David Gregory tries to read Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian out of the journalism club

That's my interpretation. But watch the clip and see what you think.

24 Jun 2013 2:11 am 84 Comments

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?”

Greenwald continued the exchange on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz:

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.

17. Andrew Sullivan starts the critique of Gregory’s performance farther back.

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.

20. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post returns with a deep dive: What would it take to nail Glenn Greenwald under the Espionage Act? His conclusion:

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.

Exactly. Stunning.

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 David_Gregorymost 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?

Return to top.

 

No, Candy Crowley. That is not good enough.

"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."

16 Jun 2013 4:39 pm 12 Comments

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.

JAMES RISEN:
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–
ANDREA MITCHELL:
I–
JAMES RISEN:
–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.

* * *

Related: Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. Neither dominates. “Edward Snowden’s decision to leak to Greenwald, and Glenn’s domination of newsland for several days, tells us that politics: none is not the only way of excelling in journalism. It now has to share the stage with politics: some.”

Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. Neither dominates.

"Edward Snowden’s decision to leak to Greenwald, and Glenn's domination of newsland for several days, tells us that politics: none is not the only way of excelling in journalism. It now has to share the stage with politics: some."

13 Jun 2013 9:21 pm 82 Comments

I offer one observation about the story that has consumed the worlds of journalism and politics for the last eight days: leaks describing how vast is the United States government’s electronic monitoring of communications. Near the center of that story is Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who was one of three journalists that the leaker, Edward Snowden, chose to trust.

For five days, June 5 to June 9, Greenwald sat atop the journalism world as the revelations he brought forward jolted the rest of the press. Glenn_greenwald_portraitAs Jack Shafer of Reuters wrote on June 8: “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. Greenwald’s storm will continue to rage…”

It will. Which brings me to my one observation. This should have been obvious from many prior events trending in the same direction, but as things stand today the proposition is clear to all but the most resistant minds in legacy media: The professional stance that proscribes all political commitments and discourages journalists from having a clear view or taking a firm position on matters in dispute (you can call it objectivity, if you like, or viewlessness, which I like better) is one way of doing good work. A very different professional stance, where the conclusions that you come to by staring at the facts and thinking through the issues serve to identify your journalism… this is another way of doing good work.

They are both valid. They are both standard. (And “traditional.”) They are both major league. Greenwald operates in the second fashion, but the language we have for this style — calling him a blogger or an advocate, hoping that these shorthands convey what’s different about him — is not very illuminating. “Blurring the line between opinion pieces and straight reporting…” is not very illuminating.

My intervention:

Politics: none is what most of the editors and reporters at the Washington Post practice and preach. (But not all.) It is not the natural, inevitable or “right” way to do journalism, but rather a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account of the way things are by foreswearing any political commitment, avoiding overt displays of opinion, and eluding strong conclusions via quotation or summary of competing arguments.

Of course they also try to persuade us by pointing to irrefutable facts, uncovering new information, and being accurate, truthful and fair, but this does not distinguish them from…

Politics: some is what the journalists at the Guardian practice and preach. It is not the natural or inevitable way to do journalism, but a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account by being up front about their commitments, grounding their freely-expressed opinions in fact, and arriving at conclusions through the sound conduct of public argument.

“None” journalists have certain advantages over their “some” colleagues, but the reverse is also true. If you want to appear equally sympathetic to all potential sources, politics: none is the way to go. If you want to avoid pissing off the maximum number of users, politics: none gets it done. (This has commercial implications. They are obvious.) But: if you’re persuaded that transparency is the better route to trust, politics: some is the better choice. And if you want to attract sources who themselves have a political commitment or have come to a conclusion about matters contested within the political community, being open about your politics can be an advantage. That is the lesson that Glenn Greenwald has been teaching the profession of journalism for the last week. Edward Snowden went to him because of his commitments. This has implications for reporters committed to the “no commitments” style.

I know Glenn. Glenn is a pro. I mean that in different ways. Obviously he gets paid to write his columns. But he is also an independent force in drawing traffic, reader reaction and dollar support. He is methodical. He is responsible. He thinks the public should know what’s going on. He spends most of his time verifying, digging and writing, delivering information in the form of public argument about what the government is really doing. Familiar in the arts of denunciation and the joys of savage critique, he is also trained as a litigator. He is good at dividing what can be documented from what can be said because the documentation is missing.

