Will CBS News apologize for the reckless denials before its Benghazi story collapsed?

It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were genuine problems with the story until it was forced to by others.

10 Nov 2013 12:07 am 47 Comments

“Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out. That is what we are doing in this case. When we know more, we will tell you.”

Tell me: What is so hard about that? It’s 30 words CBS News never managed to say in its week from hell that will peak during ’60 Minutes’ tonight with an on-air apology for getting duped by a source who gave CBS viewers an eyewitness account of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, even though he told the FBI and his employer that he wasn’t on scene that night.

I will be watching. Let me tell you what I will be watching for. CBS will no doubt apologize for inadequate vetting of “Morgan Jones,” whose story should not have been trusted. It will say that it should have viewed his story more skeptically and done more reporting. It will say that it should have been clearer that its book division had given the same source a contract and paid an advance.

But will CBS apologize for its reckless denials from Oct. 31 to the day the story collapsed? It should, but probably it won’t. I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I will here: Tonight’s apology by CBS will not deal in any serious way with its misguided response to the very legitimate questions that were raised about its Benghazi report. If I am wrong, that will be good news for journalism at CBS and I will happily report it in an update here. (I was not wrong. Update here.)

Meanwhile, here is what I see.

1. Start with the timeline Poynter put together. On October 31 Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reports this:

But in a written account that Jones, whose real name was confirmed as Dylan Davies by several officials who worked with him in Benghazi, provided to his employer three days after the attack, he told a different story of his experiences that night.

Immediately, the CBS report is in deep trouble. And anyone with a clear mind can see that. Except the people at CBS. When your key source tells two different stories, something is seriously amiss. The next day, the network should have said: “Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we investigate.” Instead, Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for 60 Minutes, tells the Post: “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday.” Why?

2. On November 1, Media Matters asks journalism observers with no known hostility to CBS or any political stance on the Benghazi events to comment. They state the obvious. “I don’t see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation,” says Alex S. Jones, former media beat reporter for the New York Times, now director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “This definitely needs explaining.” In a letter to CBS, Media Matters calls for a retraction of the report.

3. On November 2, the Daily Beast reports on its interview with Dylan Davies, in which he claims that a first-person incident report written in his voice is not his work. He’s never seen that document, he says. He also says that he lied to his employer “because he did not want his supervisor to know he had disobeyed his orders to stay at his villa.”

So now the key source in the CBS report has admitted to lying about the events in question, but we are supposed to believe that to CBS he told the truth and he told the truth in the book for which he was paid an undisclosed sum by a CBS subsidiary. Also we know from an earlier report on Fox News that a Fox reporter had stopped talking to the same source when he asked for money. (Also see this on Fox News and Benghazi.) All of these facts are clear warning signs, making “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday” appear unwise in the extreme.

3. What CBS says in response to the Daily Beast report is… nothing. As if there was nothing to address. This was false. Huffington Post reporter Michael Calderone was trying to get answers to some extremely pertinent questions:

Did “60 Minutes” know Davies had told his employer that he wasn’t at the compound during the attack? And if “60 Minutes” was aware of Davies’ previous statement, how did the program vet his new account, given that no other witnesses saw him there? Does “60 Minutes” have evidence to be confident that Davies’ dramatic second account is accurate?

4. CBS stays silent about those issues for two more days. Then it decides to speak. But instead of answering Calderone’s questions, or at least saying, “When legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out…” which would have been the cautious, responsible and sane thing to do, it decides to raise the stakes by defending its work. Lara_Logan_cropThus Lara Logan tells the New York Times: “If you read the book, you would know he never had two stories. He only had one story.” This is bizarrely at odds with what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan then attributes the criticism of her reporting to the intensely politicized atmosphere surrounding the events in Benghazi. But again: this does not address what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan and CBS do admit to one mistake: not acknowledging that a division of CBS, Simon and Schuster, was publishing the “Morgan Jones” book.

Their story is in deep trouble from the existence of two conflicting accounts from the same source, who is an admitted liar, but CBS people are acting like none of this happened, or that no one knows about it, or that only partisan critics care. Why?

5. The next day things get stranger and more denialist. The executive producer of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager, who is also the chairman of CBS News — two roles that in this instance conflict, though no one at CBS notices — tells the Huffington Post that he is a.) proud of the network’s reporting on the controversy and b.) confident that it will hold up.

“We spent more than a year reporting our story about the attack on Benghazi, which aired on Oct. 27, speaking with close to 100 sources in the process,” Fager says, seemingly unaware that these facts make his situation worse. (You spent a year on the story and never learned that your key source either lied to you or lied to his employer?) Like Lara Logan’s comments to the Times, Fager’s words are completely unresponsive to the actual trouble the story is in. Why? (On that, see Calderone’s report from Nov. 8.)

6. The next day, Nov. 7, the denialism falls apart, as the New York Times reports this:

Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, gave the F.B.I. an account of the night that terrorists attacked the mission on Sept. 11, 2012 that contradicts a version of events he provided in a recently published book and in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”

This forces CBS News to say on its website what it should have said on October 31. “We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.”

