell, mister editor.” The New York Times falls down on the word torture.

These are my discussion notes to The Executive Editor on the Word ‘Torture’, a letter to Times readers from Dean Baquet, August 7, 2014.

“It’s time to celebrate that the newspaper of record is no longer covering for war criminals.” That’s what Andrew Sullivan, who has kept watch on this story, wrote Thursday. The news he was celebrating: the New York Times gave up the ghost on euphemisms for torture.

Alright, we celebrated. For an hour, maybe. Now let’s ask what came to an end with this strange announcement. Terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “harsh tactics” and “brutal treatment” had been preferred usage at the Times in news stories by its own staff about the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody after 9/11. “Torture” was removed as a descriptor that the Times itself would employ. The decision to reverse that came Thursday in a brief note to readers from executive editor Dean Baquet.

From now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.

1. As Erik Wemple wrote, Baquet here “pledges that the newspaper will deploy the English language to describe things.” Dean Baquet8 1-30-07Wemple’s paraphrase points up the strangest part for me: the Times felt it had to exit from the vernacular to stay on the responsible journalism track. This I find hard to accept.

The baseline in daily journalism is supposed to be plain English, spoken and written well. Non-exclusive language is the norm. The market is the common reader and the reader’s common sense, not a specialized class of knowers vibrating in the power circle. It’s not incumbent on an already understood term like torture to prove itself neutral enough for newswriters, but on the specialist’s construction (“enhanced interrogation”) to prove itself relevant in these proceedings at all.

Even with scare quotes around it, a term like “enhanced interrogation techniques” starts with zero currency, extreme bloodlessness and dubious origins. A lot to overcome. In the years when the Times could not pick between it and torture — 2002 to 2014, approximately —  it seemed that its editors and reporters were trying to re-clarify what had been made more opaque by their own avoid-the-label policy decision. Thus the appearance of do we have to spell it out for you? phrases like “brutal interrogation methods,” meant to signal: this was really, really bad. So bad you might think it amounts to…

Baquet tries to explain:

The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

So for the fruits of avoiding a label the Times becomes a force for fuzzing things up. Early in a public reckoning with acts of state torture it decides it cannot call it that. Wrong side of your Orwell there, mister editor. To report what happened you have to first commit to calling things by their right names. The Times lost sight of that somewhere in a fog it helped to create. The editor’s note doesn’t explain how it happened. (See Barry Eisler on this point.)

2. You could see the reversal coming.

Baquet’s note doesn’t mention Obama’s concession on August 1. “We crossed a line and that needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that.” The president is being more direct than ever: yes, we tortured people. The Senate Intelligence committee report, with lots of details about torture, will be coming out soon. Fights about its release could be making news for weeks. Linguistically, the Times was headed for a crash if everyone in the political system could talk of torture (and be quoted on it) but Times reporters couldn’t say that themselves. The game was up. When the reporters lobbied for release, what choice did Baquet have?

Marcy Wheeler in Salon, August 4, sensed the collapse:

For 10 years, journalists have willingly perpetuated this linguistic absurdity, even as more evidence came out proving the CIA used torture and not some fluffed up interrogation process, even as more and more neutral arbiters judged our torture torture.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has spent five years trying to understand and come to grips with the torture done in our name. Isn’t it time for journalists to do the same?

3. It’s easy to proclaim (and I am with those who say) that the Times showed excessive deference to government officials during the “make the picture fuzzier for our readers and let them decide” phase of reporting. But how did the editors think themselves into this mess? That is what I am trying to understand in these notes.

4. My contribution is this concept: the production of innocence. You can use it to understand what happened.

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

For newsrooms that still have it in their model, the production of innocence is supposed to chime with the publication of news. But what if the news is about a clearer and clearer case for calling it torture? This happened from 2002 to 2012. As the evidence became too great to ignore, the dispute in Washington over calling it torture escalated because of massive consequences up and down the chain of command. With avoid becoming party to a dispute a newsroom priority, the Times got caught on the wrong side of the evidence pile and added to the fog of euphemism. Manufacture of innocence, darker side.

Listen to a Times spokesperson explain it in 2010.

“As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

It’s that intention — avoid taking sides in a dispute —  to which I draw your attention. It won out over 1.) “use the vernacular!” and 2.) a growing body of evidence. Until last Thursday. So what changed?