This is the life of a political journalist, although it is equally correct to say that Glenn is a lawyer who writes about the fate of the republic rather than practicing law. He is also an activist, if we mean by that someone who thinks his fellow citizens should wake up and change things, and who participates himself within the limits of the forms he has chosen. With Greenwald the forms are writing, blogging, researching, political commentary in the “reported opinion” style, public speaking and appearing on television. He is good at all of them.

Edward Snowden’s decision to leak to Greenwald, and Glenn’s domination of newsland for several days tells us that politics: none is just one way of excelling at political journalism. I do not think it invalid. It simply has to share the stage with politics: some. Together they make for a strong press.

Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, misinforms Columbia B-school about The Meter

No one knew if it would work when the Times started to charge regular visitors to its site. There were no experts. But there was a reasonably well-informed debate among people who followed it closely. Here is what they said then.

3 Jun 2013 11:39 pm 25 Comments

In a recent speech to the Columbia University business school graduates, the new CEO of the New York Times, Mark Thompson, said this:

Two years ago The Times launched a new digital pay model, essentially asking users of The Times on digital to do what more than a million print users of the newspaper were already doing, which is to pay a regular subscription in return for extensive access to our journalism.

The consensus among the experts was that it wouldn’t work, was foolhardy in fact and not needed. People just weren’t prepared to pay for high quality content on the internet and, besides, wasn’t digital advertising enough – wouldn’t it grow until, just as with print advertising in the golden age of physical newspapers, it alone was enough to support America’s newsrooms?

The part I put in bold is bad information. In my view it should not have been passed along by Mark Thompson to the graduates of one of the world’s leading business schools. It is bad information in four or five ways, which I will describe, but before I do that I have to admit that there is one sense in which Thompson’s “consensus among the experts” is plausibly stated.

If he was using the term “experts” with pure derision, as in “people speaking LOUDLY with all of the confidence but none of the knowledge…” then, YES, there were such people. Definitely. Yelling (reflexively) at the New York Times: Readers won’t pay for news on the internet! Because… because they won’t!

So if in citing “the experts” Thompson was speaking sarcastically about this sort of display, he is unquestionably right: some said that, and probably chuckled among themselves at the cluelessness of the Times. But since when is the opinion of internet yahoos relevant to decision-making at a cultural powerhouse like the New York Times? If the business school students were handed this case–and it is a good case for them–how much time would they spend on propositions like, “you can’t charge for news on the internet because you can’t” and “digital ads will save the day.” Five minutes, maybe?

For all other senses of the term “expert,” Thompson’s statement about the consensus opinion is distorted or just wrong. Bad information, as I will try to show.

Overview: Two years ago The New York Times launched a new digital pay model: The Meter. Along with the people I will be quoting, I had a professional interest in the matter. The sustainability puzzle in the press is the number one problem in journalism at the moment. Therefore The Meter was a big deal for everyone who followed the fortunes of the news business. Mark Thompson was Director General of the BBC at the time. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., CEO Janet Robinson, editor Bill Keller and digital publisher Martin Nisenholtz were the executives in charge at the Times.

The Meter is a leaky paywall. You get a certain number of articles free per month; after that you pay. It’s an attempt to capture revenue from the heaviest users and allow casual visitors to come by freely. With this mixed system you try try to retain the advantages of the open web and gain a new revenue stream. Setting the number of free views, and the cost of a subscription can only be done experimentally: pick a number, see what happens, adjust to that.

The metered system wasn’t entirely new–the Financial Times already had one working–but trying it with a general interest news product like the Times was different. Certain lessons from earlier attempts to charge–especially Times Select— seem to have been learned, but would that make a difference? Impossible to say.

1. There were no experts in what would happen when the New York Times flipped the switch on its pay meter in March, 2011: inside or outside the building. You could try to bring knowledge to bear. (The Times spent $40 million researching it.) You could not say what the users would do with enough precision to make a firm call.

