Apr.
25

On the deep grammar of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner

“The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real.”

Have you ever come to know members of a family who collaborate in staying silent about something terrible that happened in the past, something no one wants to talk about because to talk about it would probably tear the family apart?

The innocent would have to accuse the guilty. The guilty to defend themselves would have to find a way to spread responsibility around— or just lie about what happened. Which would then enrage people who were there because it rewrites history and erases their experience. If you have ever come to know such a family — or been part of one, as I have — then you know how participants in the conspiracy share a signaling system that can instantly warn an incautious member: you are three, four hops away from violating the pact of silence… if you don’t want to bring the whole structure down, then I suggest you change the subject… or switch to one of the harmless work-arounds we have provided for the purpose of never getting too close to the source of our dread.

None of that has to be said, of course. It’s all done by antennae. The result is that serious talk about certain subjects is off limits. Key routes into that subject are closed off, because the signaling system activates itself three or four rings out from dread center. To an outsider this manifests itself as an inexplicable weirdness or empty quality, difficult to name. To insiders it becomes: this is who we are… the people who route around—

I mention this because I think it helps in interpreting a bizarre event that unfolds tonight in Washington and on many a media platform: the White House Correspondents Association dinner. How bizarre? Well, look at the evidence of compulsion:


It’s not like they don’t realize it. This is from Politico, house organ for the insider class in DC.

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway— now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America)

“Everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway.” True! And yet they keep doing it. Why?

I’m sure you have your ideas. Here is mine. I know it will sound crazy (and provide a few chuckles) to those in the room tonight at the Washington Hilton, but I don’t care because the event is itself one gigantic neurotic symptom that begs for some interpretation.

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis. Now add to that very specific failure a larger lesson that is also too painful to face: in Washington access journalism has been a bust. It doesn’t work. Its practices made possible the spectacular fall down in the run-up to the Iraq War.

After a maximal failure like that there needed to be a critical reckoning with the whole idea of “access to inside sources as reliable route to scoops.” You can’t maintain that idea and think of yourself as a watchdog, an adversarial force. Not after what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But what if you still want both? Your scoop system, and your self-image as a watchdog. Your insider status, and the critical distance that with the right story could make you a hero of the republic. What if you want your parties with the powerful, and your check on power. What if you have to choose between these alternatives, but you can’t choose because the family has no history of making difficult choices like that. In circumstances like this, you are going to pick denial. And here we find a subterranean route into the Washington Hilton tonight.

3518728500_8159e78919_zThe Washington press corps needed the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through these glaringly obvious conflicts. Instead they just moved on. No one made that decision consciously. But it happened. Access journalism did not have to answer for its sins. Judith Miller did. That’s the simplest way I can put it. And because that event — which was a massive, wrenching and psychological event — did happen the access orgy that is called the White House Correspondents Association dinner can today go on.

There is access to the dinner itself. There is access to the parties that surround the dinner. There is access to the celebrities who show up at the dinner. But access is the god that failed, with terrible consequences that no one in Washington journalism can reckon with. Instead, they party the pain away. And that is what tonight is “about.”

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That tweet was deleted.

(Photo: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at the WHCA dinner, 2009. Creative Commons license.)

Apr.
21

“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this.

Of course Facebook doesn’t “edit” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!

I’ve met some of the people at Facebook whose job it is to work with journalists and media companies. They’re good people, smart people. They seem to care about the future of news. Some of my students, now graduated, work with them. I like that.

What I have to say in this post isn’t personal. It’s professional. Please stop doing this. Here’s what I mean:

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell​, director of news and media partnerships, was asked how the company sees its role as a new kind of editorial filter or influence on the news— an important question, now that Facebook has become such an important part of the news ecosystem. He was also asked what kind of accountability Facebook felt it had as a player in that system. Mitchell had three answers to these questions.

1. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” You send us signals. We respond.

2. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or experience. It should be a supplement to seeking out news yourself with direct suppliers. “Complementary” was the word he used several times. Meaning: complement to, not substitute for.

3. Facebook is accountable to its users for creating a great experience. That describes the kind of accountability it has. End of story.

To find these answers go to 45:50 in the video clip and watch to the end.

George Brock, journalism professor in the UK, was the one who asked about accountability. He comments:

Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has ‘community standards’ that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private company which has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities which distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.

Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.

I would put it differently: Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!

No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it. You want not to be making those decisions. You want user interest to drive those decisions. We’re capable of understanding the basics of machine learning, collaborative filtering and algorithmic authority. We know that to reveal all would encourage gaming of the system. We’re capable of accepting: this is what the users are choosing to use now. We’re not platform idiots. Stop treating us like children at a Passover seder who don’t know enough to ask a good question.

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

These are not outrageous or ignorant questions. They do not misstate how Facebook works. They are not attempts to turn the clock back to a time when editors chose and readers read. We don’t need your answers to babysit us. We’re awake and alive in the algorithmic age and exercising our critical faculties just fine. If you can’t answer, then say that: We are not here to answer your questions because we can’t.

Andy Mitchell’s three replies are not adequate— for us or for Facebook.

Q. What are you optimizing for, along with user interest? A. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.” No, sorry. As I wrote before: It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. The assertion melts on contact.

Q. How do you see your role in the news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? A. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or news experience. No, sorry. On mobile, especially, “primary” is exactly what’s happening. And everyone who pays attention knows how strenuously Facebook tries to keep users engaged with Facebook. So “we don’t want to be primary” is… I’m trying to be nice here… a little insulting.

Q. In news you have a lot of power now. How do you intend to use that power? A. We just want to create a great experience for users. No, sorry, that’s not an answer because you just said the users have the power, not Facebook, so what you’re really saying is: power? us? whatever do you mean?

Facebook’s smart, capable and caring-about-news people should be disappointed that this is as far as the company has gotten in being real with itself and with us.

(This started as a Facebook post. If you want to see it spread on that platform, I’m confident you know what to do.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Now here’s a good example of what I mean. In an update at a company blog, Facebook tells us:

Facebook is constantly evaluating what’s the right mix of content in News Feed and we want to let you know about a change that may affect referral traffic for publishers…

Stop the tape! Notice how Facebook is the one evaluating. Facebook is the one changing things up. This is not a scandal or a surprise. But it’s also not: “you control NewsFeed, we don’t control NewsFeed.” They control NewsFeed too. User choice is real. But code is destiny.

Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine writes about the same announcement. Facebook, he says, “wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to tweak the news-feed in order to promote content that serves its purposes—whether that’s news content or baby pictures—but it also wants to pretend that it isn’t a gatekeeper, because then media companies might not play ball. So it tries to portray the algorithm as just a harmless extension of its users’ interests, when in fact it is anything but.”

David Holmes at Pando.com comments, as well:

I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.

But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Users don’t even pay to use Facebook — so how could they be its core constituency?

Good question.

A distinction I have tried to import into this debate is between “thick” and “thin” legitimacy. From my piece in the Washington Post about Facebook’s mood manipulation study.