5. Innocence, I said, is a production requirement. You need to satisfy it somehow. But there are different ways to generate enough “points” to make a thing reportable. For example: if the press pack is doing it, you’re home free. That’s as innocent as you can get, even if the story is wrong. If the government admits to it, you’re innocent for telling the public it happened. If the president urges Americans to face the fact, that’s all the cover you need. When the Times could hit its innocence numbers in other ways, DON’T USE THE WORD TORTURE ON OUR AUTHORITY was dropped from the production routine.

6. From an exchange last year between Bill Keller, the executive editor under whom much of this happened, and Glenn Greenwald, who is deeply critical:

Greenwald: A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Keller: Sometimes fair play becomes false equivalence, or feels like euphemism. But it’s simplistic to say, for example, unless you use the word “torture” you are failing a test of courage, or covering up evil. Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.

To which I say: accountability can’t start until things are called by their right names. The Times became a force — not the force, but one among many in the system — for confusion and delay in the public reckoning with torture. Until, as Dean Baquet wrote: “The Justice Department, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has made clear that it will not prosecute in connection with the interrogation program.”

7. The Times actually used the word “torture” a lot during the period when the ban was in effect. This is important. The ban applied to a relatively narrow class of cases. Some of the situations in which it did not apply:

* Quoting someone who alleged: this was torture. (“We’re not saying it, he is.”)
* Citing reports documenting torture. (“We’re not calling it that. But this report does.”)
* Reporting on the debate: was it torture? did it work? (“We’re not saying. We’re just telling you there’s a dispute”)
* Publishing in op-eds and reviews other voices who do call it torture. (“We’re not saying it, this writer is.”)
* Editorials in the Times. (“That’s opinion. No problem.”)

A good example is a 2005 review essay by Andrew Sullivan: (My bold.)

Whether we decide to call this kind of treatment ”abuse” or some other euphemism, there is no doubt what it was in the minds of the American soldiers who perpetrated it. They believed in torture. And many believed it was sanctioned from above. ….At Guantánamo Bay, newly released documents show that some of the torturers felt they were acting on the basis of memos sent from Washington.

Was the torture effective?

If the Times was concerned about getting ahead of the legal system, how could it allow these straightforward uses of the term? Times readers somehow won’t be unfairly influenced when Andrew Sullivan does it in the book review, but they will be if the news staff tries the same thing? Doesn’t make a lot of sense. Unless you understand the production of innocence. The Times wasn’t trying to keep “Wake up, people! The U.S. did commit torture …” from readers, the way it might keep a rape victim’s name out of the news. It was trying to avoid making the statement on its own authority. As long as others took the responsibility — outside writers, human rights groups, quoted sources in a dispute, editorial boards — the innocence requirement was met and production went forward.

8. This has been going on for years. And not only at the Times but across the sector. In 2006 Eric Umansky (now at ProPublica) dug into the early patterns in coverage of torture for Columbia Journalism Review. His analysis, Failures of Imagination, is detailed and persuasive. For my notes, this part is key:

What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everybody agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.

Which is an innocence calculation, it you take my drift. Umansky is direct:

Any article, no matter how straightforward or truthful, that treats abuse as a potential scandal — even by simply putting allegations on the front page — is itself making a political statement that “we think this is important,” and, implicitly, wrong. To make such a statement takes chutzpah.

“Avoid taking sides in a political dispute…” This does not take chutzpah.

9. Bill Keller, who was top editor of the New York Times when most of this was transacted, whose decision-making was undone by Dean Baquet’s note to readers…  Keller has a new job. 6985189859_d03949b7b9_mFounding editor of The Marshall Project, a fascinating niche site with an important mission. (Their bold.) “There is a pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems. “ I agree. This part caught my eye: “With growing awareness of the system’s failings, now is an opportune moment to launch a national conversation about criminal justice. There are numerous indications of the country’s appetite for reform.”

Obviously Bill Keller in 2014 is comfortable with that: “Launch a national conversation about…” He wants to equip with information “the country’s appetite for reform.” He feels he knows how to do the journalism part of that equation— for criminal justice. I can’t wait to see what he produces.