Still, a reasonably well-informed debate about the wisdom of the Times move took place among reporters in the specialist press, bloggers who kept track of paywall news, media writers and journalism professors, working journalists who understood the stakes, and other, perhaps harder-to-classify observers who tried to master the details of the various pay and meter plans and grasp how they work. These people cared how the big experiment of 2011 turned out. Some of them speculated about likely outcomes. Some put pen to paper and tried to calculate the payoff.

2. There was no consensus. People predicted failure for The Meter. Other people stood and applauded the Times for finally doing it. Others were primarily in a mood of uncertainty: they hedged. (I will bring you all these points of view.) To its credit, the team at the Times went ahead despite this confusion. And the Meter is now an estimated $100 million revenue stream. Paid digital subscribers: around 700,000. When Thompson took the podium at Columbia, there was no need to create a cartoon debate for the Times decision-making to stand out. The real story is bold enough.

3. The median view or center line in the debate was not, “It will never work.” If there was no consensus but a range of views, we can still try to identify the center line, where the sample is divided in half. Here’s how I would summarize it.

This is a big gamble. It might work or it might not. The Times meter seems to be intelligently designed, with an awareness of most of the risks. Whether it will pay off cannot be known until the numbers come in– not just how many sign up, but what The Meter does to advertising rates, what it costs to market the product, whether it slows the erosion in print subscribers.

4. Opinion within the Times was split along similar lines. Because no one knew what the users would do. This split was reported in the press at the time. (I will bring it to you.) That Thompson declines to menton it is… odd.

5. No one thought digital advertising alone would solve the problem. Thompson is simply wrong when he paraphrases the experts:

Wasn’t digital advertising enough – wouldn’t it grow until, just as with print advertising in the golden age of physical newspapers, it alone was enough to support America’s newsrooms?

By 2010, when the Times announced The Meter, it was well known (again, to anyone following the story but maybe not to assorted internet yahoos) that digital advertising was not about to replace lost revenues for the print press. Knowing this fact was basic to participating in the debate at all.

When I say Thompson gave bad information to the graduates of the Columbia Business School–and he did–I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I am going to link you to the evidence for my propositions 1 to 5 above. Interspersed with quotations from 2010 and 2011, I bring you commentary from people who were following it even more closely that I was.

Don’t have time for those details? Then just click and browse these two links: Nieman Lab’s round-up on Dec, 13, 2010 and a similar forum in March 17, 2011. Josh Benton, director of the Lab and one of the people I sought recollections from, comments on the 2010 round-up:

To paraphrase each, ranked roughly in order of pro- to anti-:

Brill: It makes a lot of sense.
Kennedy: A smart and nuanced approach.
Overholser: It seems like an informed attempt.
Webb: I agree with the paywall, but subscribers will want fewer ads.
Fry: It’s too restrictive in some ways and too loose in others.
Langeveld: It’s confusing, but they’ll tighten it over time.
Cohn: Happy to see them try, not very optimistic.
Stray: It won’t change the NYT’s revenue in an earth-shaking way.
Dash: It’s too complicated a setup.
McCarthy: It’s short-sighted and doomed.
Buttry: It’s ridiculous on multiple levels.

These are all smart people. Some thought it was a good idea, some didn’t.

You can see the same spread in this weekly review post by Mark Coddington. (“There was no consensus of initial opinion about the plan…”) Benton’s reflections:

My general thought at the time was happiness that someone was taking the paywall leap — because we’d spend all of 2008/09/10 talking about paywalls and their prospects, usually in ideological ways, but we had precious little data on what worked and what doesn’t. My expectation was that it would do better than TimesSelect had done —
— because people were more willing to pay for content in 2011 than they were in 2005
— because the value proposition was more clear (all news content vs. just columnist and a grab bag of other stuff)
— because the Times’ digital presence, always good, had kept improving over that span
— because the web had grown so much outside the United States among elite potential Times digital subscribers
but that it was unclear whether the growth curve would flatten out as it did for TimesSelect, and if so, at what level it would flatten out.

That’s what the debate was about: the nitty gritty of such projections. You can hear Josh wrestling with those details here. Why couldn’t Mark Thompson do the same?