7. Finally forced by other news organizations to confront what they did not want to see, CBS starts caving. On November 8, Lara Logan appears on the CBS morning news show to apologize. (Video.) “So here’s what we know,” writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Davies never told Logan about the incident report. He never told the co-author of his memoir about the incident report. When the content of the report was revealed, he invented an entirely implausible story about lying to his supervisor in the report because he respected him so highly and didn’t want him to know that he’d disobeyed orders not to approach the compound. And yet, in a story that should have set off all sorts of alarms in the first place, this still didn’t set off any alarms for Logan. She continued to defend Davies and her reporting until news emerged yesterday that the incident report matched what Davies had told the FBI in a debriefing shortly after the attack.

Exactly. On the same day CBS takes down the video of the Benghazi story, leaving only an error message where the clip had been. Helpful! And Simon and Schuster announces that it is withdrawing the book from stores.

8. Then yesterday the conflict of interest that Jeff Fager has as 1.) the executive in charge who would have approved the final cut of the Benghazi story and 2.) the head of the CBS news division, who is supposed to worry about the entire news organization’s reputation more than any individual or show… that conflict comes through in startling fashion via this story in the Washington Post. Give a listen:

CBS News’s chairman expressed disappointment and contrition Friday for a mistaken “60 Minutes” report about the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks, but he suggested the program and his network intended to move past the flawed story.

“Credibility is really the most important thing we have,” Jeff Fager, the head of the network’s news division and executive producer of the weekly newsmagazine, said in an interview. “Did we let people down? Yes. Do people expect us to get it right? Of course they do. Do they expect us to be perfect? I don’t think so. When you come forward and admit a mistake, people will understand.”

Notice: He did not say “we’re going to get to the bottom of this, and find out how it could happen.” Rather, they’re moving on. And as the Post’s Paul Farhi wrote: “There were no indications Friday that anyone at CBS would be fired for the Benghazi report.” When you come forward and admit a mistake: is that what CBS did? Nope. It did exactly the opposite. It admitted there was a problem only after other news organizations brought the story forward. That statement alone should be enough to remove Jeff Fager from further decision-making about who is accountable for this debacle.

9. CBS was not just wrong, it was wrong about an explosive and highly contentious story in which extra care should have been taken because of the risk that a faulty report will be instantly politicized. This is exactly what happened, adding an extra layer of gravity to the situation. As the New York Times wrote on November 8:

The day after the CBS report, several Republican senators held a news conference, demanding that the administration allow congressional investigators to interview survivors of the Benghazi attack. In particular, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that he would block all administration nominations until it met the Republicans’ demands.

An update on this part of the story.
10. Consider:

If Folkenflik is correct, this is worse because the “partisan” label is irrelevant to whether the questions that critics are raising deserve answers. Still, Media Matters is well aware of this discounting practice, and that is why they get the likes of Alex Jones and Marvin Kalb — figures they know journalists at CBS respect as “non-partisan” — to comment.

11. Threshold is the imprint of Simon and Schuster that signed “Morgan Jones” to a book contract. (“Threshold Editions is an imprint of Simon & Schuster that specializes in conservative non-fiction.”) Threshold is the imprint where Mary Matalin is an editor-at-large. Mary Matalin is a partisan political operative and Republican talking head— and now a book editor. If she was involved in the book deal, then she is mixed up with CBS’s collapsed story. Will this be a part of the on-air apology?

12. Lara Logan is not a View from Nowhere journalist. She has opinions on the Benghazi issue. She has spoken about them. In my view, that is not a crime. But it is certainly relevant in evaluating her performance on this story. (See Digby’s post for clips of Logan displaying her world view.) Will this be a part of tonight’s show? Will CBS say something like, “Viewers should have been told that correspondent Lara Logan has expressed strong opinions on the Benghazi story and what the United State should do in its aftermath…”? My prediction: no.

13. CBS has been through this before. It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were problems with the story until it was forced to by others. There too it allowed its people to issue foolish statements of bravado as the story was crumbling. There too it blamed a partisan atmosphere for questions that any clear headed journalist would ask. (See my open letter to CBS News from 2005.) It did not learn enough from that debacle to avoid repeating the pattern. The signs are that it will not learn from this one.

Watch what CBS apologizes for Sunday night, and what it ignores in making a show of coming clean.

UPDATE, 8:45 PM, Nov. 10. My prediction proved accurate. In a very brief note at the end of ’60 Minutes,’ CBS said it has been misled by its source, apologized for putting him on the air and that was about it. No mention of the book contract, even. Lara Logan, who read the apology, went nowhere near an accounting for the reckless denials I wrote about. Nor did she explain how any of this could have happened. (See Dylan Byers in Politico for more on that.)