“With growing awareness of the system’s failings, launch a national conversation about…” That never happened for the New York Times under Bill Keller once it became clear that the United States tortured people after 9/11. Under Howell Raines, Bill Keller, Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet, the Times helped delay our national reckoning with torture. The facts were there. Required levels of innocence were not.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Barry Eisler (former CIA, now a writer) notes something important in his post. The standard legal definition of torture “is pretty much what the Times wound up using anyway.” In other words, a judgment the Times says it’s able to make now is the same judgment that could have been made then to say that U.S. conduct met the legal standard for torture.

Seems relevant:


The Times archives has topic pages for coverage of torture and CIA interrogations. Most of the relevant coverage can be found there.

Listen to this quote:

What I believe in is deep reporting, and then if a reporter really digs, there often is what I call weight of evidence in stories that are about contentious subjects.

That’s Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, speaking last week. “Weight of evidence” is exactly the judgment The Times dodged when the subject was whether to call it torture.

“To survey powerful actors with clear conflicts of interest and then defer to their characterizations betrays a newspaper’s charge: to determine the truth and state it plainly for the public.” — Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic.

Torture vs. torture euphemisms: see this infographic for percentages and charts.

NPR’s David Folkenflik was a media beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun in 2004. This is from one of his columns (May 26, 2004). It shows what was riding on the issue:

Rumsfeld also used misdirection — a “look at this hand, not that hand” approach — to brush off questions about whether U.S. troops had tortured prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld told reporters: “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture… I don’t know if… it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word.”

Yet it’s not hard to see torture in some of the pictures obtained and published so far by the media of abuses at Abu Ghraib. And the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and a subsequent international protocol of 1984, both of which have been signed and ratified by the U.S. government as law, do address the torture word. The 1984 document states:

“The term `torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him … or intimidating or coercing him.”

The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 makes such conduct by a member of the U.S. armed forces a “war crime” punishable by fine, imprisonment or, in cases resulting in death to the victim, the death penalty.

Photo of Bill Keller used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of Dean Baquet courtesy of New York Times.

Aug.
3

Listener’s guide to Christian Rudder explaining why OkCupid experimented with unwitting users

You use the product. We have the power. You can exit any time. Before then we can screw with you.

Alex Goldman: Have you thought about bringing in, say, like an ethicist to, to vet your experiments?

Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid: To wring his hands all day for a hundred thousand dollars a year?

Fabulous exchange, right? As soon as NPR’s On The Media pointed it out, I wanted to know more about Christian Rudder’s elegant derision. I had read his post at the OkCupid blog, We Experiment On Human Beings!

We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook “experimented” with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.

Facebook by accident had this conversation. OkCupid would now have it on purpose. Then I listened to the interview. Three times. It’s that good.

Pertinent facts:

* Christian Rudder will soon be promoting a book, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking.
* He doesn’t shrink from public controversy.
* Tim Carmody analyzed why OkCupid’s admission didn’t bother people as much as Facebook’s, and why it should have.
* I come to this with views, having written for the Washington Post and spoken up at the Atlantic about the Facebook study that caused such a storm.

Listener’s guide to TLDR‘s July 31st podcast: Q & A with OkCupid’s co-founder Christian Rudder. It’s 14:20.

You can read the guide first and it affects the way you listen, or listen first, then read.

1. Why I love this interview: the entire thing is about the legitimacy of OkCupid experimenting on its users. They are never not talking about that. Perfect for a podcast.

2. Christian Rudder admits right off that he was “sensationalizing” in his we experiment on you! post. (Most writers don’t admit to that.) I’m trying to provoke, he says during the interview. We have to allow for this. ChristianRudderBut even someone straining to be provocative reveals themselves in their choice of heat-seeking styles. A man who volunteers that he was “sensationalizing” when he said to users, yeah we experiment on you, so what? is leaning into the scandal narrative, pushing confrontation with it, because he strongly suspects there is nothing there.

3. Rudder’s best point is that sites like his need to experiment on human beings to improve the product. How else would you do it? he asks, interviewing the interviewers. His attempt is to get you, the listener, to shift position. Don’t identify with the hapless user, unwittingly experimented upon. Climb into the chair of the site’s operators. We have this nifty algorithm and we hope it works. But we have to run tests to prove it. Some ethicist says that might be a problem. Is this going to stop you?