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

For purposes of establishing at least some legitimacy Facebook relies on its “terms of service,” which is 9,000 words of legalese that users have no choice but to accept. That’s thin.

Facebook thinks “thin” legitimacy will work just fine. That is why it can give journalists and academics the royal run around at conferences. But what if that assessment is wrong, not from some moral perspective but as a business case? The question turns on this: To what degree does Facebook’s success depend on trust — user trust, social trust, partner trust — vs. power: market power, monopoly power, the power of an overwhelming mind share. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t trust anyone who says the answer is obvious. It’s not obvious. The more the company’s fortunes turn on trust, the greater the business case for “thick” legitimacy.

I wrote about the same issue last year. This is the description I recommended if Facebook ever decided to (I know it sounds crazy) optimize for truth.

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

Ben Thompson at his invaluable site, Stratechery. “It is increasingly clear that it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform.”

Andy Mitchell’s answers at Perugia insulted a lot of people. Here’s an account in Italian by a student, Enrico Bergamini, who asked Mitchell about the NewsFeed alogorithm. It includes an interview with George Brock. On my Facebook page he writes: “I was at the conference, I’m the student asking the question at 45:42, and I was obviously disappointed with the empty answer Mr Mitchell gave me.” Other comments at my Facebook page from people who were there:

Mindy McAdams: “The answers Andy Mitchell gave to questions asked after his talk in Perugia were pure spin and obfuscation… The mood was sullen as he continued answering questions with non-answers.”

Eric Sherer: “I attended this conference, Jay. It was a shame. And yes, he treated [us] like children!”

Apr.
16

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting

“The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot and ringing doorbells at night are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy…”

(This post began as an email to Megan Garber of the Atlantic, who was writing about “hot takes.” She published some of what I told her.)

I can’t speak for British, Canadian, European or Latin American systems but in the U.S. press there is thought to be a single source of virtue. The mythical term for it is “shoe leather reporting.” There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting is the one god an American journalist can officially pray to. Fine writing, great storytelling, aggressive questioning, toughness in the face of attacks: these are universally admired. Amusing and inventive word play, quick and biting sarcasm, superior crap detection: these will win you points in any newsroom or press bus. But godliness is reserved for shoe leather reporting, which is often preceded by terms like “basic” (because everything else is based on it) or “traditional” (because the importance of it never changes) or “original” (because it is the origin of all things good in journalism.) 2330323726_61b725b577_z

Here’s William Bastone, co-founder of the Smoking Gun website and a reporter by trade, describing what the staff does: “The reporting for the site hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will. It’s basic shoe leather reporting, hunting down sources and documents and confirming authenticity. That’s always been our thing.”

It’s called “shoe leather” reporting because in its classic form, the journalist is literally on foot, walking from office to office, source to source, conducting interviews, pulling documents, hunting down facts no one else has confirmed yet. So much walking is required to break a big story that the soles of the shoes grind down. Want respect, young journalist? Break some big stories. How is it done? Same way it’s always been done: Shoe leather reporting.

Here’s Tom Friedman of the New York Times talking about one of his mentors in journalism and giving us that old time religion:

Leon taught me that whether you’re writing news, opinion or analysis, if it isn’t based on shoe-leather reporting, it isn’t worth a bucket of beans.

To this day, whenever I hear a reporter say, “I don’t do reporting — I just do opinion and analysis,” I always think of the reporting basics that Leon pounded into me and want to say, “I doubt that your analysis is very good, because the best analysis always comes from spotting trends that can usually only be spotted by reporting a story day in and day out.” I like blogs, but the only bloggers who appeal to me are those who do reporting and aren’t just sitting at home in their pajamas firing off digital mortars.

Notice how there are different forms worth mastering — news, opinion, “analysis,” even blogging — but a single virtue creates value.

In this text I found, which is actually called Good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, editors at the AP are giving an award to one of their reporters. “Denver’s Ivan Moreno started pursuing the issue of voter fraud in Colorado after nearly 4,000 voters received letters from the secretary of state challenging their citizenship and, therefore, their right to cast ballots.”

He pressed state government for the names. The more he asked, the smaller the number of fraud cases got, shrinking “from 4,000 to 1,400 to just 141 – and Moreno was the first to report that the authenticity of only 141 voters was being challenged.” He finally got the state to cough up 35 names of people it accused of trying to vote fraudulently. “Moreno called every one he could find, confirming independently that they were citizens.” Then he broke the story:

All of Moreno’s reporting came together in a comprehensive piece that looked at the efforts of Republican officials to purge voter rolls in Colorado and other states. In each case, officials found almost no voter fraud, despite heavily publicized investigations and the use of a federal immigration database. It was the first national look at GOP efforts to attribute voter fraud to non-citizens in key election states.

The lesson: “Investigative stories often stem from Freedom of Information requests. But, just as often, it’s from good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.”

The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot or ringing doorbells at night: they are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy. (Get out of the office!) Reporting on the internet is okay, but one step removed from making calls. (Pick up the phone, damnit!) Aggregating stuff is lame. Reading and thinking about what you read, then writing about it: highly suspect. But it is virtuous to show contempt for that.

Some common terms for this contempt: navel gazing, thumb sucker. (Infantalism, narcissism.) The term “hot takes” participates in this. Hot takes are a joke, the lowest possible form, a professional embarrassment, because “these swift, provocative, and socially shareable reaction posts” are at the furthest remove from shoe leather reporting and often parasitic upon it, as bloggers were said to be parasitic back when it was important to say they weren’t journalists.

As a source of virtue in journalism shoe leather has such high status that it’s hard to generate respect for other skills and disciplines, even when they deserve it. We see this especially with news anchors in broadcast journalism. They’re always emphasizing that, though they have an important-sounding title — “anchor” of the program — they are really just reporters at heart. (Dan Rather after he retired. “I’m just a reporter who got lucky.”) Being an anchor can make you rich, famous and vital to the company’s bottom line, but it cannot make you virtuous as a journalist. Thus:

“He was always a wire service reporter in his heart,” said Sanford Socolow, a former executive producer for Mr. Cronkite. “He always lived by the wire service adage,” which he described as “Get it first, but get it right.”

Last week John Dickerson was named the new anchor for CBS’s Sunday talk show, Face the Nation. Here’s how CBS News announced it:

“John is first and foremost a reporter–and that’s what he’ll be as anchor of Face the Nation,” said CBS News President David Rhodes. “His work in the studio will always be informed by what he’s learned in Iowa, in New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill–anywhere there’s news. He has earned the respect of newsmakers across the political spectrum. With all our correspondents John will present comprehensive coverage on all our platforms.”

See what I mean? You don’t say of your new anchor, “He will be a great anchor!” You don’t even refer to any skills he will need in that role. You describe him as a great reporter, because that’s what a good anchor really is, anyway. It was the potency of this myth that got Brian Williams into such trouble earlier this year. He tried to jack up his boots-on-the-ground reporting cred to win the admiration he craved. But he got caught.