Here is how it went: “We end our broadcast tonight with a correction,” Logan said. She then summarized the Oct. 27 story and Davies role in it. “After our report aired, questions arose about whether his account was true when an incident report surfaced. It told a different story about what he did the night of the attack.” Logan said that Davies denied he had written that report, and insisted the story he told ’60 Minutes’ was accurate— and the same story he told the FBI. “On Thursday night, when we discovered the account he gave the FBI was different than what he told us, we realized we had been misled and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that we are very sorry. The most important thing to every person at ’60 minutes’ is the truth, and the truth is we made a mistake.” The end. The video:

Final note for the night. Two things stand out for me about this correction, besides its basic inadequacy for being so minimal. One is the passive voice: “questions arose,” “an incident report surfaced.” This wording allows CBS to erase the role played by other news organizations in forcing it to face the problems with its reporting.

Attention now turns to Jeff Fager, as the person at CBS (executive producer of ’60 Minutes’) who approved the final cut of a deeply flawed report starring a source CBS knew to have lied to his employer, and the executive at CBS, boss of the news division, who decided that it was time to move on from that mistake. Can that conflict of interest stand? So far it looks like it will.

UPDATE, NOV. 11. Last night the New York Times reported this:

The CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” has not ordered an investigation, and on Sunday a spokesman indicated that the program was going to let its televised apology be its last word on the issue.

Well, there you have it. A thin and inadequate response — according to many critics and journalists and even people who used to work at CBS — will be the “last word.” Or will it? The pressures are still there. Witness:

“In the short term, this will confirm the worst suspicions of people who don’t trust CBS News,” said Paul Friedman, CBS’s executive vice president for news until 2011. “In the long term, a lot will depend on how tough and transparent CBS can be in finding out how this happened — especially when there were not the kind of tight deadline pressures that sometimes result in errors.”

“’60 Minutes’ doesn’t need to apologize anymore. It needs to fully explain what went wrong.” Right. Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post goes through all the the unanswered questions in his excellent piece out this morning. “Sunday’s brief acknowledgment didn’t resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped.”

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks a question that shows how inexplicable the decision-making was:

When are you more likely to embellish or lie? In an immediate after action report when there’s little reason to believe that your own role will ever be a matter of consequence or that the incident itself will become a topic of immense controversy? Or a year later when you write a tell-all book chronicling your exploits for a conservative book publisher and there’s fame and lots of money at stake?

Newsweek, Nov. 22: Lara Logan’s Mystery Man.

She’s a smart, tough, experienced reporter. And the producer and writers and reporters who helped her put this Benghazi story together are honored, respected professionals, many of whom have been covering the region for years. Whoever fooled them, whoever convinced them that al Qaeda orchestrated that attack on the U.S. embassy, had to be smart, incredibly persuasive and savvy about the media. And unquotable.

In other words, an intelligence source. And the person closest to Logan with those credentials is her husband. But he’s not talking.


Old testament and new testament journalism

"Each form can spur the other, keep it honest."

3 Nov 2013 6:03 pm 8 Comments

This is the sketch I am going to present in a few hours to the Public Knowledge Forum at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Because it is only a sketch, it leaves out a lot of detail and of course over-simplifies in the interest of avoiding another boring conference presentation.

The free press gods initially gave us the old testament. Then the news testament rose and took over for about 90 years. Recently the old testament has roared back to life and now we have something close to parity or détente, in which it is recognized that we need both. “Each form can spur the other, keep it honest,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently put it.

The old

In old testament journalism, “the public” is the people who gather around the news to talk about it. Political argument and the informational goods delivered by journalism — “what’s happening” and how we should think about it — are so intertwined that it makes little sense to separate the two. tp-dropA representative figure from the eighteen century would be the great pamphleteer Tom Paine, the trouble-making democrat who tried to rouse public opinion against arbitrary power.

Today Glenn Greenwald, recently of The Guardian, works the same way. He’s a trouble-maker who tries to rouse public opinion against the misuse of power. In his journalism there is no natural separation between political argument and information about what’s happening. Roger Cohen spoke of colleagues like former Times editor Bill Keller as “old school journalists” who observe the “traditional” claims to impartiality but in my view this incorrect. Greenwald’s is the old school, and New York Times journalism is the more recent tradition.

The events by which Edward Snowden came to trust Greenwald over the New York Times tell us a great deal about the return of old testament influence amid the problems with new testament journalism. But we are getting ahead our story.

In old testament journalism financial support is difficult to obtain, opposition is intense, competition is fierce, the authorities are frequently upset with the trouble-makers in the press, popularity balloons and contracts with events and revelations. It is a wild ride and a precarious way of life.

Old testament journalism began in the U.S. with the campaign to unite the colonies against British rule. A close cousin to freedom of speech, the old testament was memorialized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution— which of course protects other forms, as well. It had a diminished presence in the 20th century as new testament journalism rose to power and the old became a sub-current. But it never stopped flowing and today it draws new life from the internet.

