Yesterday the buzz in newsland was all about Nate Silver’s decision to move his FiveThirtyEight.com franchise from the New York Times to ESPN. (Good round-up here.) A subplot was provided by public editor Margaret Sullivan. She described Silver as an awkward fit for the Times newsroom and an object of resentment among some political reporters.
This led to something I had never seen before. Damien Cave, a Times correspondent in Mexico City, appealed on Twitter to his unknown Times colleagues on the political beat who had resented Silver. Cave wanted them to come out publicly and explain themselves. “It’s a debate worth having,” he said. (Didn’t happen.) After Jack Shafer of Reuters wrote that Silver “may be the only Times employee who gave the paper more than the paper ever gave to him,” Binyamin Appelbaum, a reporter in the Times Washington bureau, sent this acid reply.
Shadid, one of the greatest foreign correspondents in Times history, gave his life while covering the civil war in Syria.
Let’s step back from the sniping to look at the rise of the personal franchise site, which Silver said was a big factor in his decision. The category includes:
* Dealbook, built around Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times. It covers Wall Street dealmaking.
* Wonkblog, built around Ezra Klein, Washington Post. Politics and public policy.
* Fivethirtyeight.com, to be built around Nate Silver, ESPN. Data-driven coverage of sports, politics, business, weather, culture.
* Grantland, built around Bill Simmons, ESPN. Writerly coverage of sports and popular culture.
* MMQB, which launched yesterday around Peter King, Sports Illustrated. NFL football.
* AllThingsD, built around Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher, Dow Jones. Technology news.
Key features of the personal franchise site:
* Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence. (Six of the seven I named are male.)
* Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.
* Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states. (See Shafer on this.)
* Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive. (It’s all Things Digital, not all things business.)
* Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.
* Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.
* Additional journalists are hired as the franchise succeeds and the founder gets to hire them.
Why are we seeing the growth of this state-within-a-state model?
1. Multiple shifts in power in the media business, which I described here, have converged around this model. One sign of that power shift: Many argued for it, but only Andrew Sorkin was able to insist that Dealbook stand outside the Times pay meter system and remain free.
2. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (an independent personal franchise site) said: “This is in many ways how major media has domesticated blogging.” In other words: “It takes some of the voice, idiosyncrasy and focus of blogging and scales it with the resources and audience numbers independents really cannot muster.”
3. Brands still mean something as a guarantor of quality and huge audiences attach to them, but they are weak on voice, which creates loyalty. Loyalty moves across platforms as platforms shift. The state-within-a-state model solves for that, as Marshall suggested.
4. Digital metrics allow media companies to measure the worth of the individual journalist in a way that was not possible before. That makes it possible to rationalize the investment in a personal franchise site. And of course the star journalist can look at those numbers too and use them as leverage.
5. As Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, Om Malik and others have shown, it’s possible to do the same thing as an independent, but fewer journalists have the determination and ingenuity to run their own business. Also: Big Media has the lawyers and that’s got to be a huge relief.
6. I think news executives are somewhat intimidated by the enormity of the culture shift required within legacy organizations. Instead of trying to renovate the ideology of professional newswork, a huge task that invites grandstanding, it’s easier for the editors of the Washington Post to let Ezra Klein do his (already shifted) thing and then add people to that franchise. They avoid a holy war over news vs. opinion while quietly letting the distinction corrode. Note that Klein is one of the Post’s most important political journalists but within the newsroom he is officially classified as a opinion columnist for the business section. This is a recognition that the formal structure makes no sense. The personal franchise site allows for innovation without toppling certain fictions that editors and some reporters hold dear.
Photo of Nate Silver by JD Lasica (Creative Commons.)
As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense. Let someone else receive the “ratings, you idiot” replies on Twitter. I’m done. I’m pretty sure you don’t care about this announcement, either. Which nicely illustrates why I’m done.
The immediate cause of action is an amusing but also telling column by Jack Shafer of Reuters: In praise of tabloid TV, which explains why critics of CNN are absurd creatures. If you want coverage of Egypt instead of the Zimmerman trial there’s plenty of places to find it and besides audiences have always loved murder trials, so who are you to tell them they shouldn’t?
Shafer uses something I wrote as his “ha ha, how clueless can you get?” text: this little 99-word Tumblr post. That was kind of annoying because as far as I can tell Shafer agrees with everything I wrote. CNN is making its priorities clear when it sticks with the Zimmerman trial while world events are breaking. Murder trials are like a TV series. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new president, does want “everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.” Shafer writes:
In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries.
Which is a good line. The fact that no one in journalism bats an eye when Shafer equates CNN with “tabloid TV” tells us why I am out of the game. Some other reasons:
2. CNN makes $600 million a year for Time Warner, but if you challenge one of their ratings-driven decisions the main thing you hear back is: hey, they have a huge business problem on their hands. What can you say to that?
3. The other thing I hear back ad nauseum is: “Jay, watch CNN International, so much better.” Uh… okay. I don’t have CNN International in my cable package, but I do know how to change the channel. So thanks!
4. Even where you might expect to find resistance to what CNN has become – among journalists – you do not. Here’s Dylan Byers, media columnist for Politico:
The truth is, CNN’s programming decisions aren’t a reflection of CNN so much as a reflection of the American people, more of whom care about a domestic court trial than about the historic events taking place overseas. Right now, CNN International is broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage from Egypt. The fact that CNN’s domestic channel isn’t should tell you what executives there think about the American people’s interests. And sure, CNN could take the lead and cover what they think the American people should care about, but that’s not necessarily a great business strategy.
Frame check: “Ratings, so shut up” vs. “eat your spinach,” with a side order of “Americans don’t care.” None of this describes what I was trying to accomplish by criticizing CNN, but that’s over now. I’m retired.