Let’s listen to some other voices, keeping in mind Thompson’s capsule summary: The consensus among the experts was that it wouldn’t work, was foolhardy in fact and not needed…

Alan Mutter, Reflections of a Newsosaur: NYT.Com pay scheme can succeed, but…

The long-awaited, much-delayed digital pay scheme at the New York Times should work just fine, but that doesn’t mean it can be replicated successfully in other markets. Accordingly, other publishers should proceed with caution.

Rick Edmonds, Poynter: New York Times paywall could increase circulation and ad revenue while protecting print

The New York Times new metered paywall corrects the mistake it made in its first foray into charging for online content — blocking search. At the same time, the paywall represents a calculated risk on maintaining and ultimately growing digital ad revenues.

Megan McCarthy, at the time editor of Mediagazer, Nieman roundtable, Dec. 2010.

I think the New York Times’s paywall is short-sighted and doomed. If they want to make the Times more valuable, they need to focus on changing their model of digital advertising to be as profitable as their print side. The Times has the clout to help Madison Avenue realize the value of online advertising. I’m not sure why they’d rather deal with the intricacies of custom subscriptions and meters instead of charging brands and agencies which hold much more money and can get much more value (exposure) from the Times in return.

Ken Doctor, Newsonomics and Nieman Lab:

March 14, 2011, NYT’s good timing on pay launch, amid news chaos.

Charging for digital news is no panacea. It’s a platform for a growth, and the beginning of a new business model. Most newspaper company CEOs have done the math, and with the current trajectory of print ad decline, modest digital ad growth and no digital circulation money, they have no hope of sustaining their businesses into 2015. That’s a bleak, but fair, conclusion.

So, as we approach the proliferation of pay models, consider the Times’ and other moves as getting up on a bicycle and learning to ride it. For 15 years, newspaper companies have been careening around on unicycles, trying to make digital ad revenue, in and of itself and with too little attention to core readers, work. Now, they are trading in those unicycles for bicycles. 2011 is the year of training wheels, before the tough road work — tablet-focused product renewal — consumes their attention.

March 17, 2011, The Newsonomics of The New York Times’ pay fence

It’s a high price, a gamble, and a big hedge — see Test 5 below — against print subscribers migrating too quickly to the tablet. Since it is not charging print subs, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get non-print people to pay a minimum of $195 a year for something that was free, and it eschews conventional wisdom that $9.95 a month is a consumer limit on many digital items. The lack of an annual offer is glaring, and makes it far less friendly to expense accounts for business readers.

Though the FT and the Wall Street Journal have long operated successful pay models, the Times’ leap is a big one: The Times isn’t mainly a business newspaper. If it can succeed charging readers for “general news,” that’s a milestone for newspapers around the world. Most fundamentally, it adds a second leg — digital circulation revenue — to the new business model for newspaper companies. Fifteen years into the Internet, they’ve proven to themselves that digital advertising money alone won’t sustain their newsrooms in the years ahead, as print continues its inevitable decline

Ryan Chittum, Columbia Journalism Review: The New York Times Paywall Looks Good.

The New York Times paywall is here, and it’s about time. Don’t ask me why it took so long and why it cost $40 million to build, the point is after a decade and a half of giving away its expensive journalism online, the Times is saying it’s worth something: Pay us, please.

Chittum has continued to follow the paywall debate with intensity, as you can see here and here.

Joseph Tartakoff, paidContent.org: How Much Revenue Can The New York Times Paywall Generate?

We believe at least 500,000 people (or more than 10 percent of those heavy users) may be willing to pay up — and here’s how we get to that number. TimesSelect, the 2007 initiative that charged online-only readers $7.95 a month to accessNYTimes‘ columnists and some original content attracted 227,000 paid subscribers, or about 1.17 percent of the 13 million people who were reading NYTimes.com at the time.

If that same percentage agrees to pay for the new digital subscriptions, that would amount to about 527,000 subscribers in the U.S. alone. The minimum price of $15 for NYTimes.com plus smartphone access would generate about $100 million in additional annual revenue for the newspaper. A blend of subscriptions would push sales higher. And, the number of subscribers could be significantly greater, as well, considering that a higher percentage of people might be willing to pay for all of the Times‘ digital content [rather] than for just a piece of it — even though the price is higher too.