It’s true that reading news off the teleprompter is not much of a talent. But that’s not true of anchoring live coverage when big news breaks. And it’s not true of interviewing powerful people on live TV. These are demanding disciplines. They are deeply journalistic. As Tina Brown once wrote in the Washington Post: “When Peter Jennings is anchoring a breaking news story for ABC, he’s a human hyperlink to the world, seemingly able to absorb and process information through the cheeks of his behind.”

Of all things journalists do, on-the-ground reporting is, I think, the most important. I would not quarrel with that. It fully deserves the esteem in which it is held. “Want respect? Break some big stories” is very sound advice. However, it is not true that a single virtue creates value in journalism. Efficiency creates value too. Contributions from elsewhere — synthesizing known facts, explaining complex issues, putting dots together, reviewing, fact checking, writing about the public world beautifully, anchoring a live broadcast, asking questions that are of moment — are just as basic to good journalism as good old fashioned shoe leather reporting.

What these forms lack in mystique they make up for in simple utility.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Steve Buttry responds to this post with some detailed testimony from his career as a reporter and editor. He shows that shoe leather reporting was sometimes crucial to getting the story and sometimes other methods succeeded where “shoe leather” would not have. He writes:

Nearly all the best stories of my career came in whole or part because I was out of the office, interviewing people face-to-face, digging through courthouse records, seeing disaster damage myself, showing empathy in a way that persuaded people to trust me with their intimate stories, seeing important details in the setting where the story took place.

I believe in the importance of shoe leather.

But I also know that shoe leather is just one of many paths to a good story.

Read the rest. It’s valuable.

Journalism scholar Chris Anderson:

That screen works dominates in practice could be the reason why shoe leather dominates in mythology.

From the Pulitzer Prize nominations:

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Photo credit: Roger H. Goun. Creative Commons license.

Apr.
6

Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation.

The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative — indifference to campus rape — and then go off in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.

First, some essential links:

Here is the text itself: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure.

The author’s apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.

CJR: Interview with Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, lead authors of the Columbia report.

New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says

Huffington Post’s summary. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Was A ‘Journalistic Failure’ That Could’ve Been Avoided, Columbia Finds

Listen to many of the players talk about this story in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR.

Poynter.org, The journalism community reacts to the review of ‘A Rape On Campus’

Second, a few disclaimers:

The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!

I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.

Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It’s a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.

My notes and commentary:

1. Asking “how could this happen?” is not the same as asking, “what could have prevented it?” The authors chose to focus their study on prevention — steps not taken that would have avoided disaster — rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It’s a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.

2. This is an amazing passage:

Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

It’s amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don’t make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don’t buy this one bit.

3. “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source,” say the authors of the report. I think they’re right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they’re wrong:

Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.

The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I’d want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn’t you?

4. “In hindsight,” the report says, “the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.” What the authors mean is not “most consequential decision.” They mean “easiest route to preventing disaster.” You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That’s what they mean.

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

9. This is from Erik Wemple’s Dec. 5 column for the Post:

Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.”

I don’t want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn’t know anything about them “as individuals” and never located them — a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.

10. It is therefore striking that Erdely’s public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.

11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor’s story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine’s Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It’s true that “you always try to contact the accused” is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around— this is also very basic. Yet it doesn’t get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.

12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was “Jackie’s story.” It was told from Jackie’s point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It’s about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post’s nagging questions in December:

“I could address many of [the questions] individually… but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

This was Jackie’s story. No, it’s about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she’s the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?

13. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone’s Maginot Line. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently… Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.

Indeed. None was.

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hanna Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don’t take her word for it, listen to Jackie’s friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn’t like charisma, which you have or don’t. It’s a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader’s trust. “A Rape on Campus” did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn’t realize what they were doing. Why not?

I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. “How could this happen?” is harder to answer than “what would have prevented it?” This was our best chance to find out.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

A lot has been written about the Columbia report. (Naturally I hope you’ve read my post.) For those seeking further understanding, the five best things I found are:

Richard Bradley at his site: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof. Bradley is a a former George magazine editor who was duped by Stephen Glass, a famous fabricator of stories at the New Republic. He was the first journalist to raise serious doubts about the Rolling Stone story. (See Is the Rolling Stone Story True?, Nov. 24, 2014.) He should be listened to on the report.

Leah Finnegan at Gawker. Jann Wenner Is a Big Dumb Idiot. “Here’s what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist’s name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim’s friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation.”

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, Rolling Stone Can’t Even Apologize Right. “The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.”

Clay Shirky in the New Republic, Skeptical review isn’t a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. My NYU colleague Clay Shirky says the report could have been three sentences long: “We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.” The rest could have gone into a appendix.

Rosin interviews Erdely. Anyone who wishes truly to understand this episode should, after absorbing Columbia report, go back and listen to the podcast interview Hanna Rosin of Slate did with Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely, Nov. 27, 2014. It’s all “in” there, if you listen closely enough. Rosin’s rising incredulity, Erdely’s lack of confidence in her own story are both palpable— and deeply telling.

Mar.
23

Journalists have to decide what to do about candidates who are climate change denialists

Claims that climate science is a hoax, that human action is not a factor: these are not defensible positions in a normal debate. They are ways of saying — and saying to the press — hey, the evidence doesn’t matter.

In October of last year, the New York Times ran an in-house interview with its own editor in charge of environmental coverage, Adam Bryant. The interview was about how the Times treats climate change. It included this exchange:

Q. Is the equivalency issue dead? To what extent should we feel obligated to include the views of climate change skeptics?

A. Claims that the entire field of climate science is some kind of giant hoax do not hold water, and we have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously. At the same time, there is a huge amount of legitimate debate and uncertainty within mainstream science. Scientists are pretty open about not being sure how bad things will get, or how quickly. These are the valid scientific issues and uncertainties that we want to cover.

A recent front-page piece by Justin Gillis — Scientists Trace Extreme Heat in Australia to Climate Change – provides a good example of providing informed second opinions on a topic. In his piece, Justin quoted an expert who has often been skeptical of claimed links between weather events and global warming in the past. But in this new study we were reporting on, he said the evidence was strong. That insight is more useful to readers than quoting someone who believes the entire field of study is built on a pillar of sand.

We have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously. You don’t hear that very often from editors and producers of mainstream news coverage. The prohibition against “taking sides” in a public controversy normally prevents it. That the Times had made an exception in the case of climate change denialism was welcome news, an important development, but as soon as I saw Adam Bryant’s statement, I thought: Let’s wait for the 2016 campaign. Then we’ll see.

A few months earlier, Grist.org, which does environmental news and commentary from an unapologetically Green point of view, published Meet the climate deniers who want to be president by Ben Adler. The likely candidates fall into four categories, Adler wrote:

(1) Flat-Earthers, who deny the existence of manmade climate change; (2) Born-Again Flat-Earthers, who do the same, but who had admitted climate change exists back before President Obama took office; (3) Do-Nothings, who sort of admit the reality of climate change but oppose actually taking any steps to prevent it; and (4) Dodgers, who have avoided saying whether they believe climate change is happening, and who also don’t want to take any steps to alleviate it.