5. What I was trying to accomplish by criticizing CNN has been overridden by Jeff Zucker. Here’s what I mean. CNN’s problems were well stated a few years ago by a competitor, Phil Griffin, head of MSNBC, who asked: “What do they stand for?” That is the million dollar question. The answer CNN people had always given was pretty simple: breaking news! When big events happen the world turns to CNN. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. At CNN, they used to say, “the news is the star.” The problem with this answer eventually became well known. What causes people to tune in when there is no big breaking news? Fox and MSNBC have their ways of creating loyalists, what does CNN have? Wolf Blitzer? Erin Burnett?
I admit this is a hard problem. I didn’t have an answer, either, but as a critic I tried to make a few suggestions that would at least get the discussion out of the left/right/center rut. The most promising direction, I thought and still think, was latent in a catch phrase that Anderson Cooper uses: keeping ’em honest. CNN could have tried to become the fact-checking network, the “no bull” channel, the place that did away with both “he said, she said” and news for party loyalists, where repeating the talking points got you booted from the rolodex and performances like this became the norm. There were even some hints that network execs were moving in that direction. Of course the challenge would be to make it interesting television but on that score I thought “no bull” a long way from “eat your spinach.”
Zucker has ended that by giving his own answer to Phil Griffin’s question: what do they stand for? The same thing Entertainment Tonight stands for! Television that occupies your attention, not for a purpose but merely for a while. Another answer might be “drama without dramatists,” meaning: drama where the plots and characters are provided by the people unlucky enough to be caught up in tabloid-ish or flashpoint events. Trials are ideal for that, but so is the poop ship. Criticism of these tactics actually tells Zucker that he is on the right track. Now the ratings are up relative to his competitors, and nothing ends the conversation like an uptick in the numbers. Unless it’s bringing back Crossfire, which is like saying, CNN: brain dead and proud of it.
6. David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, once wrote: “By marketing itself as the most trusted name in news, CNN is and should be held to a higher standard.” I thought that way too. But now I realize that not enough people join in Carr’s belief, inside or outside CNN. And without it there’s no traction.
So I’m saying farewell. I used to say: I criticize because I care. But I no longer do. I’m turning this beat over to James Poniewozik, Time magazine’s gifted television writer. CNN is TV, popular enough to remain on the air. That’s pretty much all you can say about it now. That and: ratings, so shut up.
I rarely criticize CNN in public, partly out of loyalty, but also to avoid hypocrisy. No one spends 20 years in cable news and comes away entirely clean. In this case, however, I’m tempted to agree with Jay Rosen, who believes it’s time to give up on CNN.
His analysis of the Zimmerman coverage is acute. Read it.
The worst kind of tabloidism is boring tabloidism, which was what CNN had devolved into by Tuesday night. Its headlines were sensational (“SELF DEFENSE OR MURDER?”), but its content was mostly not. So it is not the fanatical coverage of the Zimmerman trial or the relegation of Tahrir Square to a tiny box in the corner of the screen that feels most symptomatic of the network’s general decline. It’s the moments when even CNN’s nightly news programs, the one opportunity for some analytical distance, participate in the trial’s vacuity instead of stepping back to interrogate it.
The good ship CNN is riding a little higher on the waves. After months of plummeting ratings and a high-profile game of C-suite musical chairs, the original cable news network is catching up to its competitors in the core demo and showing significant year-over-year gains. And while a fall resurrection of Crossfire and the June launch of the morning show New Day are drawing ink, president Jeff Zucker is making other, more subtle changes, too.
For one thing, CNN’s anchors are appearing on each other’s shows…
When the encouraging news (other than the ratings) is that CNN anchors are appearing on each other’s shows, it’s time for a press critic to direct his gaze elsewhere, don’t you agree?
Zimmerman will pass. There will be a verdict and the cable channels will move on. It is where CNN moves on to that we need to watch. And that’s why I think that thowing in the towel as Rosen has apparently done is a tad premature. Maybe CNN is indeed hopeless and innoculated against meaningful criticism. Even if it was, I would hope that people would criticize it nonetheless. Because if there is no criticism from a source that counts (which automatically excludes Jon Stewart and his “I’m just a comedian” crutch he trots out all too often) then how can the network’s coverage be measured if there is no counter argument to contrast it to?
If CNN had an ombudsman, the situation might be different. There would at least be an office to which one could appeal. Now we understand why a company making $600 million a year cannot afford that position, although strangely NPR has one and they ran at a deficit last year.
Short Form Blog, a major force on Tumblr, replies to the question, “Isn’t it possible that the backlash against CNN’s coverage of the George Zimmerman case is in and of itself racially motivated?”
CNN and the Problem With the ‘Egypt or Trayvon’ Question. At Foreign Policy magazine’s site, Joshua Keating asks: “Isn’t it the network’s job to tell viewers why they have to pay attention to a story and to make it interesting to them?” That job description is exactly what’s being abandoned at CNN, Josh.
Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.
Meaning: there’s what Snowden himself revealed by releasing secrets and talking to the press. But beyond this, there is what he set in motion by taking that action. Congress and other governments begin talking in public about things they had previously kept hidden. Companies have to explain some of their dealings with the state. Journalists who were not a party to the transaction with Snowden start digging and adding background. Debates spring to life that had been necessary but missing before the leaks. The result is that we know much more about the surveillance state than we did before. Some of the opacity around it lifts. This is the Snowden effect.
It is good for public knowledge. And public knowledge is supposed to be what a free press and open debate are all about.
Days after President François Hollande sternly told the United States to stop spying on its allies, the newspaper Le Monde disclosed on Thursday that France has its own large program of data collection, which sweeps up nearly all the data transmissions, including telephone calls, e-mails and social media activity, that come in and out of France. (Le Monde.)