The new

In new testament journalism, “the public” is the people who are outsiders to political events— and to power. They are busy, preoccupied with making a living, raising their kids and attending to other spectacles, and so they need to be kept informed by specialists in news.

Salvation, in new testament journalism, is achieved by separating facts and values, symbolized of course by the division between the news and opinion pages in American newspapers, and by the imperative of “impartiality” encoded into the BBC in Britain and the ABC in Australia. Who is the Tom Paine of the BBC? There is none and there never has been. It’s against their religion.

New testament journalism is a 20th century thing. It is associated with the doctrine of “objectivity” but even more with the rise of professionalism in the press, which began with the first movements toward schools of journalism around 1908, followed by professional associations in the 1920s and 1930s.

In new testament journalism, the media’s financial security is the norm, made possible by high barriers to entry and large capital costs required to deliver news. The new testament style is risk-adverse because the news delivery franchise is so valuable. The mission is not to move public opinion but to maintain trust or, to put it another way, to protect the brand. Audiences tend to be stable. The authorities learn to regularize their relationship with the journalists. Professionalism in journalism and broadcasting interlocks well with professionalism in politics and other knowledge fields. Thus, the rolodex of reliable experts.

New testament journalism also has its heroic forms, especially investigative journalism. Its representative figure is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (or, in the mythic version, Robert Redford) and the symbolic high point is the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974, in part because of the Post’s relentless reporting. Recalling those events, new testament sages talk of “shoe leather reporting” when they want to explain what virtue in journalism is.


Old testament journalism treats everyone as a participant in the great conversation of democracy. New testament recognizes that there are insiders and outsiders, players and spectators. It tries to mediate between them.

In new testament pressthink, people need the facts first. After they are informed by facts they can develop opinions and “make up their own minds.” In old testament logic, people first need to join the argument. Then they will feel the need to keep themselves informed.

New testament journalism is strong on reliability, predictability, civility, professionalism and the maintenance of reputation over time, which has obvious benefits for advertisers and for political coalitions expected to vote to maintain taxpayer subsidies to the BBC and the ABC. Old testament journalism is strong on participation and mobilization. It is more risk-tolerant, less likely to censor itself to avoid giving offense. It gives the individual journalist a voice and identity.

Old testament journalism has vices too. It is financially precarious and so it can often be bought off. It goes to extremes more often and may distort the picture by neglecting the inconvenient fact. In old testament journalism the constant danger is that the truthtelling will decay into propaganda and news will become comfort food for loyalists. In the new testament style, the danger is that truthtelling will decay into “he said, she said” and the dialect of insiders that I have called “the savvy.”


Today, well-known troubles with the business model have weakened new testament journalism by eroding monopolies and opening the field to lower-cost competitors. The internet solves the distribution-of-news problem for all players. As my colleague Clay Shirky has said, it changes publishing from an industry or a job to a button. This has allowed the old testament forms to gain new life. Other weaknesses in new testament traditions have been exposed, as well, such as the intimidation of the press after September 11 and the failure to detect a faulty case for war in Iraq in 2003.

A kind of new testament fundamentalism common in journalism from the 1970s to the 1990s held form through the early years of blogging in this century. It felt scorn for the more opinionated style and ridiculed its followers as “echo chambers.” It defined itself as “the traditional” and dismissed everyone else as marginal. This was arrogance born of monopoly.

But then new testament journalists started blogging themselves and more recently they have taken to social media with genuine enthusiasm. Today they are not as confident that they have all the answers. They know that their business model is broken. They can see the advantages in personal voice and persuasive power that accrues to the Glenn Greenwalds and other practitioners of the personal franchise model in news. They understand that the people formerly known as the audience want to participate more in the news and that the insiders are less trusted than ever.

All of these forces are pushing new testament journalism toward reconciliation and détente with the old, a symptom of which is this exchange between former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Greenwald. Keller says:

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of…

True. Neither form has a monopoly on virtue. Great journalism, as Greenwald often says, can come from both traditions. I’m Jewish, and so more of an old testament guy. But I too think we need both, plus future forms that combine the two in novel fashion. The messiah hasn’t come yet.

Why Pierre Omidyar decided to join forces with Glenn Greenwald for a new venture in news

Yesterday word leaked out that Glenn Greenwald would be leaving the Guardian to help create some new thing backed by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. I just got off the phone with Omidyar. So I can report more details about what the new thing is and how it came to be.

16 Oct 2013 11:48 am 95 Comments

Here’s the story he told me:

In the spring of this year, Pierre Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if he decided to build something from the ground up.

As he was contemplating the Post purchase, he began to get more alarmed about the pressures coming down on journalists with the various leak investigations in Washington.

Pierre Omidyar

Pierre Omidyar

Then the surveillance stories started appearing and the full scope of the threat to independent journalism became clear. His interest in launching a new kind of news organization — capable of sustaining investigative work and having an effect with it — intensified throughout the summer as news from the Snowden files continued to pour forth.