Notice: the first two categories would fall under Adam Bryant’s “we are not going to take that point of view seriously.” Candidates in category (3) would not. Part of the purpose of campaign journalism is to “convert” the candidates in category (4) into ones, twos or threes, or some other position. Getting them to clarify what they believe — and comparing it to known facts — is the whole point of having journalists involved in the deal. Adler sizes up the field:

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fall into the latter [dodgers] category. The Do-Nothings are blue and purple state governors, Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio. In a sign of how far rightward Republicans have moved since 2008, these are actually the guys who are trying to position themselves as relatively moderate and pragmatic. The Born-Agains are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both are staunch conservatives but only partial wingnuts. Back when that meant believing in climate change, they did, but they have since followed their base into fantasyland. Everyone else is an outright denier and always has been.

Again, that is stated from an openly “green” point of view. This is from National Journal’s guide, which is more willing than Grist to call a candidate’s position “unclear.”

There is now near unanimous consent among Republican congressional leadership and likely 2016 contenders that the climate is changing. But that’s as far as the GOP climate consensus goes, and it’s a far cry from the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists who say that human activity is a primary driver of global warming. Many would-be 2016 contenders publicly question the extent to which man-made greenhouse gas emissions contribute. And few say that the U.S. should take action to cut emissions.

(My italics.) So here’s the problem: As more and more journalists come to the conclusion that they should no longer take seriously the arguments of “someone who believes the entire field of study is built on a pillar of sand,” the Republican presidential field has more and more of these someones, and candidates who often flirt with that position. What to do?

I see four ways campaign journalists might go. All of them have problems.

1. Normalize it: treat denialist claims like any other campaign position. Here you simply say “the Senator doubts that climate change is really happening” and leave it at that, treating this as a normal position in a debate that carries on. You deal with a candidate’s denialism by not drawing any special attention to it. Just as some candidates think we need a fence at the southern border and others don’t, some think climate change is a myth or hoax and others do not. That’s politics! Advantage: It appears to be the most neutral way of handling the issue. And in a bitterly contested election neutral sounds awfully good. The problem: gross abandonment of the “checking” function that a free press is supposed to provide. It’s hard to feel good about that.

2. Savvy analysis: is denialism a winning move or is it costing the candidate? Here you go beyond stating “the Senator doubts that climate change is real” to look at the likely gain or loss in taking such a position. The risks and the rewards. What the polling says. Bracketing all questions of evidence — of truth — you focus instead on the smartness of the tactic. Advantage: you get to sound savvy and smart yourself, cool and analytical, not like those hotheads at Grist. Problem: Who cares if it’s true, let’s find out if it works! shatters the illusion that journalists can and do “hold their feet to the fire.” It’s hard to part with that.

3. Persistence: Call it what it is — a rejection of the science — and keep calling it that. “The Senator doubts that climate change is real, a position at stark odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus.” Here, you take responsibility for pointing out to voters that, while the candidate has his views, the evidence does not support them. And you do this not once, but every time the issue comes up. This is the fact-checking solution. Advantage: puts the campaign press back on the side of truthtelling. A major plus! Problem: likely to result in charges of bias from the candidates so described, likely to trigger the backfire effect among some voters (“in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”)

4. Confrontation: Try to raise the costs of denialism. Sort of like this…

Senator, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 1990, “Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases,” leading to global warming. They said it again in 1995. They said it again, but more strongly in 2001. They were even more emphatic in 2007. And in 2014 they said they were 95 percent certain that human action was the primary cause of global warming. The World Bank has come to similar conclusions. The position you have taken on this seems to suggest that you have better evidence than they do. Will you be making that evidence public? And may we have the names of your science advisors so we can ask them where they are getting their information? (Links.)

You can quarrel with the wording of my hypothetical press conference question but I hope you get the point. Actively confronting the candidate is a more aggressive way to go. Advantage: Fulfills the watchdog role of the press and says to politicians: there are limits, this is beyond the pale. Problem: Easily politicized, certain to trigger culture war attacks. Plus the backfire effect is likely to be even stronger.

What to do? All four paths have problems. In my view 2.) is the worst option, 1.) is not much better, 3.) is probably the best choice, but that doesn’t mean it will make a difference, and 4.) is the riskiest but might be a worth a try.

On Monday, Senator Ted Cruz will become the first candidate to officially announce his run for President. In reporting this news, the Washington Post reviewed Cruz’s career and positions. About climate change the Post reporters, Katie Zezima and Robert Costa, wrote this:

Cruz does not believe in climate change and has said that data does not support it. Cruz chairs the Senate committee that oversees NASA and has said that the agency needs to focus more on space exploration and less on Earth science.

That’s Normalize it: treat denialist claims like any other campaign position. But we’re just getting started. How will the rest of the coverage line up? I don’t know. The most likely pattern is a mix of 1.) and 2.) from my list of coverage paths. I do know this. Claims that climate science is a hoax, or that human action is not a factor are not defensible positions in a political debate. They are ways of saying: hey, the evidence doesn’t matter.

Honest journalists have to look that statement in the face and decide what to do about it.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

There is a lot to report by way of reactions and follow ups to this piece. Ready?

My post highlighted how passive and uncritical the Washington Post’s initial summary of Ted Cruz’s climate change position was. Since then, the Post has really sprung into action.

Chris Mooney, who blogs about climate change for the Post (he also studies denialism) dug into some of the claims Ted Cruz makes, including the data he was relying on and the scientists who reported that data. One of them is Carl Mears, physicist and senior scientist with Remote Sensing Systems. Mooney writes:

To explore Mears’s views further, I did one thing journalists can do when covering the climate views of presidential candidates — I contacted the researcher. And his response was quite critical of Cruz’s approach to the evidence on this issue…

“Satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever,” Ted Cruz has said. Here’s Max Ehrenfreund, writing at the Post’s Wonkblog about that claim:

Although the pace of global warming has slowed, the planet is still getting warmer, and 2014 was the hottest year on record for average temperatures worldwide. What’s more, Cruz distorts the data by choosing a 17-year-period as his yardstick, since 1998 was an exceptionally warm year. Focusing on the past 16 years or the past 18 years, the pace of warming has been more dramatic.

Philip Bump at the Post’s The Fix blog: Ted Cruz compares climate change activists to ‘flat-Earthers.’ Where to begin? Snippet:

What Cruz is doing is treating as valid one magazine article from 40 years ago but rejecting as hopelessly flawed study after study showing that the world is warming.

This all happened since he announced, indicating that climate change denial may become an issue that follows Cruz around as he campaigns.

Number of times Obama and Romney were asked about climate change in 2012 presidential debates: zero. Number of times they brought it up: zero. (Link.)

David Roberts of Grist, who is gone further into this subject than just about anyone (with the possible exception of Chris Mooney) comments on my post.