So the Snowden effect is international. Canada, for example. Or Brazil.
2. On July 3, Reuters reported on the “long history of close cooperation between technology companies and the intelligence community.”
Former U.S. officials and intelligence sources say the collaboration between the tech industry and spy agencies is both broader and deeper than most people realize, dating back to the formative years of Silicon Valley itself.
A similar story ran in the New York Times on June 19. It told of “the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the [NSA] and the degree to which they are now in the same business.”
3. In a superb story by four reporters on June 15, the Associated Press expanded the frame:
The revelation of Prism this month by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers has touched off the latest round in a decade-long debate over what limits to impose on government eavesdropping, which the Obama administration says is essential to keep the nation safe.
But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.
4. Expanding the frame in a different way, the McClatchy Washington bureau reported on the Obama Administration’s extremely aggressive crackdown on leaks: (June 20)
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide.
“This has gotten scant public attention; let’s remedy that.” So goes the Snowden effect. McClatchy followed up on its original report with more scrutiny of the Insider Threat program on July 9.
5. On June 15 Bloomberg reported that “thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence.”
These programs, whose participants are known as trusted partners, extend far beyond what was revealed by Edward Snowden, a computer technician who did work for the National Security Agency.
6. Two days ago, a report in the New York Times explained how Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall are “trying to force intelligence officials to provide answers for the public record” about matters already familiar to them from secret briefings given to Congress. The key phrase is “answers for the public record.” That is the core of the Snowden effect. (More on this.)
7. On June 25, the National Security Agency had to take down two fact sheets it had posted online after Wyden and Udall complained that they contained misinformation. The documents were themselves an example of the Snowden effect, as Politico reported:
The documents, still available here, were published in the wake of revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs. They sought to highlight the safeguards the NSA uses to make sure American communications aren’t caught up in its surveillance — or if they are, what the NSA does to remove identifying information about U.S. citizens.
In other words, the NSA – often called the most secretive agency in the government – felt it had to explain itself. This is good for public knowledge. Two U.S. Senators then fact checked the NSA, which is even better.
8. Jack Shafer of Reuters predicted the Snowden effect in his June 8 column. “This will now fuel new cycles of reporting, leaks and scoops — and another, and another — as new sources are cultivated and reportorial scraps gathering mold in journalists’ notebooks gain new relevance and help break stories.” He was right.
9. Did you know that the United States Postal Service “computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year?” I did not. The New York Times reported on it July 3rd. As Ethan Zuckerman notes, the Smoking Gun website had the story on June 7 but few saw it. The Snowden effect works like that. It widens the circle of people who know, even if the knowledge had been available before.
10. On the front page of the New York Times, Scott Shane reported on a kind a “parallel Supreme Court,” FISA, making new and consequential law in secret. This brought a discussion that had taken place on legal blogs to a much wider public. The Wall Street Journal followed up the next day with more details on a secret interpretation of the law. And on July 15, Adam Liptak of the Times added more with his Double Secret Surveillance.
A final note: The Snowden effect is far more important than the Snowden saga, meaning: the story of what happens to him as the United States pursues his capture and arrest, plus what comes out about his background and motivations. But I would not call his personal story a “distraction” from the real story. That’s not right. Who he is, what kind of access he had, why he did what he did, and even the arguments about whether he’s a disloyal creep or a profile in courage are inescapably part of the larger story and the public debate it has triggered. (Read Matt Cooper of National Journal on this issue.) You can’t wish for more public attention to the surveillance state and then scoff at one of the means by which people come to the larger story, which is his story. But I repeat what I said: the Snowden effect is ultimately more important than the Snowden saga.
On June 17, President Obama said he wanted a “national conversation” on the NSA’s secret collection of data. Slowly, haltingly, and with great difficulty he is getting just that– because of the Snowden effect.
First use of the term “Snowden effect” that I can find is by Esquire’s Charles Pierce here. Also see his follow-up.
Whether he likes it or not, this is the ‘national conversation’ that the president said he wanted. Edward Snowden, world traveler, international man of luggage, made it impossible to avoid.
July 9: The Snowden effect is well captured in the public hearings before the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The hearings are one of Obama’s responses to the sense of public alarm created by Snowden’s original revelations. They are starting to produce:
A former federal judge who granted government surveillance requests has broken ranks to criticise the system of secret courts as unfit for purpose in the wake of recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
July 10: Scott Shane of the New York Times reports directly on the Snowden effect:
It is still unclear whether Mr. Snowden, the 30-year-old former N.S.A. contractor now holed up at a Moscow airport, will escape punishment. But he has succeeded in opening the government spying’s trade-offs between civil liberties and security to the broadest and best-informed public debate in many years, even as intelligence officials are horrified at the exposure of their methods and targets.
Underneath all this is a troubling question: can there even be an informed public and thus “consent of the governed” for the national security state? Or have we in effect done away with those concepts? This essay by Will Wilkinson in the Economist is the best thing I have read on that subject:
You see, democracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security, and it is simply too dangerous to leave the question of this balance to the democratic public. Open deliberation over the appropriate balance would require saying something concrete about threats to public safety, and also about the means by which those threats might be checked. But revealing such information would only empower America’s enemies and endanger American lives. Therefore, this is a discussion Americans can’t afford to have.
Yahoo is fighting for the right to reveal its struggle with the NSA over demands that the company said it resisted. The court documents are currently secret.
In a rare legal move, Yahoo is asking a secretive U.S. surveillance court to let the public see its arguments in a 2008 case that played an important role in persuading tech companies to cooperate with a controversial government data-gathering effort.
“Let the public see its arguments.” That’s the Snowden effect. So is this: Microsoft asks the Attorney General for permission “to share publicly more complete information about how we handle national security requests for customer information.”