Staci Kramer, paidContent.org:  The NYT Pay Plan’s Most Dangerous Foe: Perception.

For all this research and all the effort, the digital subscription space is a work in progress and this particular plan, is still experimental. Nothing is frozen in place. Prices can change. Plans can change. Consumer behavior in research and reality may not match. The Times invested tens of millions ($40-to-$50 million, according to Bloomberg) to build the system to be as flexible as possible, including the ability to allow universal access for major news events. Sulzberger and company need to stand fast enough to see if it works — TimesSelect lasted for two years — and be nimble enough to fix what doesn’t.

Along with Ken Doctor (quoted above) Staci Kramer of paidcontent.org was probably the closest student of the Times paywall. She did the kind of reporting that tries to nail down every detail, so I especially wanted to know what she thought:

I think Mark Thompson is very bright but he’s wrong about the “expert concensus,” particularly on his last two points.

The majority of knowledgeable observers, industry analysts and insiders have known for years [that] digital advertising alone wouldn’t be enough and that just as is the case with print, which relies on advertising and subscriptions, multiple revenue streams would be needed. Ditto for relying only on subscriptions to make up the difference during/after the print-digital transition. I also recognized — and contended — early on that making full online access a value-add for print subscribers versus charging extra for it was needed to keep that revenue stream healthy.

As options to reach news and info have grown — smartphones, tablets, smart TV, etc — so have the opportunities for subscriptions (cross-platform access as a lure), advertising, sponsorships, content licensing (NYT Crosswrods, for example), ebooks and more. The TimesCenter provides a steady stream of revenue from tickets for NYT events as well as fees from outside conferences or events.

(Even The Guardian, the champion of open-access web news, charges for apps and has been working on additional revenue streams.)

Many have consistently opposed charging for access to online news, particularly switching existing ad-supported sites to subscription for all or some access. In the case of the Times, the biggest argument centered on loss of influence when TimesSelect made opinions and columnists subscription only.

Kramer makes an important point. Among some of those who said “don’t do it” the argument was not, “because it will never work.” They were pointing at a subtler danger: The Meter might work and yet diminish the Times as an influence machine and public service. That seems to have been the concern of Emily Bell, now at Columbia J-school, but before that digital editor at The Guardian, which had to struggle with the same uncertainties.

Emily Bell in The Guardian, The Times’s paywall move does not begin to tackle the wider challenge.

So the challenge for the Times, and the rest of us, in a world of fragmented media is not principally to make journalism pay, but to keep it relevant. The paywall debate at heart is partly pragmatic, as the risk of implementing the strategy is high and the rewards are unknown; but also philosophical, about whether journalism is viewed as a commodity or a democratic necessity.

Those of us who have been around the paywall block a few times, and there have been many guided tours over the past decade, see it as a very risky and sometimes philosophically unpalatable option. The paywall may address the issue of newspaper circulation decline, but it does not begin to tackle the far greater challenge of telling effective stories and creating activities and audiences in a constantly changing digital landscape.

To stimulate a market for news, you need an engaged population, so perhaps the news business needs to think harder about creating engagement rather than merely encouraging consumption. I am happy to be proved wrong, but I still find it hard to understand how deliberately downsizing your audience is ever going to help with the broader problem.

“I think I was sceptical about the ultimate return on investment from the Times paywall and remain troubled that ultimately bundling and charging for news and information across the board is problematic,” Bell told me last week. “I am not and have never been opposed to payment mechanisms on news sites but have been consistent in my view that the paywall is not a panacea.” The Meter is not by itself going to solve the problem. But nether is digital advertising. That’s why Bell focuses on a third factor: creating engagement.

When I asked her, Megan Garber, then of Nieman Lab, now of the Atlantic, recalled “a concern about the Times’ place within the social web, and within the social sphere more broadly.”