To make it consequential, journalists would have to push — ask about climate again and again, grind against the going-along-getting-along gears, make a fuss. That would inevitably entail some awkward encounters and social ostracism, not because D.C. is a hive of deniers, but simply because there’s a social order and behaving that way disturbs it. A journalist who did too much of that would wind up on the outside, branded an activist.

Here’s how the AP handled Ted Cruz’s views on climate in its round-up:

CLIMATE CHANGE

When Cruz recently startled a New Hampshire 3-year-old girl by declaring “your world is on fire,” he was attacking the Obama administration’s foreign policy – not talking about climate change. Cruz says that for the past 17 years, satellite images show that “there’s been zero global warming.” But scientific experts say satellite data is the wrong way to measure global warming, which the vast majority of scientists say is happening and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Temperatures at ground level show that the planet has warmed since 1998 and that 2014 was the hottest on record. Cruz has acknowledged that climate change is real – but does not attribute that to human activity.

That’s option 3 from my list.

Michael Hiltzik, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, responds to this post: How should journalists treat candidates who deny climate change? His idea:

Educate the readers about the reason for climate change denial, especially its absorption into the Republican mainstream. The driving force, you see, is money.

Climate change denial, at its core, is an economic position, not scientific. Reporters who take a basic “follow the money” approach soon discover that their path leads them to fossil fuel interests.

I have had to do this only three, four times in 12 years of blogging. I closed the comments at this post.

Re-litigating the science that has led to the conclusion that climate change is happening and human activity is the primary cause, hand-to-hand combat over any kind of study cited, shouting “just politics” at evidence no matter how dry or technical it is— this is a pointless exercise at a press criticism blog. I am not allowing my site to become a forum for the denialism I am writing about.

Ars Technica explains how it moderates climate change comments threads. Excerpt:

Starting a discussion by throwing out phrases like “the whole thing is a giant fraud” is a quick way to get a moderator’s warning. Even if you’re not aware of the history of our understanding of the greenhouse effect (there’s over a century of it) or the decades’ worth of work that has built our modern understanding of the climate, it should be clear that diverse governments, private organizations, companies, and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change and take it seriously.

I have tried to develop my own term for denialism: “verification in reverse.”

Verification is taking something that might be true, and trying to nail it down with facts. In reverse verification you take something that’s been nailed down and try to introduce doubt about it. “Was Obama born in the United States?” is the clearest example. The phenomenon of “verification in reverse” poses a special problem for journalists. On the one hand, they are supposed to report what people are saying. They are supposed to bring us the news of controversies, protests, disagreements. “Conflict makes news,” and all that. On the other hand, verification is their business. If they cannot support that, they cannot support themselves or their users. They are socially useless, in fact, if they cannot stand up for verification.

Aaron Huertas, science communication officer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has suggestions. “Journalists have their work cut out for them when they interview politicians who reject mainstream climate science. Can they do more to move our political dialogue past scientifically inaccurate talking points? I think so…” He names Jake Tapper of CNN for the effectiveness of some of the stratagems.

George Schultz in a March 13, 2015 op-ed: “I conclude that the globe is warming and that carbon dioxide has something to do with that fact. Those who say otherwise will wind up being mugged by reality.” Schultz was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan.

Slate reports that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has staked out a leadership position:

On Monday, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Graham lambasted his fellow Republicans for their lack of progress on climate change, saying some “soul-searching” was needed within the party on this critical issue. “When it comes to climate change being real, people of my party are all over the board,” he said.

To my four ways to go listed above I can now add two more:

5. Deep dive: Re-report the statements the candidate has made about climate change. Here you go back, as Chris Mooney did, and re-trace the candidate’s steps. Dig into the sources of data, the experts relied upon, the people quoted. Does that study really say what the candidate says it says? Does that person agree with the use made of his or her work?

6. Highlight the conflicts internal to the party. As the op ed by former Secretary of State George Schultz demonstrates, climate change denial is actually a fissure within the Republican coalition, a point of internal conflict. Reporters have a lot of experience with putting a sharp point on differences among speakers who are otherwise on the “same side.” They could do that here, and ask about those differences when they have the chance.

Mar.
16

Full stack credibility

There are benefits to operating a news site that not only publishes journalism you can trust, but extends trust production all the way through the start-up “stack.”

Last week Jim Brady, founder and funder of the Philadelphia mobile-first news start-up, Billy Penn, published a progress report 18 weeks after launch. “Our philosophy has been simple,” Brady wrote. “Think of the user first, and then worry about everything else.” To illustrate he included this chart: bradychart
Brady’s point in releasing a column of zeroes was to show that Billy Penn’s growth curve was modest but real. It had not been goosed by page view gimmicks, like dividing up a single article into multiple screens just to force some extra clicks.

There’s a bigger idea there, which I would call full stack credibility. Brady obviously believes there are benefits to operating a news site that not only publishes journalism you can trust, but extends trust production all the way through the start-up “stack.” Thus: monthly traffic figures you can trust. Or the kind of aggregation you can trust. (Dave Winer once captured it with his phrase, “People come back to sites that send them away.”)

Brady writes:

That’s not to say we’ll never do a relevant slideshow. But we won’t do them just for page views, since slideshows are often relatively valueless to a local advertiser. And we won’t paginate, because — let’s be honest — that’s never done for the reader. We won’t rewrite someone else’s story in order to hijack page views. The site that produces the original work deserves the traffic. Plus, every minute the Billy Penn staff spends “aggregating” someone else’s story is a minute we’re not producing our own.

That word “deserves” suggests a kind of moral philosophy at work, a theory of online justice. “Thou shall strive for a just distribution of traffic.” Link unto others as you would have them link unto you. You may have no other gods before the users. But if it were just about moralizing, full stack credibility would not be of much interest. Brady thinks there are business benefits:

We want to earn every page view, and focus on increasing that number by relentlessly serving our users. By doing that, we think we’ll create a better environment for advertisers and marketers, since they’ll have a better sense of our audience and more confidence their ads will be seen by the right consumer. In a sense, we’re pursuing a strategy that treasures “time well spent” over any other metric.

Not time spent, but well spent. It’s that little difference I am pointing to.

Definition: When you try to make not just the journalism, but every layer of the operation trust-worthy — not because you’re saints in start-up clothes but because you believe an editorial business operates better that way — that’s full stack credibility.

Now, almost 20 years of writing on the internet has taught me the necessity of adding something here: I’m not claiming there is anything “new” in this philosophy, or that it is original to Jim Brady or Billy Penn. I’m not saying Brady and Co. always live up to it, or that they can’t be caught in a contradiction. I’m sure they can be. I’m sure they will be. I’m not saying no one has written about this before, or given other, fitter names to it.

Look: in some ways it’s the oldest (and sappiest) chapter in the business evangelism book: serve customers, make a good product, practice thrift, show integrity in all your dealings… and you will prosper. If only it were so simple, right?

Credibility in editorial work is harder than it looks. That’s what I am saying. It’s not enough to produce stories that hold up to scrutiny. It’s not enough to nail the facts, or justify the headline. Those are vital. But there are other factors involved.