July 16: Update on Yahoo’s fight to force “public disclosure of the company’s attempts to distance itself from the NSA’s Prism program.”
Top Obama administration officials, appearing before a House committee to defend controversial government surveillance programs, ran into tough questions Wednesday from lawmakers of both parties, who expressed deep skepticism about the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and other communications.
The programs ignited a furor in the United States and abroad when they were publicly disclosed six weeks ago by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
July 18: A large and fascinatingly diverse coalition of internet companies, non-profits and journalism groups (including the American Society of News Editors) sends an open letter to Obama and Congressional leadership:
We the undersigned are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the US government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers.
The list of signers is itself an instance of the Snowden effect. James Risen of the New York Times on the significance of the letter and the fact that the telephone companies did not join:
While prominent Internet companies are pushing for fuller disclosure, some of the nation’s largest telecommunications firms were not willing to sign on, according to several people involved in the coalition. Some of those businesses have previously received legal immunity from Congress for their involvement with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, and have close and longstanding ties to the N.S.A.
But the Silicon Valley Internet firms that did sign did so because they are increasingly concerned that the N.S.A. controversy that erupted in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could damage their credibility, particularly with customers overseas.
July 22: Dana Priest of the Washington Post reviews how the NSA got so huge. She also pinpoints the Snowden effect:
The NSA’s ability to capture, store and analyze an ever greater amount of people’s communications has never been accompanied by public explanations of new legal authorities, programs or privacy safeguards. Only the unauthorized disclosure of these secrets has forced officials to explain them in broad terms, reassure the public and complain about the damage from their public airing.
July 24: The latest NBC/WSJ poll includes favorability ratings on Snowden. It asks Americans if they view him positively or negatively, like a presidential candidate or Speaker of the House. This to me is an extreme example of personalizing the issue. Why does it matter if Americans have warm, cool or indifferent feelings about Snowden? If they don’t “like” or approve of him, does that mean they do approve of the NSA’s methods? Pollsters could get at that by asking about those methods directly– and they have. Snowden isn’t running for anything. He’s not asking for Americans to love him. I fail to see what purpose the question serves, and if it was thought through what the thinking was. To me it just seems like self-trivializing behavior by NBC and the Wall Street Journal.
July 25: Part of the Snowden effect is not only additional reporting but open debate and democratic decision-making where there had been none like that before. A direct example: On July 24 the House of Representatives debated — and voted on — an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have cut off funding for the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of the telephone records, which was revealed in the first article The Guardian published based on Snowden’s leaks. The fact that the leadership let it go to a vote was startling. Even more startling: there were YES and NO votes in both parties and some suspense over the outcome: a narrow defeat for the amendment, 205 to 217. So here we have a pitifully rare instance of representative democracy actually working the way the school books describe — a real debate, a real vote of real consequence — and it sprang directly from what Snowden revealed. The interval from published story to House vote: seven weeks.
July 26: First the Snowden effect forced officials from the surveillance agencies to testify in the open before Congress. Now the concern that Congress has only heard from “one side” has led to an invitation for critics — including The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald — to testify before the House.
July 31: As an account in Forbes put it: “The ‘Snowden Effect’ was in full force on Wednesday… The Director of National Intelligence declassified documents about its bulk collection of phone and email metadata and an example of the court authorization to collect, store and query that data.” That’s a gain in public knowledge. See Adam Serwer for more on politics of that release.
August 1: If this isn’t the Snowden effect, I don’t what is. From the New Zealand press, the McClatchy Washington bureau gets wind of possible spying on its reporter, then sends a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking for clarification, and receives a reply in two days: “Director Clapper has reviewed the letter and directed his staff to immediately look into the issues raised. He looks forward to providing a response.”
August 4: The New York Times reports on other agencies in the U.S. government — including those fighting drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and copyright infringement — attempting to get their hands on surveillance data collected by the National Security Agency.
The recent disclosures of agency activities by its former contractor Edward J. Snowden have led to widespread criticism that its surveillance operations go too far and have prompted lawmakers in Washington to talk of reining them in. But out of public view, the intelligence community has been agitated in recent years for the opposite reason: frustrated officials outside the security agency say the spy tools are not used widely enough.
August 10: The Economist publishes an editorial entitled, simply, The Snowden effect. It’s a response to President Obama’s spectacularly dubious claim in an August 9th press conference that he would have increased the transparency of the surveillance state and introduced reforms to the NSA anyway— without Edward Snowden’s leaks and the effects I have documented here.
Mr Obama laments that the debate over these issues did not follow “an orderly and lawful process”, but the administration often blocked such a course. For nearly five years it appeared comfortable with the secret judicial system that catered to executive demands. It prized the power to spy on Americans, and kept information from Congress. Mr Snowden exposed all of this. His actions may not have been orderly or lawful, but they were crucial to producing the reforms announced by Mr Obama.
"What are the proper grounds for criticism of a program like Candy Crowley's State of the Union on CNN, or a news story in the Washington Post, or a blog post at Gawker? The decisions I make about that are among the most important I can make as a writer on the press..."
Mr. Rosen writes that Ms. Crowley “isn’t doing her job well.” That assumes that Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public. It seems that the corporate sponsors of the Sunday Newspin Shows might simply have a different agenda.
He is correct. I do assume that. It is a kind of baseline belief for me, as well as a lever for criticism: Candy Crowley is, yes, being paid by CNN – a division of Time Warner, third largest media company in the world – to “inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public.” This is the starting point for any criticism I might have of her or CNN.