4. Alex Goldman and the TLDR crew are at their strongest on informed consent. They make that case come alive. But instead of pretending that he’s obtained consent (by having users check a “terms of service” box) Rudder jeers at the whole idea. Informed consent is a joke, he says. When you participated in those psychology experiments in college you had no idea what they were measuring. It was un-informed consent. That’s how websites work. They are semi-legitimate enterprises. The smarter users — or the users we want — already know this. They accept a certain amount of “getting screwed with” as the price of having an OkCupid that works. It’s the ethicists who don’t get it. The world has moved on. They wring their hands.

5. The interviewers are persistent. They try to solve the problem of consent. Why not level with people? Tell them you’re about to experiment on them. Ask them if they want to be included. Rudder shuts this down. Once they know they’re being studied, they will act differently. Let’s be clear: He doesn’t want to solve the problem of consent. He wants to recognize a power differential between the site and its users.

6. Rudder doesn’t put it this way, but he’s really sneering at the whole concept of user trust. Users don’t trust us to never put our interests before theirs. They know we sometimes do that. They know we don’t tell them about it. Mainly, they just want the site to work. We do too. End of story! Trust, “ethics,” legitimacy, consent: aren’t these terms a little full of themselves?

7. PJ Vogt had the best line: “I’m not comfortable being a guinea pig to the extent that you guys are comfortable making me a guinea pig.” But if he broke up with his girlfriend he would probably be back at the site, he said. That’s Rudder’s point. We don’t need you to be comfortable with our methods. We don’t need them to be seen as ethical or fair. Users won’t know if they’re being manipulated. That’s how websites like ours work. You use the product. We have the power. You can exit any time. Before then we can screw with you.

Jul.
31

The production of innocence: tale of two headlines over Gaza

“Members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel,” the AP said on Twitter. Then the AP decided that it could not say that. Why?

It’s early in the game. I have only been writing about this concept for four years. Okay, nine. Whatever! I keep at it. This is a work of pressthink that I am still trying to render properly for readers. Starts like so:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

It’s not enough to proclaim innocence: we have no party, we take no side. In the style of journalism I’m talking about — still the house style at the AP, CNN, NPR, the BBC — innocence is a production requirement. If the requirement isn’t met, the work fails, and it can be sent back to the shop.

Sometimes innocence is built into the form. On CNN’s Crossfire, circa 2005, the show would open like this:

ANNOUNCER: From the left, Michael Kinsley… From the right, Mary Matalin.

This simple routine is a load-bearing feature of the show’s design, balancing the stresses on CNN’s reputation and restoring innocence nightly.

Any fan of NBA basketball has seen defenders put their hands up in the air ostentatiously, with funny facial expressions to match. It’s meant to show the refs: See? I’m not pushing. In news there are moves like that, and this is what I’m calling the production of innocence.

On July 29, the Associated Press sent out this bulletin:


About five hours later the AP caught itself:


“Members of Congress fall over each other…” is a characterization of the facts chosen by the AP writer and supported by the information in the story. If there’s any situation in American politics where they “fall all over each other” it’s support for Israel in the United States Congress. So this statement is a little saucy, a little cynical but it is accurate. The AP nonetheless decided it was “too much.”

The original header produced the news well enough but it failed to produce enough innocence for the AP. “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel…” is not more true than “they fall over themselves.” But it is more innocent. When the switch is made the AP feed suffers a loss of vivid. Its colors wilt. There is less voice, less urgency in the language. And the AP willingly pays this cost. Why? Lots of reasons. I isolate these two:

* In the sociology of newswork one of the first things you learn is that a firm involved in news production is uniquely vulnerable to public criticism and prone to costly mistakes. A news report is a first draft, an improvised understanding. It is frequently wrong or blind. Therefore an established firm in the news business needs regular and reliable ways to protect itself from the criticism it knows will come, including some criticism for which there is no good defense, nothing beyond: I know, but we didn’t have time!

* In the American setting media bias is a driver in politics, and culture war is where some people go to live. A major provider like the AP gets hit hard in the bias wars, so the principle, don’t give them ammunition! has to be built into its routines. That’s the production of innocence. I’ve rendered it this way:

AP SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM: “Members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel.”