In a recent post at Nieman Lab, Celeste LeCompte, previously managing editor and director of product for Gigaom Research, notes what many others have noted about the sudden demise of that site: the editorial staff was blindsided.

Gigaom, like most private media companies, didn’t share much detail about its finances with employees. Editorial teams, in particular, are often left out of any open discussions on such matters. Few journalists that I’ve met know much about the state of their company’s finances, except maybe the freelance and travel budgets — and that’s about as far as the knowledge runs. This lack of financial transparency is pervasive throughout the industry — and it’s a problem that media companies would be wise to fix.

LeCompte doesn’t leave it at that. She tells the story of a small media company she worked for that adopted open-book accounting for its staff.

It was a revelation. Sure, as a business journalist, I was used to asking companies about their numbers, looking at earnings statements and SEC filings every now and then. But companies are usually doing whatever they can to put their best foot forward, even in their published numbers. A front-row seat on the finances of my own employer was a different matter entirely.

The transparency made me both a better reporter and a better employee. I could see more clearly the real costs of running the business: how the cashflow cycles worked, how the different business units were related, and what was working — and what wasn’t — for our own products. That enabled me to ask better questions about why decisions were made — and sometimes to understand why big changes needed to happen, even if I didn’t like them.

Full stack credibility says that what you tell your employees about the state of the business also has to be credible. That’s no homily. “Sometimes the most difficult challenges you have in the business are interdisciplinary ones,” LeCompte’s ex-boss told her. (He’s still sharing the finances with his staff.) “You need people in different parts of the business to work on it.” They can’t do that if they are kept in the dark, as Gigaom’s writers and editors were.

Writing about the same events, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land described a class of successful niche publications that have credible business models.

Over at The Information, Jessica Lessin’s kick-ass crew has been producing some of the most outstanding tech coverage you’ve ever seen. That’s not for a mass audience, since most of the masses aren’t going to shell-out $400 per year for it. But it doesn’t matter to Jessica, because as long as she’s got the audience she needs paying the bills and producing profits for her company to do great journalism, she’s good.

That’s part of full stack credibility too. The business makes transparent sense. Where the journalism plugs into the model is clear. The case for quality is compelling. The scale is livable and smart. In the whole contraption one can trust.

Our reporting is truthful but our page view metrics lie: that does not compute. (Many sites have this problem.) We want transparency from the companies we cover but we leave our employees in the dark: sign of a weak business. (Gigaom showed us that.) OriginalPancakes (1)You can rely on us for hard information but we make it hard to reach us if you have information: not credible. (Reuters has this problem.) We’re fast to post but slow to correct: no good no matter who you are.

I know what you’re thinking: where is the limit? Must there be total transparency about everything or nothing works? Do you have to give away all your secrets, let employees know about every setback suffered or dime spent? Must you really be holier than your industry’s thou? This is not what I’m saying, though I realize I am risking that read. I’m just not a good enough writer to avoid it!

Last try: It’s not “are you credible?” It’s: how many layers are you credible at? Full stack credibility is a philosophy that says: we may need all of them for any of them to work well. Sure, it’s a demanding standard, but that doesn’t mean it’s impractical. It may be the best way to build a news company that lasts.

Mar.
14

NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return

“Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it…”

Brian Stelter of CNN recently reported that Lester Holt, filling in as anchor of NBC Nightly News, was doing well in the ratings, so well that it would be hard for NBC to hand the job back to Brian Williams when he returns from his six-month suspension for making stuff up. According to Stelter’s sources, there is a lot of support for Holt among the rank and file at NBC News.

“This makes it impossible for them not to give it to Lester, if this continues,” one of them said.

I don’t make predictions and I have no sources inside NBC News telling me what is likely to happen, but looking at the whole episode (which I have written about before) there is no plausible way NBC News can restore Brian Williams to the job of anchoring the nightly news and serving as “face of the brand.” I’m not saying it won’t happen, only that NBC would be insane to do it.

Three reasons. Put them together, and I see no way Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal, can bring Williams back. By all accounts it will be Burke’s call. Here is what he has to get over:

1. Williams didn’t care if what he was saying about his experiences in Iraq was true. I think that’s the right way to put it. He did not have sufficient regard for truthtelling as the sacred duty of news people everywhere. He chose “makes a good story” (and “look at me, mom!”) over “what actually happened.” He did this not once but many times. For a journalist leading a network news division that by itself is a huge problem.

2. Williams dishonored the courage and sacrifice of NBC war correspondents. This violates another sacred duty in big league journalism. And that is to recognize that those who routinely place their lives on the line by basing themselves in conflict zones — reporters, producers, photographers, fixers — are in a different moral category from those who parachute in when there’s a big story, or those who, say, sacrifice their social lives by working long hours.Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.25.48 AM By imagining himself in more danger than he really was, Williams demonstrated that he did not have sufficient regard for these differences. That too is a huge factor weighing against him, especially within the peer culture at NBC, which he is supposed to lead and inspire.

Still, it’s at least conceivable that these two difficulties, serious though they are, could be surmounted with the right kind of apology and public reflection by Williams upon his return. He could show that he knows how badly he screwed up and try to restore himself to good standing through a searching self-examination, conducted in public through a speech, interview or broadcast report. There wasn’t any sign of that when the story broke (his initial apology was disastrous) but we haven’t heard from Williams since the gravity of the situation sunk in, so we don’t know how far reaching his self-reflections are.

But I see no way of surmounting…

3.) Williams doesn’t believe that anchoring the news is a big enough job for him. It’s been reported, it’s been chuckled about, but I don’t think we appreciate how damning this paragraph is. From Gabriel Sherman’s March 8 story in New York Magazine:

Comedy would have been a path out of [Tom] Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested.

Amazing. Twice Brian Williams tried to escape from the anchor’s job to a position more attractive to him— and, in his mind, more befitting his talents. Leaving aside his delusions about what it takes to succeed at comedy night after night, this attempt to defect from the state of news to the entertainment sphere is disqualifying on its face. Television news is full of ambitious people. The most ambitious want to be on camera. The most ambitious of those want to be anchors or show hosts. And the most ambitious of those want to anchor the nightly news for 7-10 million people per night plus $5 to $10 million a year.

In many more ways than one, the job Williams had is the top job in network news, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted a different job, at the summit of stand-up comedy, making and breaking the careers of all the strivers below while getting big laughs himself as the slick pro behind the fake desk. Like Letterman, like Leno, like Jon Stewart, his Jersey pal.

Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that in news the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it. He would rather be doing something else. Now you have to decide whether to bring him back from suspension. You have this report on your desk that documents how he made up stuff about himself, deeply embarrassing your network. And he insulted the courage of your most heroic employees by stealing some of it for personal aggrandizement. The rank and file is cheering for his replacement. Plus, he doesn’t want you. He wants late night comedy more.

Is that even a hard call?

Mar.
2

Bill O’Reilly is a performance artist, and his genre is “resentment news.”

Sunday I appeared on CNN, trying, along with ‘Reliable Sources’ host Brian Stelter, to describe what’s different about Fox News— and to explain why Bill O’Reilly isn’t in trouble with his bosses for making stuff up. These are my notes.