Attempts to meet with Greenwald to discuss these plans and to find out more about how he operates were unsuccessful until this month. When they finally were able to talk, Omidyar learned that Greenwald, his collaborator Laura Poitras, and The Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill had been planning to form their own journalism venture. Their ideas and Omidyar’s ideas tracked so well with each other that on October 5 they decided to “join forces” (his term.) This is the news that leaked yesterday. But there is more.

Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.

At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.

By “support” Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors. (Omidyar used the phrase “high standards of editing” several times during our talk.) Also included: strong back end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team because the kind of journalism NewCo intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world. Omidyar said NewCo will look for “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following.” He suggested that putting together a team of such people means understanding how each of them does his or her best work, and supporting that, rather than forcing everyone into the same structure.

Part of the reason he thinks he can succeed with a general news product, where there is a lot of competition, is by finding the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined. The trick will then be to combine that with the things technology companies are good at.

“Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement,” he said, mentioning Netflix as a clear example. NewCo will have to serve users of news in the same personalized way, he said. He didn’t want to reveal too much at this stage, but as the founder of eBay he clearly has ideas about how a next generation news company can be built from the ground up.

NewCo is a new venture— a company not a charity. It is not a project of Omidyar Network. It is separate from his philanthropy, he said. He said he will be putting a good deal of his time, as well as his capital, into it. I asked how large a commitment he was prepared to make in dollars. For starters: the $250 million it would have taken to buy the Washington Post.

I asked him if Greenwald was closer to a lead writer or an executive editor. He said the agreement to join forces was so new that they had not discussed roles and responsibilities. All they know is that they want to work together to create NewCo. Poitras will bring expertise in video and documentary. Scahill is a somewhat similar figure to Greenwald: an independent national security journalist with editorial obsessions in which he has become expert.

Why is Omidyar doing this? He said that his involvement in Civil Beat (a news site he started in Hawaii) stoked his appetite to try something larger in news. “I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.” He said he had watched closely over the last 15 years as the business model in journalism collapsed but he had not “found a way to engage directly.” But then when the idea of buying the Washington Post came up he started to think about it more seriously. “It brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way.”

A final factor. His “rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world.” The U.S. has the First Amendment. When the freedom to practice hard-hitting investigative journalism comes under threat here, he said, that’s not only a problem for our democracy but for the chances that democracy can work anywhere. NewCo will be designed to withstand that threat.

Now for the disclosure: As Omidyar was making the rounds to talk to people about his plans I was one of those he consulted with. That happened in September. So he knew I was familiar with his thinking and that’s probably why he chose to talk to me. That’s my initial report. I may have more to say as I sift through my notes and think about what he told me.

UPDATE, 1:00 PM Oct 16: An additional detail that I should have mentioned: the business model isn’t fully worked out yet, but this much is known: all proceeds from NewCo will be reinvested in the journalism. Also: there is no print product planned. This is all-digital.

Some additional thoughts after processing the news: I think it’s highly significant that Omidyar is coming to this project after his adventure in creating Civil Beat. (For more on that, see this account at Nieman Lab.) Civil Beat started off as a pay site with a high price tag ($20 per month) and then sought a partnership with Huffington Post Hawaii, so as to combine the benefits of the high traffic, advertising model with the smaller-reach, paid subscriber system. That shows the kind of tinkering necessary to get to sustainability.

But note: What Omidyar learned from trying to create a serious, civic good with online journalism in Hawaii did not discourage him from attempting something larger. On the contrary, his appetite only grew. Thus, the chances that he is heading into this with a naiveté about the economy of digital news production seem to me quite slim. Many of the illusions he started with — we could also call them hunches — have already been modified by experience. And out of that experience has come this much bigger gamble, with a quarter billion dollars behind it. That says a lot.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

From Omidyar’s own statement at his foundation’s site, My Next Adventure in Journalism.

I explored purchasing The Washington Post over the summer. [Through that] I developed an interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens. I think there’s more that can be done in this space, and I’m eager to explore the possibilities.

Right now, I’m in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization. I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like.

What I can tell you is that the endeavor will be independent of my other organizations, and that it will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats. The team will build a media platform that elevates and supports these journalists and allows them to pursue the truth in their fields. This doesn’t just mean investigative reporting, but all news.

This NPR interview with Omidyar puts more detail to that statement. Best if you listen to it.

Adrienne LaFrance worked at Civil Beat, Omidyar’s news site in Hawaii. She writes about the experience:

Earlier this year, Omidyar opened the Civil Beat Law Center, an organization that helps people better access government information. The center is available to anyone, including individuals and reporters from other news organizations, in the hopes that it will lead to more open government.

That decision offers as much of a window as to his venture with Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill as his three-and-a-half years at the helm of Civil Beat does. Omidyar identified a problem – that agencies routinely reject requests for reports, documents and other information that should be readily available – and created something of his own to find a solution.