INNOCENCE METER BOT: Headline script approved on accuracy. Failed on innocence. Please try again and re-submit.

AP SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM: “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel in Gaza war.”

INNOCENCE METER BOT: Headline script approved on accuracy. Approved on innocence. You are cleared to post.

William James used to call it the “cash value” of the concept. What can you do with it? Well, you can ask good questions.

Q. 1 The production of innocence has benefits that are obvious. Risk-reduction. Haven from criticism. But it also has costs. Loss of voice, loss of nerve. How do we know when the costs exceed the benefits?

Q. 2 And what if costs are rising in the field of innocence production? Isn’t that the whole point of making culture war on the media, to drive those costs up?

Q. 3 What advantages do born-digital newsrooms gain over legacy newsrooms when they decide they no longer care about the production of innocence– as say, Gawker, has?

Q. 4 When you finally come to the conclusion, there is no haven from criticism, the world doesn’t work that way any more, are the costs of producing innocence alongside the news still justifiable? (“BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert ‘false balance’ into stories when issues were non-contentious.” Expensive!)

Q. 5 I know, I know: advertisers like the signs of innocence and advertisers pay the bills. How’s that going?

Q. 6 Let’s say you junk the innocence machinery. What gets put in its place? (My bet: “here’s where we’re coming from” + make a good argument + high standards of verification beats the old system.)

Q. 7 As they mount, reports that get “approved on accuracy” but “fail on innocence” represent colors of truth the news provider feels it cannot provide. Is that a trustworthy system?

Q. 8 Suppose you junk the production of innocence due to mounting costs and diminishing value. Now you have fewer means for avoiding criticism. Which means you have to reply more to criticism. But how do you do that well and still have time to produce the news?

I don’t know. But as I said, it’s early times.

Jul.
28

First Look Media shifts direction some

And has none of this figured out.

Pierre Omidyar published a blog post today that gave an update on First Look Media, the company he started with Glenn Greenwald and others and backed with $250 million of his own money. Nine Months in, First Look is Still Very Much a Startup.

As regular readers of PressThink and my Twitter feed know, I am an occasional adviser to First Look, but not an employee. So factor that in. I am not a spokesman for First Look and did not clear this interpretation with them.

In my opinion, this was the most important part of Pierre’s post today:

…rather than building one big flagship website, we’ve concluded that we will have greater positive impact if we test more ideas and grow them based on what we learn. We are unwavering in our desire to reach a mass audience, but the best way to do that may be through multiple experiments with existing digital communities rather than trying to draw a large audience to yet another omnibus site…

For First Look the way to a large user base isn’t “one big flagship website” or an “everything you need to know” news app to go up against, say, the Guardian or npr.org. That kind of “omnibus” product will not be forthcoming anytime soon, today’s announcement said. Instead:

We’ll test an approach to journalism that starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest, understanding the people in them and serving their needs and aspirations in new ways. The digital world gives us unprecedented opportunities to meet this vision.

You begin with the users of news in a few well-defined communities of interest. By understanding their “needs and aspirations” better, you try try to generate more trials, more fruitful errors, and — if the method works — products and services that mesh with people’s lives more effectively.

This is not a part of Pierre’s thinking, so don’t use it to characterize First Look’s approach, but the argument is similar to my PressThink post from March: When starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well.

That’s my advice to individuals starting in journalism. Get yourself into a journalistic situation, first. A “journalistic situation,” as I define it, is when a group of people who share a common interest are actually depending on you for news. From there the rest will flow. What you learn by trying to provide a living community with news instructs you in what to try next. But you have to succeed in becoming their provider.

First Look will test an approach that “starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest.” Begin with a journalistic situation. From there a distinct approach may grow. Of course, journalists who are distinct and talented enough can sometimes create their own community of users through a unique mix of investigation, commentary, reportage— and personality. First Look has been testing this proposition too.

Which leads to the second item of news in Pierre’s blog post. Combined with a doubling of the editorial staff to 50, it was this:

…rather than immediately launching a large collection of digital “magazines” based on strong, expert journalists with their own followings, as we imagined earlier, we’ll begin by building out the two we’ve started and then explore adding new ones as we learn. Whatever direction our experiments lead us, we will continue to invest in our journalists and support their commitment to fearless, fact-based reporting. We will continue to fund deep investigative reporting and back it up with the travel and research budgets necessary to support it.