The Times had been not just a newspaper or a news product, but also, in the Arthur Miller sense, a conversation. It had played an important role in the digital public square. I know one of my concerns about the meter — and one of the things, as a media-watcher, that I was paying a lot of attention to when it came to the model’s outcomes — was what would happen to that role when the meter was in effect. Would people be disincentivized from sharing a Times link, not wanting to add to their friends’ and followers’ monthly tallies? Or would the meter prove malleable enough that those concerns would be mitigated? Could the Times — to use the jargon of 2010 — really be a walled garden and public square at the same time?

Felix Salmon, Reuters: The NYT paywall arrives

Emily Bell reckons that the number of people who’ll even hit the paywall in the first place is only about 5% of the NYT’s 33 million or so unique visitors. That’s 1.6 million people — compare the 1.3 million people who already subscribe to the paper on Sundays. The former is not a perfect superset of the latter, of course, but there’s a big overlap; let’s say that realistically the NYT is going after a universe of no more than 800,000 people that it’s going to ask to subscribe. And let’s be generous and say that 15% of them do so, paying an average of $200 per year apiece. That’s extra revenues of $24 million per year.

$24 million is a minuscule amount for the New York Times company as a whole; it’s dwarfed not only by total revenues but even by those total digital advertising revenues of more than $300 million a year. This is what counts as a major strategic move within the NYT?

…I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

Mathew Ingram, GigaOm: Grey Lady’s Troubles With the P-Word.

So what will become of the NYT if and when it actually launches a pay system? The response from many observers seems to be binary — either it will succeed or it will fail. But the real danger is that it will be somewhere in between: neither a runaway success, nor an abject failure, but a slow and steady decline (Jeff Jarvis thinks it will likely be the latter).

The paper’s previous paywall experiment, Times Select, which was dismantled in 2007, arguably fell into that chasm too; plenty of people paid the monthly subscription, but not enough to make a real difference to the bottom line (for what it’s worth, the newspaper I used to work for had much the same experience with its own version of Times Select), and eventually the number of people paying leveled off. In the end, the paper decided (as my former employer did) that it just wasn’t worth it.

Will a metered model produce a different outcome? Perhaps. On the other hand, someone once said that insanity consists of “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

Nicholas Carr, Rough Type: The Times delayed, leaky paywall.

The Times subscription plan may fail. It may be built on a misreading of the marketplace. But it’s not super weird, and it’s not cockeyed. It’s a reasonable, thoughtful plan, and the company may discover that a delayed, leaky paywall is the kind of paywall that pays.

Frédéric Filloux, Monday Note: The numbers behind the paywall.

A carefully set up paywall significantly increases revenue as long as:
* it doesn’t block access for the general audience (minimum traffic loss)
* it doesn’t discourage linking from other sites (preservation of the page rank)
* it targets only the heaviest users, those willing to pay $6.00 rather than $2.00 per month, and those ready to be charged for ad-free content on mobile. Or on a Tablet.

 Jean-Louis Gassée, Monday Note: The NY Times: Un-Free At Last!

On March 28th, after much handwringing, the New York Times will finally deploy a paywall. NYT fans, your author included, rejoice: We see this as a necessary condition for the newspaper’s survival. Necessary…but not sufficient.

Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review: “Information Wants to Be Free”; The NYT Does Not

There’s a big misunderstanding here. Journalism is not mere “information”; it is a product, created by people at some expense. No one would say “groceries want to be free” and use that as an excuse to steal steaks. Or I guess some people might, but those people would be jerks, and also criminals. “Information wants to be free” does not mean “journalism wants to be free,” or, more to the point, “journalists want to work for free.”

I like the way the Free Software Foundation puts it: “Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

If we want to keep getting quality news, someone has to pay for it. We, as readers, don’t have a “right” to free anything. Journalists, though, do have a right to get paid for their intellectual labor. If simple traffic and advertising isn’t doing the trick, then that money has to come from somewhere else. No aphorism is going to deliver us from that basic truth.

Jeff Jarvis, CUNY and Buzzmachine:

January 17, 2010, The cockeyed economics of metering reading

The irony of the report that The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often is this: They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least.

…Clay Shirky has ridiculed micropayments, saying that we don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. I’ll ridicule metering, reminding those who contemplate it to remember what we think of meter maids. We curse them.