At Poynter, John Temple, who was editor of Omidyar’s Civil Beat when it launched, says: “He’s got a journalist’s sensibility. He enjoyed the hunt for a story, and he’s very open to experimenting with how to tell the story and using contemporary approaches.” That said, Omidyar “gives you the space to do your job.”

Reacting to the news of Omidyar’s investment, Dave Winer writes: “Key idea: News orgs not only have expertise at creating news, they are great at consuming it too. Use that to help define the news reading experience of the future.”

The Huffington Post account has a bit more detail and some comments from Omidyar:

“The role of the press, in particular, the role of the press in a democracy is extremely important, extremely critical, and it’s something that I think we often take for granted in the U.S,” Omidyar said. “But we’ve seen attacks on press freedoms and the fundamentals of newsgathering operations when you have these leak investigations that really put a chill on reporting, as well as, surveillance now also a puts a significant chill on reporting.”

“Even in a country that has such strong laws, the First Amendment, we see some weakening, some attacks on press freedoms,” he continued. “So this an opportunity for me to engage in something I care deeply about and do it operationally — not simply as a philanthropist.”

In a sense, then, Omidyar’s new venture is further blowback from the surveillance state’s overreach, which I have been writing about since June. When you think about how much trouble Greenwald and Poitras have caused for the NSA and its sister agencies, and then contemplate an entire news organization founded to make that kind of reporting more likely — with pro-publish lawyers! — it puts new gloss on the notion of unintended consequences.

NPR’s “On the Media” interviewed me about this story. You can listen here.

Jack Shafer of Reuters: “As welcome as Omidyar’s money is, his commitment to the investigative form and an open society is what I’m grateful for.”

A devil’s advocate view of billionaires funding investigative journalism.

More: Billionaires won’t save journalism!

For those who want more, you can find a excellent, linky round-up of all that’s been written about this news here.

Here’s an nine-minute interview with Jeremy Scahill about the new venture with Omidyar. It has a few more details about the “horizontal” operating style the founders envision.

Over at Metafilter, some of the commenters are pretty hostile to the new venture. One says: “I love Greenwald and think he is one of the most important journalists working today, maybe the most important. But the whole project smacks of dot-com/’TED talk’ blinkered arrogance— thinking they can reinvent an industry and instantly do better than people with hundreds of years of experience. Like those people who think Tesla is better qualified to build an electric car than Honda or Toyota or Nissan because the founder is a ‘genius.'”

The Economist on the method of Omidyar’s philanthropy. “With the non-profits it backs, ranging from Kiva, a microfinance website, to the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes open government, Omidyar Network practises ‘venture philanthropy-— developing a non-profit start-up in the same way as a new business venture, except for not expecting it to make money one day.”

To wrap this up, two from the New York Times media columnist, David Carr. His interview with Omidyar here, and his column on a larger trend: “Quality news has become, if not sexy, suddenly attractive to smart digital money.” More:

“Technologists have a view, perhaps inflated, that they can make the world better,” Mr. Omidyar said in an interview over the weekend. “There may be limits to doing it only through technology, or perhaps you get tired of doing it only through technology. So getting into content and broad communication is appealing.”

It would also be a mistake to believe that the only thing digitally enriched players bring is money. The investment of intellectual capital will be just as important. If ever an industry was in need of innovation — of big ideas from uncommon thinkers — it is the news business.

I agree with that.

The BBC’s 16 questions to Glenn Greenwald

Hey, that was a tough interview! No, not really.

4 Oct 2013 3:47 pm 47 Comments

This week Glenn Greenwald was interviewed on the BBC for the first time since the revelations from Edward Snowden began to flow. The program on which he appeared, Newsnight, is one of the BBC’s premiere productions. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. Here’s the clip:

Below I have listed the 16 questions asked in this interview. These are my paraphrases but they are very close paraphrases.

1. Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?

2. 58,000 documents! GCHQ says this is a car crash coming. [No question.]

3. Metadata connections are often used to track terrorists. By revealing them, you may have caused would-be terrorists to change their tactics. So it’s possible you’ve made it easier for terrorists to evade detection. [No question.]

4. How can you be sure that your actions have not made it easier for the terrorists. You can’t prove a negative, can you?

5. Is it shocking that spy agencies spy? Don’t you think a majority of people would be reassured by that and feel safer because of it?

6. You still have a vast cache of materials from Snowden. Is it in your bedroom in Rio? People want to know: how can you guarantee that it’s being kept secure?

7. When David Miranda was stopped at the airport he was carrying a password on a piece of paper. For a lot of people that doesn’t inspire confidence in your methods. [No question.]

8. After Miranda’s detention you said you would be far more aggressive in publishing things about the UK government and they will be sorry for what they did. That was months ago: is something coming down the pipeline?

9. Can you see why those statements were seen as you, Glenn Greenwald, acting as a campaigner and an activist?

10. Do you fear for your safety?

11. Do you feel you could travel to the US or Britain?

12. Are you still in touch with Edward Snowden?

13. How do you know he hasn’t been forced to give up secrets if he’s under Russian protection? You can’t be sure that he hasn’t had to give up something, can you?