First, the clip:

And here are my notes, attempting to explicate what I said on CNN.

1. Fox News Channel is a niche product. A very successful niche product: news for people who don’t trust the rest of the news media. (Total audience for the three network evening newscasts: about 25-27 million. O’Reilly on his best night: 3.3 million.) If the rest of the news media is raising questions about Bill O’Reilly’s veracity, this is not only not a problem for Fox. It’s the sort of event that turns the gears of the machine. “Trust us: they’re not to be trusted.”

2. I hear this a lot from people on social media: ‘O’Reilly is an entertainer, not a journalist!’ I know what they mean. They’re not wrong. But I think it is more correct to say that O’Reilly is a performance artist. The medium is television. The genre is “resentment news.” I first wrote about it in 2003:

There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre — resentment news — demands.

In 1989, Bill O’Reilly quit ABC and became host of Inside Edition, a syndicated news-derived program sold to local stations. In the Establishment’s view, this is like moving to the trailer park. Thus, it took an outsider — in fact, an outcast — to make the imaginative leap from cool to hot in evening news. Not that there weren’t models. One obvious reference point for O’Reilly’s success is Sidney Lumet’s Network, the movie classic, (1976) that projected so brilliantly what angry populism would look like if it one day seized hold of TV news.

3. Nick Lemann wrote this about O’Reilly in The New Yorker in 2006: “Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.” That is true. Lemann goes on:

Part of the pleasure of “The O’Reilly Factor” is knowing that O’Reilly is a guy with a temper, and he might lose it. He reddens, sits up, and presses the guest, who may begin to stammer helplessly (in which case O’Reilly usually pulls back), or to backpedal and make excuses… (in which case O’Reilly keeps boring in), or to insult O’Reilly (in which case O’Reilly may begin yelling—the big payoff). He’s the beat cop for the American neighborhood, who may have been a little excessive at times, may occasionally have run afoul of Internal Affairs, but law-abiding folks trust him because they know he’s on their side. His liberal guests are like suspects he’s pulled over: in the end, he’s probably just going to frisk them and let them go with a genial warning, but if they try anything, well, he carries a nightstick for a reason.

4. In resentment news there are different stories every day, but the narrative never changes. A corrupt elite is trying to put one over on the decent, hard-working people of this country, and to destroy the simple virtues that made America great. There are many symbols of that — the news cycle provides them — but only one thing is ever symbolized.

5. The urtext for all analyses of The O’Reilly Factor is Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes… It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content… The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

6. Roger Ailes made a fateful decision when he created Fox News in 1996. He could have marketed it as the conservative alternative in news, or news that respects traditional values. That would still call out the market segment Fox is made for, and draw a contrast with the establishment media. It would have the additional advantage of being true— more or less. But as everyone knows Ailes did not do that. Instead: Fair and balanced. We report, you decide. As O’Reilly puts it: a no-spin zone. This guaranteed that a state of war with the so-called liberal media would always prevail at Fox because the obvious differences between the news agenda at Fox and the news agenda at NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and NPR could not be explained as our spin vs. their spin. It had to be the heroic truthtellers at Fox vs. the forces of darkness at the other networks.

7. Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

8. Finally, as I said on Twitter:

Feb.
8

The “conflation” that Brian Williams confessed to began in 2003

Other NBC people were involved from the beginning.

In his weekly column David Carr of the New York Times wrote this about NBC’s Brian Williams troubled tale of getting shot at in a helicopter over Iraq in 2003.

It’s useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened — although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then — and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him. All those 1 percent enhancements add up and can leave the teller a long way from the truth.

It’s true that over time Brian Williams moved himself closer to the center of the story so that it “became something that happened to him.” But this motion — the one percent enhancements — began earlier than most of the reporting has so far said. (For example, today on his CNN program Brian Stelter said that Williams began to embellish the story in 2007.)

Today, a PressThink reader sent me this link. It’s from a book NBC published in 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom: the Insider story. On p. 71 we find a photo of Brian Williams with some soldiers. The caption reads:

With NBC anchor Brian Williams, producer Justin Balding, and analyst General Wayne Balding, retired, aboard, Army Chinook helicopters are forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen. For two nights, the NBC crew and their Army unit waited out the fierce sandstorm in the desert.

That says: With Williams and crew aboard, Chinook helicopters were forced to land after being attacked from the ground. But what we know now from the pilots involved is different: The Chinook helicopters with Williams and crew aboard were forced to land after getting caught in a sandstorm. (See these interviews with the pilots by CNN’s Stelter.) So right there the “moving to the middle” that Carr wrote about began: in September of 2003.

On the page before that (p. 70) the text says:

Producer Justin Balding recalls, “One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck. As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly ripped off the tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”

This describes as one mission what we now know was two: one 15 to 30 minutes behind the other, according to the pilots.

I would not call these massive discrepancies, or startling discoveries. But they do bear on a point I made in my last post. The involvement of other NBC personnel in misdescribing what went on that day is part of what makes this episode so disturbing.

Now add to that a small detail that Ed Morrissey of Hot Air and Jake Tapper of CNN picked up on. The original report that aired on NBC in 2003 edits in audio from another mission in a way that almost makes it sound like the flight that carried Williams came under fire. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten explains:

I spoke with the flight engineer on Williams’ Chinook, Joseph Miller, and what he told me is that Williams and the NBC crew, actually, they’d been given a headset and they had taken a microphone, and they had put it in the earpiece of the headset so that they could pick up the radio communications between the company that they were in and another company of Chinooks that was flying a separate mission in the opposite direction. So what you’re hearing is that radio chatter from that other company that was coming under fire.

To hear the audio jump to 3:50 in this clip from Tapper’s show:

Again: this is not earth-shattering evidence of deception. I am trying not to make too much of it. What it shows, I think, is that the “conflation” that Brian Williams described in his apology last week began with the first report in 2003, and built from there. Other NBC people were involved from the beginning. The question is why.

Feb.
6

Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for?

Why wasn’t Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who could help him correct his faulty account? That’s what a leader of a news division would do— I mean, if he is really a leader.

Part One: Feb. 6, 2015

I figured out what’s bothering me about the story that has engulfed NBC News, “after the public symbol of the network, anchor Brian Williams, faced a torrent of derision and criticism for telling a story about his wartime reporting that has proved to be untrue.” (Washington Post.) I don’t know that he deliberately lied to puff himself up and receive “stolen valor.” Nor do I know that ordinary “could happen to anyone” memory failure accounts for it. Both interpretations are popular online. I’m not persuaded of either one, but I can’t disprove them.

I do know this: since it became clear that Williams had created big problems for himself and his network by telling a false story, he has not led. Brian_Williams_by_David_ShankboneAnd that is the job of an anchorman, if the anchorman really is what he is supposed to be— not just a news reader, celebrity and Jon Stewart guest but a kind of super-journalist, able to host the nightly news (a job in itself), act as managing editor of the broadcast (a job in itself), report stories from the field, preside over special events like election night and serve as the embodiment of the news division’s mystical compact with the viewing public, the person in whom trust is lodged and then expressed to the rest of the reporting and producing corps. That’s the job: face of the brand, human figure in a whole architecture of trust. Williams reveled in it, and spoke many times of what an awesome responsibility it was for a kid from Jersey.