Building out The Intercept and the Matt Taibbi venture will be the primary publishing project for now as First Look turns one of its founding phrases, “fearless, fact-based reporting” into actual journalism (and other projects.) When key learnings from The Intercept and Taibbi come in, the collection may be filled out. Or not. Also: There doesn’t have to be an editorial brand called First Look, and there may never be.

This was the third bit of news:

I expect we’ll be in this planning, startup and experimental mode for at least the next few years as we explore how to become integrated into people’s lives in meaningful ways.

In other words, First Look has none of this figured out.

Jul.
14

NPR downgrades and disables its ombudsman

“NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman.”

UPDATED Five times, JULY 15 TO 31

I always read job descriptions for open positions in journalism. They tell you a lot about which way the field is headed. Last week I came across this opening for the NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor position. Two phrases jumped out at me:

The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views. The Ombudsman/Public Editor serves as an independent reporter on behalf of the public.

The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.

Here it is again:

In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment

What is going on with these phrases in bold, which appear to prohibit the ombudsman from criticizing the performance of NPR journalists?

Well, it’s a change in policy. In the past, the NPR ombudsman has routinely come to judgment in addressing complaints. A typical example from 2011, when Alicia Shepard held the position:

Lots of things drive NPR’s audience crazy. One I totally agree with is this: NPR often does a lousy job of identifying the background of think tanks or other groups when quoting their experts.

Here, Shepard is picking up on a complaint she’s heard from listeners and making a judgment: NPR is doing a lousy job! Until now, this was a normal part of the position.

As you may recall, NPR incorrectly reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died when she was shot at a public appearance in her district. The ombudsman gathered facts and explained what happened. She also came to several conclusions:

At the point the hospital confirmed Giffords was in surgery around 2:30 p.m, NPR should have done two things: sent out another e-mail alert correcting its mistake and when it next broadcast at 3 p.m., it should have said that NPR mistakenly reported Giffords’ death and given the new, correct information.

Neither of these things was done that day….

What NPR should have done it did not do. That isn’t fact-gathering or explanation or representing the listeners. That’s making a judgment. Again:

NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been. And the newscast should have put the news in context, explaining that a tragedy had just occurred, the story was changing quickly, and this was what NPR knew at that moment.

Making a judgment doesn’t necessarily mean slamming NPR. Here’s the current ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, evaluating complaints about NPR reporter Mara Liasson appearing on Fox News.

My conclusion on Liasson’s work is simple:

Applaud her.

I find that her NPR stories were straightforward and based on solid reporting. Her Fox contributions were the same. She was smartly analytical, but did not take a position on issues or veer into opinion. Just as important, she did not tilt or load her characterizations of political figures such as President Barack Obama or Republican leaders.

Much of the complaints about Liasson, it seems to me, are really about Fox. The complaining listeners do not like Fox’s rightward stance, and especially the incendiary views of some of its prime time talk show hosts such as Bill O’Reilly. They tar Liasson by association.

I looked at her work. In my assessment she does not tilt one way or the other. I think complaints from listeners about her appearing on Fox are really about Fox, not her. That’s the ombudsman coming to a judgment, after investigation. Under the new rules, he couldn’t do that. He could explain how NPR views Liasson and gather facts about NPR’s guidelines but he could not comment on her performance or assess the validity of the listeners’ complaint, which was the whole point of his November 2013 column.

A further clue to the changes is in the new title. The ombudsman has become Ombudsman/Public Editor in NPR’s usage. Thus: “The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views.” I asked Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, what he thought. Dvorkin, who is now a journalism academic, helped create the position back in 2000. He said he was concerned that “the Washington Post weakened model of ‘readers’ representative’ is working its way into or even infecting NPR.”

In March of 2013 the Post announced that it would no longer employ an ombudsman who was independent of the newsroom and empowered “to critique the newspaper’s journalism and field readers’ questions.” Instead it would have a reader representative, “a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints.”

The journalist who took the position later said, “My primary mission is to respond to readers… I’m not [charged with] holding the newsroom accountable.” Dvorkin said that his job as NPR’s first ombudsman “was to evaluate and adjudicate NPR’s reporting.” That’s gone now. “A media organization that values its reputation should not be in a defensive crouch,” he added. NPR “may be opting for a safer harbor in which the ombudsman/public editor plays less of the lightening rod role.”