14. Given the precariousness of his position, does Snowden really feel all that safe?

15. This is in some ways like a spy film. How did you identify him when you first met him?

16. Do you think he might end up in an American prison?

I’ve been talking about this interview on Twitter today because to me this is a weak form of journalism. It takes common criticisms made of the subject and simply thrusts them at him one after the other to see how he handles it. The basic format is: “People say this about you. What is your response?” Questions 1-7, 9 and 13 are all of that type.

Defenders of this style always say the same thing: Hey, that was a tough interview! People in the public eye should be made to answer their doubters. You may not like it, especially if you’re a fan of the person in question, but that’s our job as journalists: to be tough but fair.

No, your job as a journalist is to decide which of the common criticisms have merit, and ask about those, leaving the meritless to chatrooms. It is also to synthesize new criticisms, and ask about those. It is to advance the conversation, not just replay it. People say these bad things about you– what is your response? is outsourcing the work to other interested parties. It doesn’t make for a tough interview; it makes for a predictable one, easier for the subject to handle. It’s also the cheapest and simplest way to manufacture an “adversarial” atmosphere.

Greenwald’s reaction is here. As he notes, it’s a strange decision to make the interview about the various charges against Greenwald and not what his journalism has uncovered.

UPDATE, OCT. 5. The BBC has now posted to YouTube the video of the entire program on surveillance, which, according to Ian Katz, the editor of BBC Newsnight, is necessary context for understanding the Greenwald interview, which was a part of it. Also, Katz replies to my criticisms here.

In the comments, the former head of BBC Global News, Richard Sambrook, weighs in. “I agree it was an ill-thought through interview and consequently weak.”

The production of innocence and the reporting of American politics

"What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting."

2 Oct 2013 7:43 pm 37 Comments

For a certain class of journalists in the United States — a dwindling class, I think — the following holds true:

Alongside the production of news and commentary about American politics they feel compelled to reproduce their own innocence. What I mean by “innocence” is a public showing by professional journalists that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias.

I have written about the production of innocence before

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!

I think it is proper that we call this quest an agenda, even though “agenda” is a loaded and abused term. The innocence agenda undermines the product. News and commentary, the picture we get of what is happening in the nation, can be fatally distorted by the journalist’s need to demonstrate even-handedness. But there’s another problem. In the self image of the professional journalist, nothing can ever come before truthtelling, almost by definition. Because it violates this sacred and absolute rule, the production of innocence is shrouded in denial, defensiveness and mystification. We cannot have a rational conversation with the people who practice it because to admit that they practice it would be, in effect, to resign from their profession. This they refuse to do.

And so silence is the sea on which the entire subject floats. The practitioners don’t defend their practices, but that is the least of it. They won’t identify themselves as practitioners in the first place. They are tenacious in holding to the pattern, but they cannot describe, illuminate or justify the pattern because this would be to concede that “telling it the way it is” is a priority modified by other and greater priorities— like “making it super clear that we take no side.” To admit that is to admit that you are a shill, a mouthpiece.

But here comes the confusing part. For in the production of innocence you are not a shill or mouthpiece for someone else: a company, a political party, a powerful interest… but for a certain image of yourself as “above” all that. You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.

What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation? And what if you are risk adverse? As in the case of Time magazine, the PBS Newshour, NPR and CNN, just to name a few homes for the style I am describing. In a situation like that, you are going to fall back on the easy production of innocence, but you are not going to recognize that this is what you are doing.

I bring up this messy and confusing subject for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone paying attention to political news this week. The shutdown of the Federal government is one of those events where the temptation to advertise your own innocence is almost overwhelming… for a certain kind of journalist.

For more on this problem see James Fallows in the Atlantic: Your False-Equivalence Guide to the Days Ahead.

Also see Dan Froomkin: Shutdown coverage fails Americans.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less…

The Washington Post feels that desire. Here are some of the results:

In The inability to come together to do the right thing, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault

Even before much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday, the players were already staking out their positions in the battle to come: the fight over who was at fault.

President Obama argued that Republicans were to blame, for using a budget bill as a means of extortion to roll back health-care reform. No, the GOP shot back, it was Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who were responsible, for refusing to negotiate.

The Post really feels it, part two:

Shutdown crisis shows Washington breakdown

Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.

The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear.

Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching standoffs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.

Cokie Roberts of NPR feels it, as well. Here is her analysis of the situation:

I think that we’re seeing a real breakdown of government operations in Washington. The inability to come together to do the right thing in terms of the country is really dramatic now. And we’ve seen this before in our history, but this is a period that is very rough.

At Time magazine agendalessness is always on the agenda. Their take:

Shutdown: Obama and Republicans Trade Blame as Deadline Is Crossed

Federal agencies were ordered to beginning shutting down late Monday evening amid finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans as to who was responsible for the United States’ first government stoppage in 17 years.