But to Robert Schwartz, the “corporate sponsors of the Sunday Newspin Shows” won’t allow her to educate the public. They have a different agenda and they pay the bills. He didn’t say this but often it follows:
Even when they are on target, these piecemeal critiques of shoddy performance overlook the fact that a more systematically aggressive journalist looking deeply into wealth and power would not be hired by CNN or have her own show because that kind of journalism would drive away all the sponsors. You assume that when she’s sitting there on set she can ask anything she wants. She can’t! Anyone who would ask the really hard questions would have been weeded out a long time ago.
It is a good argument. There is another good argument made by conservatives that starts in a different place and makes different claims and isn’t really analagous, but it comes to a similar conclusion: “A deep down conservative journalist would never be in that position, Jay. They would be weeded out by the monoculture, which is liberal.” Unlike most disputes of this kind, both claims may be true.
But I want to go back to the original charge, to which I plead guilty. I do assume that….Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public.
And when she fails to do that, she can be criticized. If enough people are critical of her, she may be forced to think about it and ask herself some hard questions. That is where PressThink comes in. I have to ask myself: What are the proper grounds for criticism of a program like Candy Crowley’s State of the Union on CNN, or a news story in the Washington Post, or a blog post at Gawker? The decisions I make about that are among the most important I can make as a writer on the press.
So here are some things that factor in:
1. The likelihood that Candy Crowley would share in this belief about herself – that she is being paid to inform the American electorate – is high. Therefore we can hold her to it. For press criticism, this is good.
2. What portion of the (viewing, listening, reading, clicking) audience for journalism – the market, if you will – agrees with our statement? “Candy Crowley should understand she is being paid to inform the American electorate and contribute to an educated public.” Quite a large portion, I should think. This too is good.
3. The question of professional standards involves not only what journalists do but what the public demands of them. Ms. Crowley is being paid to inform the American electorate as an effort towards an educated public. There is a lot of public support for that idea. When it is dishonored in practice – as it often will be – people will react. They will make their voices heard. And when that happens a critic can find an audience by clarifying what is at stake or providing terms to advance the discussion. This is good.
4. PressThink, the blog, is primarily about about the legitimation of the modern press, meaning: the various justifications for it, and how they match up with actual practice– or don’t. I take these ideas seriously. I think journalists should too.
Inform the public of what it needs to know. Try to hold powerful figures accountable for what they do and say. Ask people in the public eye to explain themselves. Fight for transparency and practice it yourself. Fight against secrecy and opacity in public life. Clearly separate the trivial and entertaining from the consequential and informative. Equip the users of news to participate in their democracy and community. Speak truthfully and accurately.
In the degree that journalists by their conduct uphold these ideas, they are worthy of praise. When they fall short they are worthy of criticism. That is how I operate. I try not to know in advance that fidelity to these standards is impossible for “structural” reasons. If you do know such a thing, you are likely to be frustrated with me.
5. It is true that the corporations that own the media and provide employment to the likes of Andrea Mitchell of NBC, Bob Schieffer of CBS, Jonathan Karl of ABC, or Candy Crowley of CNN are heartless and soulless and have no real duty to anyone but their shareholders. We should not be deceived about their intentions, which usually come down to creating a safe environment for advertising. (CNN makes around $600 million a year for Time Warner precisely by creating a safe environment for advertising.) But in taking on news production and creating an editorial culture they are absorbing into themselves another ethic: public service journalism and the duties of a watchdog press. It will be trampled unless people stand up for it. I try to be one of those people. Do you?
6. A media company’s commitment to these priorities may be no more than lip service. But that is not the end of the story. Journalists hired by a huge corporation that has no intention of shaking up the status quo may still carve out a zone of autonomy in which they can operate fairly freely. Are there limits to that autonomy? Yes, there are. But these too can be pushed against. Righteous journalists who have the facts on their side can also get the audience on their side. That complicates things: in a good way. Without critics to prod them to do more and do better, they are less likely to push the zone of autonomy outward and make space for themselves to be that watchdog with an eye on power.
7. Anyone who closely follows me on Twitter knows that the most common reply I receive on that platform is some variation on: “…and this surprises you?” There is an ambiguity in the word “expect” that helps to explain this pattern. Expect can mean a prediction: what is likely to happen is what we expect. Expect can also be a demand: I expect you to clean your room! One is a probability statement, the other sets a standard against which future behavior can be judged. These two meanings of “expect” are often confused by my readers and comment board critics, including those who say: and this surprises you? I don’t predict that Washington journalists will ask themselves if government officials who demand anonymity deserve it, for I have observed their behavior. But I do want to insist that they apply some clear and defensible standards to the grant of anonymity, and in that sense I “expect” it. This move is basic to how I do press criticism, but I have never spelled it out before. I expect what I may not predict.
8. Against the odds I continue to insist: Candy Crowley is being paid by CNN to inform the American electorate and help create an educated public. Thomas Friedman: same deal. Chuck Todd? Ditto. If we give that idea up, we relinquish any hope for recalling these people to the purpose that drove them into journalism. I’m not prepared to do that. But some of my readers are. That puts me in tension with them, which I don’t mind. But I want you to know that I am aware of the conflict and I think about it all the time. Cheers.
On Meet the Press Sunday, host David Gregory said the question, “who is a journalist?” was raised by Glenn Greenwald’s dealings with Edward Snowden, the 30 year-old American who is currently on the run from the government after leaking classified information. Gregory asked:
To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movement, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald be charged with a crime?
Greenwald objected to this: during the show, after the show on Twitter, and on other shows the same day. On Meet the Press (transcript) he said:
I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in anyway… [snip] If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal.
On Twitter he said: “Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?” Gregory replied to that tweet on the same NBC program Greenwald had just left, a ricochet that tells us something is at stake here.