There is only one thing that can happen should The TImes put a meter on us. It will shrink.

December 19, 2011: Why not a reverse meter?

Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.

* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.

Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

Jarvis told me that he has since recanted his conclusion: “it will shrink.” He said: “I fear it will not grow as it could have.”

Clay Shirky, NYU. I was unable to find anything Shirky had written or said about the likelihood of New York Times meter succeeding in either January, 2010, when it was announced, or spring 2011, when it was launched. I include him only because his name is sometimes mentioned among those who predicted that the Times experiment would fail. As far as I can tell, this claim is untrue. I asked him about it and he told me this:

The meaning of the word “paywall” has changed.

The model whose failure I have consistently predicted is the “If you don’t pay us any money, we won’t let you look at any ads!” We used to call this model — require payment from 100% of the audience, for access to 100% of the content  — a paywall, and it does not work for general-interest news online. (Indeed, almost by definition, a publication that pursues this model becomes a newsletter.)

Sometime around the turn of the decade, though, what we used to call metered billing (and which is more accurately labeled a threshold payment) started to be labeled paywalls as well. So now we have a word that describes both models that lock out 100% of non-paying readers *and* models that allow something like 97% of non-paying readers in.So almost nothing anyone said about paywalls, sense one, has any predictive value for the behavior of paywalls, sense two. (Indeed, I’ve stopped using that word, for that reason.)

What I did say at the time of the NYT announcement was that I didn’t know where that system would end up on the spectrum of ‘donation’ to ‘loyalty tax’. But I certainly didn’t tar it with the same brush as ‘lock out all the users’ schemes (including QPass and TimesSelect), which have always been disastrous, but whose design is radically different from threshold-billing models.

Jay Rosen, NYU. You might wonder, what did the author of this post think? I didn’t write anything about the prospects for the Times meter, except for this about one puzzling detail, but I did give an interview to NPR about it. There I said it was a “difficult choice” and that it was understandable that they agonized for a year about what to do.

There’s really no way to tell yet. It’s a gamble by the New York Times. I don’t think they know if it’s going to work. And we still have a lot of details missing from their plan…

The people who work for the New York Times believe that their journalism should be addressed to the public at large. And one of the things that happens when you start to charge is, you’re in effect cutting yourself off from the widest possible public your journalism can reach. And if the real product of the New York Times is its influence, then this is a very risky move with the very heart and soul of the newspaper, which is its ability to affect and influence public conversation.

I hedged. And I worried, as Megan Garber did: would the Times be the same force?

A final observation about the ways in which Thompson was passing bad information to the graduates of Columbia’s B-school. Inside the building, there was tremendous anxiety about whether the decision the Times took was a wise and necessary move, or slow motion suicide. No one knew! Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine, who broke the story about the decision to go with a metered system, found the same thing:

The decision to go paid is monumental for the Times, and culminates a yearlong debate that grew contentious, people close to the talks say. In favor of a paid model were Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson. [Martin] Nisenholtz and former deputy managing editor Jon Landman, who was until recently in charge of nytimes.com, advocated for a free site.

The argument for remaining free was based on the belief that nytimes.com is growing into an English-language global newspaper of record, with a vast audience — 20 million unique readers — that, Nisenholtz and others believed, would prove lucrative as web advertising matured. (The nytimes.com homepage, for example, has sold out on numerous occasions in the past year.) As other papers failed to survive the massive migration to the web, the Times would be the last man standing and emerge with even more readers. Going paid would capture more circulation revenue, but risk losing significant traffic and with it ad dollars. At an investor conference this fall, Nisenholtz alluded to this tension: “At the end of the day, if we don’t get this right, a lot of money falls out of the system.”

The Times itself later confirmed this basic portrait. “The risks were manifold,” wrote reporter Jeremy Peters. “The company might jeopardize its huge online reach, and no one could predict what would happen to digital advertising, which had gone from being a drop in the bucket to more than a quarter of The New York Times Company’s overall advertising revenue.” Jim Roberts was the assistant managing editor for digital at the time. He later recalled his thinking:

I argued against it. It was a position that wasn’t extremely popular throughout our newsroom but I really worried a lot that our audience which we had worked so aggressively to build would shrink a lot.