I was able to reach former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who is now working for a news start-up in Afghanistan, to ask about the changes. “To not comment diminishes the role,” she said to me via email. “The new job description appears to defeat the purpose of having an ombudsman.” I agree with that.

I also asked Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, about the “no passing judgment” rule in the NPR job description. She said:

My experience at The Times tells me that readers do seem to want the public editor to weigh in with a verdict, at least most of the time. Sometimes, of course, it’s appropriate just to present findings, or an explanation, or editors’ opinions. But I certainly appreciate the option to express my point of view and it’s always been central to the way The Times and its public editors have interpreted the role.

Seeking comment from NPR, I contacted their spokesperson, Isabel Lara. Our brief Q & A:

What were the concerns that led NPR to emphasize in the new job description that the ombudsman/public editor does not comment or pass judgment?

There were no concerns. We’re looking for someone who can offer a rigorous, independent account of our work. The ombudsman is positioned to help the audience understand how we approached our coverage and whether our reporting meets NPR’s journalistic and ethical standards. The ombudsman may reach certain conclusions based on a careful examination of that work, but should not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.

Where in the organization did those concerns originate?

The changes were based on discussions with outside experts, senior news leadership and the President and CEO, to whom the ombudsman ultimately reports.

Who made the decision to include those phrases in bold and why?

The job description was approved by the President and CEO.

That the ombudsman should “not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong” is behind language which says: just gather facts and explain them, DO NOT JUDGE. Okay, NPR. If that’s your story….

My conclusions: NPR has downgraded the ombudsman position. Two former ombudsman agree with this. To understand why, just think about the effect that “your job is not to pass judgment” has on the pool of potential applicants. It’s likely that similar moves by the Washington Post helped clear the way. It’s possible also that dissatisfaction with the performance of previous ombudsmen contributed to the decision, along with a feeling that criticism rains down from all sides nowadays, so why do we need an in-house critic?

In my view, NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman. Its own internal standards are much improved since the position was created. Its ethics handbook — a public document — is a model of transparency and accountability. Whoever is responsible for the downgrade made a bad call.

UPDATE I, July 15. Many people are suggesting to me that the reason the ombudsman position was clipped was in reaction to this massive investigation by Edward Schumacher-Matos. It’s known that NPR executives were exasperated with the ombudsman over it. So maybe it was a factor:


That’s plausible. However, if NPR executives wanted to steer the next ombudsman away from investigations like that one they could have written into the job description: “The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor does not re-report NPR stories.” They went far beyond that.

UPDATE II, July 16: NPR changed its mind. It says the part about “not providing commentary or passing judgment” was a mistake to include. The job description will be changed. (Check: it is changed.) The new CEO, Jarl Mohn, issued this statement to Media Matters:

The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.

Good move. Former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller comments:


UPDATE III, July 18. In a conference call with affiliates before the CEO’s decision and statement, top NPR executives lash out at me, call my reporting “lazy” and ask public radio colleagues to give them the benefit of the doubt. Link.

UPDATE IV, July 19. Jeffrey Dvorkin, the original NPR ombudsman (and a believer in the position, an active member of this organization) asked me for comment on the conference call with affiliates at his post: NPR Learns About (New) Media Accountability – the Hard Way. I re-print it here with some tiny changes.

It was my understanding that ‘fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment’ is an idea well known in the public radio community. There is not a lot of ambiguity about what it means. But just to make sure, I asked some people with NPR experience. So I like the chances for my interpretation over Kinsey Wilson’s ‘The job description was in no way meant to diminish the role, limit the independence or handcuff them.’

Here’s what I did in reporting my post. I will leave it to you to decide if I was being ‘lazy.’

* To make sure my impression (that NPR ombudsmen routinely comment and make judgments) was correct, I reviewed dozens of past columns and found some typical examples.

* I contacted several former NPR ombudsmen for comment and quoted two who would go on the record. From one I got an earlier job description for the position.

*I contacted several ombudsmen or former ombudsmen at other national news organizations and quoted one who went on the record.