This is the problem, for somebody who claims that he’s a journalist, who would object to a journalist raising questions, which is not actually embracing any particular point of view. And that’s part of the tactics of the debate here when, in fact, lawmakers have questioned him. There’s a question about his role in this, The Guardian’s role in all of this. It is actually part of the debate, rather than going after the questioner, he could take on the issues.
Gregory told us he had no view of the matter to advance (“I’m not embracing anything…”) he was just doing his job: asking hard questions, some of which get uncomfortable for the guest. Chuck Todd of NBC agreed that Greenwald should explain how “involved” he was with the leaker, Edward Snowden. “Did he have a role beyond being a receiver for this information?”
KURTZ: My time is short. I have to ask you whether you’re concerned, if public opinion and the media environment turns against Ed Snowden, whether you as somebody who’s worked closely with him will be tarred almost as a kind of co-conspirator.
GREENWALD: Well, the Obama administration has flirted with that theory with other reporters, David Gregory all but endorsed it when I gave him an interview with him earlier on “Meet the Press.”
So, sure, it’s an issue. But it’s not going to constrain me or deter me in any way. I believe in the First Amendment and the freedom of the press guarantee in it.
I have some notes and comments on what happened here, which I will update as debate on the episode continues. But first, watch this clip of the June 23rd Meet the Press interview (via Crooks and Liars.) If you want to know what I think, meet me on the other side…
1. Whether Glenn Greenwald will and should be charged with a crime is fair game to ask anyone, including Greenwald. The approach other interviewers have used most often is to ask Greenwald if he’s worried about prosecution. There are other ways to do it. I see nothing wrong with the question. But Gregory went beyond that, as I will try to show.
2. That certain steps the government might take to prevent the escape of its secrets would criminalize normal practice in journalism is also worth asking about. On air and on Twitter, Greenwald tried to insert as context McClatchy’s latest report:
Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor exposed the secret collection of Americans’ phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions…
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.
3. Gregory decided to push the premise of a possible prosecution of Glenn Greenwald. Leaving behind “are you worried that the government will come after you?” he also passed over:
Snowdon knows he committed a crime by releasing classified material. He says he did it to alert the public to an abuse of power.You’re trying to alert the public to what you see as an abuse of power. Are you also defying the law to make it happen?
The point is: there are ways to challenge Greenwald and ask him about the law that do not involve…
4. David Gregory’s phrase: To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden… renders the situation in a threatening way. His premise packs a punch. For the criminalization of journalism is most likely to happen when normal relationships with sources get called “aiding and abetting” by the state. That’s why so many journalists flipped out when similar language was used in a government affidavit about James Rosen, the Fox News reporter who was investigated in a separate leak case.
5. “He seeded his question with a veiled accusation of federal criminal wrongdoing, very much in the tradition of ‘how long have you been beating your wife.'” That’s how Erik Wemple of the Washington Post put it in his assessment of the same incident. “Mr. Gregory may have thought he was just being provocative, but if you tease apart his inquiry, it suggests there might be something criminal in reporting out important information from a controversial source,” wrote David Carr in the New York Times.
6. Gregory’s attempts to separate Greenwald from normal practice matter. Greenwald is “somebody who claims that he’s a journalist,” Gregory said. (Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.) What we know is that Glenn is a polemicist, prosecutor for a point of view. “The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing,” he told Greenwald. “What is journalism?” is involved here, he said to Republican political consultant and NBC contributor Mike Murphy. (Murphy agreed.) Why did Gregory turn his table on Meet the Press into a “who’s a journalist” seminar if he wasn’t trying to place Greenwald outside the club?
7. And that is why I wrote my June 13 post, Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. Neither dominates. Whether journalists with a source inside the government have a clear POV or claim “no-POV, just the news,” whether they are called columnists or reporters by their employers, whether they are doing a documentary to rouse public opinion or a news story for a wire service– these are considerations irrelevant to any claim on membership in the press and its protections.
8. Former general counsel to the NSA and Bush Admninistration official Stewart Baker has a blog, at which he wonders whether Barton Gellman of the Washington Post – Snowden also went to him – “has slipped from journalist to advocate.” In prosecuting leaks the government is supposed to take special precautions around a journalist. But an advocate? Maybe not so much. You see it matters what you call these people. It matters when you try to divide them from “real” journalism. I’m not sure David Gregory understands that.
9. From what I can tell (and we cannot see fully into this from the outside) in interacting with Edward Snowden, the Guardian have handled their source in a way that is fundamentally similar to the Washington Post’s handling of Snowden. And on “activity protected by the First Amendment” grounds, I see no difference between Greenwald’s Snowden-derived journalism and Gellman’s Snowden-derived journalism. David Gregory didn’t present any evidence for such a difference. In fact he said nothing about Gellman and the Post “aiding and abetting.” Why?
10. David Gregory does not know it, but journalism with a point of view, journalism in the style that calls for viewlessness, and advocacy journalism can all deliver good work in the imperfect art of source-driven reportage and commentary. They can all be criticized, too: for hyping the story, falling in love with their sources or failing to apply doubt where needed– Greenwald and Gellman and their colleagues included. This is normal debate. “To the extent that you have aided and abetted…” is not. It suggests transgression against professional norms. But on what grounds? Gregory didn’t try to establish any. That’s one thing that made his intervention so odd.
11. Barton Gellman made an important point in defending himself against Stewart Baker’s criticism. In a sense I am an advocate, he said. But… “What @stewartbaker overlooks is that my advocacy is for open debate of secret powers. That’s what journalists do.” This is not the View from Nowhere. This is acknowledging that journalists are actors too.
12. “There’s a question about his role in this, The Guardian’s role in all of this…” is David Gregory gesturing toward an argument he apparently wants to make for why Greenwald and The Guardian are beyond the pale. But we never find out what they have done to deserve this placement. Because that’s not how he sees himself: as a man mounting arguments on Meet the Press. Instead he just asks the questions that have become necessary to ask because people are asking them. The more he relies on tautologies like this, the weaker he sounds.