What unites these treatments is the eagerness to blame both sides. The emphasis is on things like “the inability to come together to do the right thing” and other hyper-symmetrical images like the “shutdown blame game” and “finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans.”

That is the innocence agenda at work. What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting. It still exists, and deserves to be called out, but with the critique of “false equivalence” now a part of the journalist’s daily life and the rise of point-of-view reporting to normal status online, the artifice is shakier than ever. New entrants like the Guardian’s U.S. edition and aggressive newsrooms like ProPublica and McClatchy’s Washington bureau simply don’t treat the production of innocence as important. Eventually it will be seen as dragging the quality of news down, and the best people will be embarrassed to practice it.

So let Cokie Robetts wax on about “the inability to come together to do the right thing.” Meanwhile, the AP’s David Espo described the situation fairly without resorting to claptrap like that.

Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop “appeasing the tea party” and quickly follow suit. Despite the presidential plea – and the urgings of their own leaders – House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation’s three-year-old health care law. (Hat tip, Media Matters.)

When you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need to advertise your own innocence.

PressThink is ten years old. To celebrate I’m asking its readers to de-lurk. Want to play?

Your turn: so who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Tell us.

28 Aug 2013 6:57 pm 147 Comments

It was ten years ago this week that I was writing test posts and putting final touches on the site that would officially launch as PressThink on September 1, 2003. It started with this introduction. The key lines:

I am a press critic, an observer of journalism’s habits, and also a writer trying to make sense of the world. I am interested in the ideas about journalism that journalists work within, and those they feel they can work without. I try to discover the consequences in the world that result from having the kind of press we do.

I call this blog PressThink because that’s the kind of work I do. The title points to forms of thought that identify “journalism” to itself— but also to the habit of not thinking about certain things. The subatomic force that holds the pack of reporters together as they swarm around a story, there’s an example of pressthink. Without it there could be no pack; the pieces would come flying apart.

So that’s who I am, and what I do, and what interests me. But who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? I am borrowing this idea from the excellent science blogger, Ed Yong, who once a year asks readers of his site to de-lurk— that is, introduce themselves, and perhaps say a bit about why the come back. So if you’re willing, hit the comment button and de-lurk yourself.

Meanwhile, over the next few days I am going to post some reflections on ten years of blogging as they occur to me, which means I will also be able to answer questions posted in the comments if you have them. The first one is below:

1. How has doing this blog affected your career?  Last night on Twitter, after I mentioned it had been ten years, Joey Baker asked me how blogging has affected my academic and writing careers. I had never asked myself that, though I always knew that starting PressThink was a huge, life-changing plus. But once Joey asked me of course I started thinking about it.

The biggest effect comes down to the language I find myself within. Everyone is shaped by the language they habitually speak; but with writers it is a lot more so. Blogging forced me to find a language — a writing style — that would include (meaning: not repel) any of the following because blogging showed me that all of the following were possibly interested.

* Working journalists, any kind. (Like, say, Janine Gibson, but there are many more)
* Peers in the press commentary game. (Like, say, Margaret Sullivan, but there are many more…)
* Bloggers whose blogging verges on journalism or comments on the news. (Like Marcy Wheeler)
* Academics interested in the press and its behavior, whatever their discipline. (Like Brad Delong)
* Journalism students or others hoping to make a career of it. (Like Peter Sterne)
* Non-journalists who have to deal with the press as part of their job. (Like Shel Israel)
* People deeply engaged in politics who have to contend with the power of the media. (Like Anne Marie Slaughter)
* Heavy users of journalism, simultaneously fascinated and dissatisfied with the product. (Like Stuart Zechman)
* Ordinary readers who sense that something is amiss. (Like… you!)
* The denizens of digital culture — geeks — who recognize what is shifting in news production. (Like Jillian York)
* Publishers, any kind. (Like Tim O’Reilly)
* Office-holders who have occasion to reflect on the powers of the press (like Tom Watson)
* People in other countries who feel their press is influenced by the American press (Like Mark Colvin.)

All of those people follow me on Twitter, by the way, and vice versa.

Blogging forced me to speak in a language that would always include all of them and never repel any of them. But at the same time, a blog is “the unedited voice of a person,” as Dave Winer, a huge influence on me, once said. The demands of trying to include, not necessarily “everyone,” but certainly everyone on the above list, and at the same time express myself, in an unedited (uncensored) way, the discovery of a language — an intellectual style — that could accomplish all of those things: that is how blogging affected my career, Joey Baker. It forced me to find my way within the limits of a vernacular, which meant keeping in touch with what matters about the press to all of the people in the categories I have listed.

2. Did you know this blog has a theme song? Here it is. That song, more than any other totem I can find, expresses the attitude I try to write with. I’m not saying that my posts are equal to it, only that they are influenced by it.

What about you? Who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Hit the comment button and speak.