*I know more than a few people who work at NPR and they know me. I knew they wouldn’t comment on the record but I talked with them to check my assessment against theirs and make sure I wasn’t crazy.

* I contacted NPR’s spokesperson around 10:30 am July 14, and said I wanted to post the piece that evening, so could she please get back to me by 5 pm. I also told her that two former ombudsmen interpreted the language the way I did, so there was zero chance that NPR would be surprised by my take. I later spoke to the NPR spokesperson by phone to clarify what I was asking about.

* I received the NPR statement around 5:30 pm July 14 and published it in full later that night.

UPDATE V, JULY 31. NPR CEO CEO Jarl Mohn is interviewed about his decision on NPR. He leaves no doubt. “I thought it was a mistake. I don’t think it was the right decision. [Holders of the position] need to reach conclusions. And that’s what we’re paying them to do. I think that role, public editor, is hugely important to the credibility and integrity of this organization. Anything that we do that diminishes that is wrong. We reversed that decision.” (Go to 10:22 on the clip to hear his answer.)

May.
11

‘Democrats argue. Republicans contend. We have no idea.’ A he said, she said at the Times.

Classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a “sin” against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be a high end product: New York Times reporting.

Saturday the New York Times published on its front page an article by reporter Jeremy W. Peters about Republican Senator Rand Paul criticizing his party for backing laws that make it harder for some people to vote by requiring forms of identification they may not have. Unquestionably, this was news. The Times report included this paragraph:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Excuse me: Would you happen to know, New York Times, whether fraud at the polls is “rife in today’s elections?” Is that something I should expect you to know, seeing as you are the high-end product in the national news marketplace? Or is Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have no idea a good enough standard, and it is my expectations that are out of scale?

In this article, at least, the Times does not know whether cheating is rife in today’s elections. But it knows of a passion for polarizing the issue among the bases of both parties. This helps makes it a classic in the “he said, she said” genre.

Look, we have no idea who’s right. How would we? Figure it out for yourselves! Don’t be asking us to sort out what’s real from what’s fiction. We’re just New York Times journalists. We don’t do “there’s no basis for that.” We do “Republicans contend…”

I’m satirizing but to make a point: this standard isn’t good enough. At least since the launch of Politifact.com in 2007 — which does do “sorry, there’s no basis for that,” sometimes — it’s been made clear to mainstream practitioners in the U.S. that the classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a “sin” against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be an upscale product: New York Times reporting. If you can say (reliably) there’s no evidence for… and you don’t, how well have you done by Times authority?

Here I hand the mic to a fellow blogger of this one sad but (we think) telling paragraph, Felix Salmon, now of Fusion. Felix broke it down proposition by proposition: False equivalency in the NYT. (“How Jeremy Peters’s voter ID reporting is even more wrong than you think.”) I urge you to read his post and come back to this one.

Meanwhile, this report from — hey! — the New York Times in 2007 testifies:

Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

Also this from Politifact/Georgia rating as “mostly true” the claim that in-person voter fraud is a very rare phenomenon, so rare that “only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud have been proven nationally.”

Or this in 2013 from Politifact/Texas: “By our reading of the attorney general’s records, 18 instances of voter fraud have been confirmed in Texas since 2002.” That’s an average of 1.6 cases per year. In a state where more than a million votes are cast in an off year. Rife?

Or read what law professor and election law scholar Richard L. Hasen, author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown (Yale University Press: 2012) has to say on how “rife” it is:

Federal Judge Lynn Adelman looked at the evidence from Wisconsin and reached a conclusion unsurprising to those of us who study how elections are run. “Virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin,” Adelman wrote, “and it is exceedingly unlikely that voter impersonation will become a problem in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future.”

Wisconsin is not alone in lacking such evidence. When the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008, the state conceded there was no evidence, ever, of impersonation fraud in the entire state.

As Salmon says, you don’t have to pretend that there is a lot of fraud to be in favor of more controls. “In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.”

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence calls independent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

My sense: What was acceptably lame under market conditions that Bill Keller began with is a more corrosive practice today. I think The Masthead knows it. This is one of the reasons they created the Upshot, where preponderance of evidence, not a summary of partisan talking points, is supposed to be the baseline practice.

A good way to prove it: The Upshot looks at the evidence and makes a call on “Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.”