And then he created an anchorman crisis. “The trustworthiness of one of America’s best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, [and] the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.” (New York York Times. Video recap here.)

Since the news broke on February 4 that Williams had been forced to admit that parts of his story were untrue, other journalists have been tracking down participants — people who were there — to ask what they recall of those events. Stars and Stripes, CNN, the New York Times, Page Six have all been involved in re-reporting the story.

But where is NBC News? For that matter: why isn’t Brian Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who can help him correct his faulty account? Why isn’t he putting his prestige and instant name recognition to work in getting to the bottom of what actually happened? Sure, it might be humbling. And there might be credibility problems since he would be investigating himself, in a way. But going right at those problems — and emerging on the other side with something that the audience, his colleagues and other journalists can trust — is exactly what’s called for in this situation.

I mean, that’s what a leader of a news division would do— if he’s really a leader, and not a figurehead, air head, talking head or swollen head. A leader of a network news division that is still dependent, for better or worse, on the archaic anchorman system would recognize that the architecture of trust that places the lead anchor in both the glamour and the “stress” positions — head of state and prime minister, as it were — can crumble instantly if the anchorman himself cannot be trusted in telling the story of his own experience. That affects not only Williams but everyone who works for NBC News.

Think about it: The Face of the Brand lets other news organizations re-report his faulty stories? Journalistically speaking, how does that work? It doesn’t. Too late now, though. The apology Williams gave has been called into grave question. Other newsrooms have led the charge on the story. NBC has an internal investigation underway to figure out how bad the situation is. And Politico is reporting: “Brian Williams is in serious trouble.”

The trouble has been caused not only by his fictionalizing of a helicopter ride 12 years ago, but by a failure actually to be what the anchorman position calls for. Not a great talk show guest, but a great leader.

Part Two: February 7, 2015.

Last night I went back and re-watched the clips where Brian Williams tells his story. I also re-read a lot of the coverage. It’s good that NBC is investigating because some things are pretty disturbing when you start thinking them through.

One has been mentioned in the comments here and by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. Brian Williams didn’t fly in that helicopter by himself. He had an NBC crew with him. The chances that crew members would misremember the flight the same way Williams did seem pretty slim. They’re journalists too. But we haven’t heard from them. Why? Wemple:

A production crew accompanied Williams on the helicopter outing. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked NBC News who and how many people were on that crew. But where have they been as Williams has gone about misremembering the episode in media appearances in recent years? Upon the 10th anniversary of the incident, the anchor visited David Letterman and couldn’t have been more unequivocal about having ridden in the ‘copter under attack: “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47,” Williams told the “Late Show” host.

Also in March 2013, Williams told Alec Baldwin in an interview on WNYC’s “Here’s The Thing.” Speaking of his tendency to say “I’ve got this” in sticky situations, he said, “And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe,” Williams said.

Again: Where were Williams’s crew members, who surely knew that Williams had either “conflated” his Chinook with another Chinook — his explanation — or was using the passage of time to embellish his own exploits — another explanation. And what of other NBC News employees who worked on the story? Why did they remain silent on these matters? Are they still with NBC News?

That’s a big deal. Potentially, you have people in NBC News silencing themselves while Bigfoot tells tall tales. Or worse: they make their discomfort known and no one does anything because Bigfoot is too big to be challenged. Even worse: Williams is at some point warned to cut the crap and he doesn’t. That’s a corporate crisis. (See this post from Hot Air about the 2003 report.)

But there’s something else. When you watch these clips there’s a troubling ambiguity to them now. One frame around them is: Williams pays tribute to the troops who fought the war and protected him in the desert. He does a lot to make that message explicit, and this part of the performance requires expressions of humility. I’m no solider, I’m no war correspondent, I had no business being there, I’m so grateful for these brave men and women.

When you watch it now, though, you may wonder: Why does this story keep coming up? How is it getting in front of audiences repeatedly over the years?

Let’s take the Lettermen appearance in 2013. Did the show’s producers say, “Hey, it’s the tenth anniversary of Brian almost getting shot out of the sky in the helicopter, let’s have him on…”? Seems unlikely. Letterman says in the clip he either forgot or never knew about the episode. More likely: Williams wanted to talk about it, so they programmed it in. That’s not so modest.

Why is Madison Square Garden halting a hockey game and directing the attention of fans to Brian Williams and his military buddy being “reunited?” Because they knew about this story and thought it would be nice to revisit it 12 years later? Or because NBC promotion people alerted them and asked for the story to be re-told over the PA system?

You see, it’s not just that Williams misremembered or embellished the story, or, as some believe, deliberately lied. He seems to have looked for opportunities to re-tell it, and involved NBC personnel in that quest, along with other institutions: The Late Show on CBS, Madison Square Garden.

To the people who were enlisted in them, these maneuvers didn’t seem self-glorifying because of the presence of the soldiers in the “Brian Williams gets shot at” story— the real heroes, as he is careful to say. But when you learn that he wasn’t shot at, that his pilot says he was in a different helicopter formation that took no fire, the minimizing tactics don’t sound modest anymore. They sound like tricks. Consider this part of the transcript from Alec Baldwin’s radio show:

And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe…

The words say: Williams had no business being there. He was doing something stupid. Behaving recklessly, perhaps. Those silly civilians with their clueless antics in a war zone! But Williams cannot mean that. In reality, he was accompanying U.S. Army General Wayne A. Downing as a big shot correspondent, hardly a prank or stunt. Williams and Baldwin are clowning. The words don’t mean what they say. They are there to deliver the payload: with rounds coming into the airframe…

Whatever that is, it’s not misremembering. It’s more active than that. So is getting David Letterman to ask him about an episode from ten years ago. And getting Madison Square garden to honor one of the soldiers who protected him in the desert, which created footage that could be packaged into a story for NBC Nightly News, where Williams is managing editor.

You can see why the soldiers who were there got fed up with this and took to Facebook. It’s more than misremembering or embellishing. It’s looking for opportunities to tell the story and, in the telling of it, switching the focus to the military while an accidental payload — Brian Williams under fire in Iraq — is dropped. “You’re a true journalistic war hero, and I’m just a dumb ass,” Letterman says as they clown about it before one of the commercial breaks. Earlier in the show, Williams had protested when Letterman expressed admiration for his courage under fire, re-directing attention to the brave volunteers in the U.S. army. By the second time, he says nothing. He just accepts hero status. In good fun.

If people from NBC were enlisted in the mounting of these fictions, if they had doubts but swallowed them, if they protested but were not heard — all questions for the investigation — then Brian Williams may not be the only one in peril. Watch:

See my new post on this: The “conflation” that Brian Williams confessed to began in 2003.

Photo credit: David Shankbone.