13. I agree with Ben Smith of Buzzfeed: You don’t have to like Edward Snowden– or Glenn Greenwald, for that matter. While it’s natural to focus on the moral standing of the source, the story stands or falls on other grounds:
Snowden’s personal story is interesting only because the new details he revealed are so much more interesting. We know substantially more about domestic surveillance than we did, thanks largely to stories and documents printed by The Guardian. They would have been just as revelatory without Snowden’s name on them. The shakeout has produced more revelatory reporting, notably this new McClatchy piece on the way in which President Obama’s obsession with leaks has manifested itself in the bureaucracy with a new “Insider Threat Program.”
14. True: we know substantially more than we did about the surveillance state. Also true: the public debate we did not have in 2010 after the Washington Post’s massive reporting project, Top Secret America, we are having now. This is the main reason I support what The Guardian and the Washington Post are doing, although I recognize that their actions (and Snowden’s) are going to generate a lot of pushback.
15. Glenn Greenwald is going to face more and more questions about his motives and methods as the Snowden story divides the country and the press. He might as well prepare for it, and try to accept these encounters with good humor when he can.
16. As statements like this one indicate, I don’t think Greenwald cares whether he is invited back on Meet the Press. There’s something to be said for that in a talk show guest.
Notice that Gregory calls Greenwald a “polemicist” – not a journalist. The difference, I presume, is that polemicists actually make people in power uncomfortable. Journalists simply do their best to get chummy with them in order to get exclusive tidbits that the powerful want you to know.
Second: ask yourself if David Gregory ever asked a similar question of people in government with real power, e.g. Dick Cheney et al. Did he ever ask them why they shouldn’t go to jail for committing documented war crimes under the Geneva Conventions? Nah.
Sullivan concludes: “At some point the entire career structure of Washington journalism – the kind of thing that makes David Gregory this prominent – needs to be scrapped and started over. And then you realize that it already has.”
18. “Does David Gregory think he should be charged with a crime for talking to sources, asking questions about classified information, and then reporting what he learned?” Because he’s done exactly that, by his own account. See Trevor Trimm’s analysis at Freedom of the Press Foundation blog. (Greenwald is a co-founder of the foundation.)
June 25-29, 2013.
19. “From behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.” That’s from Benjamin Wheeler’s column in the Los Angeles Times. It mentions, absorbs and extends my analysis in this post. “Lately, large institutions of viewless journalism have been throwing around their weight to discredit point-of-view journalists with subversive positions. And, in the tradition of viewless journalism, they’ve been doing it without announcing their stance.” I have almost never seen that point made in the mainstream press.
Reading through the opinions and scholarly work on the Espionage Act reveals how carefully this country’s finest legal minds have sought to protect press freedoms vis-a-vis our precious national security interests. Stunning to behold how carelessly some commentators would trample it all.
21. Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times and CNBC had to apologize for his carelessness in saying on TV that he would “almost” like to arrest Greenwald for what he’s done. (Video here.) Sorkin’s contrition is real and clearly expressed. Good for him. One thing he did not explain is what he actually meant, if he didn’t really mean that Glenn should be arrested. On Twitter he told Greenwald: “my point was about the role of advocacy journalism & some misimpressions re: prism program as result of reports.” It’s pretty easy to see what “misimpressions re: prism” refers to: this critique. But look at the other phrase: the “role of advocacy journalism.” It sure sounds like he was trading in the dangerous idea that a journalist with a point of view loses the protections that a viewless journalist has. That is dead wrong about the law, and insidious for other reasons. Which is why I asked him to clarify on Twitter.
You’d “almost arrest” him for what reason? Does advocacy journalism turn an almost into a legitimate arrest?
No reply yet.
22. Frank Rich says it’s time for NBC to move David Gregory to The Today Show, “where he can speak truth to power by grilling Paula Deen.”
23. It’s worth recalling that David Gregory is a loud and proud denialist about the biggest and most consequential screw-up in American journalism during his watch: the failure to uncover a faulty case for war in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2008 he said on MSNBC: “I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us in the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.” In 2009 he said on the Colbert Report that there was no fall down, people just say that because they’re ideological hacks.
I actually do think that the right questions were asked, and I think — this criticism is certainly out there of the press corps, and I tried to be thoughtful about it, reflective about it, but I do think the right questions were asked, and I think people view our job through their own ideological prism, and they’ve made some judgments along those lines.
David Gregory’s denialism on Iraq coverage was a warning to NBC News that they failed to heed. They knew about it before they gave him Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. It indicated an inability to learn from criticism and get outside one’s clubby world of press room pals.
24. So far this week, after three days of getting ripped by his peers for what he did on Meet the Press, Gregory has made no public statement or even indicated that he’s listening. This does not meet the standard any longer, even for media stars. In the New York Times newsroom there’s no bigger star than Andrew Ross Sorkin, and he apologized the next day for some dumb things he said about arresting Greenwald. For someone like Jake Tapper of CNN, not responding to such a wave of criticism would be unthinkable. This is another reason David Gregory belongs on the Today Show, grilling salmon with some celebrity chef.
25. I somehow missed this first time around: Paul Farhi in the Washington Post: On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter? It appeared on the same morning as David Gregory’s interview with Greenwald, and it tracks closely with his questioning. This is speculation, but I wonder if Farhi gave Gregory a misplaced confidence that the consensus view in the press was rapidly becoming “Greenwald: not a journalist.” It’s possible. Gregory has a deeply conventional mind, to which Farhi’s “he’s not one of us” frame would appeal. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone has a good time mocking Farhi and ripping into Andrew Sorkin. Taibbi’s take on the journalism issues is similar to mine in Politics: some / Politics: none. But he’s far more entertaining and blunt.
26. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine spells out some of what David Gregory may have been feeling about Greenwald: He’s really a lot like Ralph Nader. The implication is that he argues like a lawyer in an adversarial proceeding, not a journalist trying to be informative. “You take a side, assume the other side is lying, and prosecute your side full tilt. It’s not your job to account for evidence that undermines your case — it’s your adversary’s job to point that out,” Chait writes. Also: “Nader and Greenwald believe their analysis not only completely correct, but so obviously correct that the only motivation one could have to disagree is corruption.”
27. Greenwald is a strong defender of whistleblowers and a strong opponent of the secrecy regime in the surveillance state. Under Chait’s analysis, we would expect him to be dismissive in scorched earth fashion of anyone who doubts that whistleblowers do good. But at around 44:05 in this video, he says he can understand why ordinary Americans have ambivalence about whistleblowers. “Some people think that security is more important, or that secrecy should be decided by democratically-elected officials and not by individual whistleblowers.” I get that, he says. What he does not get is professional journalists who identify with the secret-keepers more than the whistleblowers. For them, it’s the scorched earth Greenwald. Doesn’t this indicate the facility to make distinctions and see good-faith arguments on the other side that Chait says are completely absent in Greenwald’s style?
"You have to know your stuff. You have to mute your instinct to reduce everything to the next election. This is serious business. We need interviewers who are dead serious about holding people accountable for what they say."
Watch what happens at the 7:00 mark in this interview that CNN’s Candy Crowley did today with Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, chair of the House intelligence committee.
Here’s what the transcript says. The part that I bring to your attention is in bold.
ROGERS: I’m just saying that there’s a lot of questions we don’t have the answers to, and it goes beyond the bounds of him trying to claim that he’s a whistleblower, which he is not. A whistleblower comes to the appropriate authorities with appropriate classifications so that we can investigate any possible claim. He didn’t do that. He grabbed up information. He made preparations to go to China, and then he collected it up, bolted to China, and then decided he was going to disclose very sensitive national security information, including, by the way, that benefits the Chinese and other adversaries when it comes to intelligence relationships. I just find that that — that doesn’t comport with the story, and it certainly doesn’t comport with the story that the media is portraying about some have called a hero. I think he’s betrayed his country, and he should be treated just like that.
CROWLEY: As a final question, I want to turn to some home grown politics here and ask you about your decision not to run for the Senate…
No, Candy Crowley. Just… no. You do not let Mike Rogers invoke the established procedures for whistleblowers to get a hearing within the system without asking him if he thinks the track record is good for previous whistleblowers who did just that. Because the track record is terrible! This is from a column in The Guardian by Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who did as Rogers recommended:
…in accordance with the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, I took my concerns up within the chain of command, to the very highest levels at the NSA, and then to Congress and the Department of Defense. I understand why Snowden has taken his course of action, because he’s been following this for years: he’s seen what’s happened to other whistleblowers like me.
By following protocol, you get flagged – just for raising issues. You’re identified as someone they don’t like, someone not to be trusted. I was exposed early on because I was a material witness for two 9/11 congressional investigations. In closed testimony, I told them everything I knew – about Stellar Wind, billions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse, and the critical intelligence, which the NSA had but did not disclose to other agencies, preventing vital action against known threats. If that intelligence had been shared, it may very well have prevented 9/11.
But as I found out later, none of the material evidence I disclosed went into the official record. It became a state secret even to give information of this kind to the 9/11 investigation.
I reached a point in early 2006 when I decided I would contact a reporter. I had the same level of security clearance as Snowden. If you look at the indictment from 2010, you can see that I was accused of causing “exceptionally grave damage to US national security”. Despite allegations that I had tippy-top-secret documents, In fact, I had no classified information in my possession, and I disclosed none to the Baltimore Sun journalist during 2006 and 2007. But I got hammered: in November 2007, I was raided by a dozen armed FBI agents, when I was served with a search warrant. The nightmare had only just begun, including extensive physical and electronic surveillance.
We know that Edward Snowden was aware of this history because he told the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman about it.
Whistleblowers before him, he said, had been destroyed by the experience. Snowden wanted “to embolden others to step forward,” he wrote, by showing that “they can win.”
Here’s what national security reporter James Risen of the New York Times said the same day on Meet the Press about this breezy claim that Snowden should have followed procedure, instead of going public.
And I think one of the reasons that’s happened and has repeatedly happened throughout the War on Terror is that the system, the internal system for whistle-blowing, for the watchdog and oversight system is broken. There is no good way for anyone inside the government do go through the chain of command and report about something like this. They all fear retaliation, they fear prosecution.
And so most whistleblowers, the really, the only way they now have is to go to the press or to go to someone, go outside like Snowden did. He chose people in the press to go to. He picked and chose who he wanted. But the problem is people inside the system who try to go through the chain of command get retaliated against, punished, and they–
–eventually learn not to do it anymore.
The system is broken. (See also this account in USA Today.) So I’m sorry, Candy Crowley, but it is simply not good enough – you are not doing your job well – when you permit Mike Rogers to say what he said about whistleblowers without following up, especially when the topic to which you shifted is how Rogers feels about his decision not to run for Senate. You have to be better prepared. You have to know your stuff. You have to mute your instinct to reduce everything to the next election. This is serious business. We need interviewers who are dead serious about holding people accountable for what they say. So please: get with it.
PRESSTHINK is a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. It is written and edited by professor Jay Rosen, who has taught at NYU since 1986. The blog is about the fate of the press in a digital era and the challenges involved in rethinking what journalism is today. It presents essays, press criticism, interviews and speeches. PressThink does not accept advertising.