I really worried that we’d lose a lot of our younger readers who we had really aggressively courted with a bunch of innovative ideas, social media use etc. I worried deeply they would flee, worried there would be an impact on our advertisers, if our readership shrank.

“I’m here to tell you I was wrong,” Roberts said in October, 2011.

If Mark Thompson has said this to the graduates of Columbia B-school…

Times people were quite nervous about it, but determined to get the decision right. Opinion outside the Times was uncertain– and often uninformed. Opinion inside the building was very well informed, but still uncertain.

… I could rate him as truthful. But he did not, and that is unfortunate, as well as weird for a news executive. Giving a commencement speech. To a new class of MBAs. Who could check up on him.

Jon Karl got played by a confidential source and now ABC News has a big Benghazi problem

"His colleagues at other news organizations know it. His friends at the network, were they real friends, would try to talk him out of this disastrous state of denial."

18 May 2013 4:30 pm 73 Comments

[With four updates below: May 19, 20, 22.]

I am going to be brief here because for anyone closely following the story of the Benghazi talking points these facts are well known. And if you’re not following the story closely, you probably don’t care. If you do care, but aren’t following it, just click the links below and you can get caught up.

1. On May 10th ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported a source’s description of a White House advisor’s email about the Benghazi talking points:

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

2. That turned out to be misleading and inaccurate, as revealed initially by CNN’s Jake Tapper and later confirmed by the release of all the emails in question. Karl’s source, said Tapper, “seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.” Tapper had obtained the text of the email in question. It simply didn’t say what Karl said it said on one key point. Karl, it appeared, was relying on a source’s quotation.

3. Tapper is a former colleague of Karl’s at ABC News, and a former guest host of ABC’s This Week, a duty Karl also takes on from time to time. The two men are in the same business. Both have covered the White House for ABC. If one says the other’s source “invented” evidence that was passed along to ABC’s audience, that is a serious matter.

4. Karl responded to Tapper’s report by obfuscating without backing off, and claiming that the release of the full email chain would clear this up. So how about it, White House? ABC News also doubled down. It’s spokesperson told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post that Tapper’s report was consistent with Karl’s.

5. The White House said Karl’s source had “fabricated” the email in question. Here, the Obama Administration was warning ABC News that Jon Karl got played. Again, a serious matter. Also: news.

6. Karl’s colleagues weren’t buying his defense, as can be seen from this post by NPR’s Scott Neuman and Mark Memmott. They were bothered, as well, by the way Karl created confusion about whether he had obtained the email in question or just heard its contents described by a source. This too counts as a serious matter.

7. Later, when the full email chain was released, the news was bad for Karl. The originals show that Karl’s source was wrong about the White House protecting the State Department’s concerns over other agencies. Jon Karl had called for this evidence to be released. It was released. The results only cast more doubt on his defense of the original story, and strongly suggested he had been played.

8. Yesterday, Taking Points Memo reported that members of Congress and their staffs were briefed on the emails and their contents. That’s how Karl’s source knew about them.

The ABC report was based on notes taken by a still-unnamed source, presumably a Republican, in attendance at one of two briefings the administration held for members and senior staffers of the Senate and House intelligence committees and top leadership offices in February and March of this year. The ABC report contained a great deal of the information the White House would ultimately reveal itself this week when it released all of the inter- and intra-agency email communication that ultimately resulted in the talking points Susan Rice used in a now-infamous series of appearances on network news shows on the Sunday after the attack.

But it got one big part about the White House’s role wrong…

Again: serious business.

9. I had been following all this and last night I said on Twitter: “Jon Karl got played. But he refuses to admit it. Every ABC anchor who doesn’t ask him about it is complicit, too.” I was anticipating Karl’s appearance on ABC’s signature political program, This Week with George Stephanopoulos. jonathan_karl2-620x4121 He had appeared on May 12th, two days after his original report, to talk about Benghazi with guest host Martha Raddatz. There had been big news in the intervening week: the release of the original emails. I figured that ABC News would have him on again, if they believed so strongly in his original report. He is, after all, ABC’s Chief White House Correspondent; the story that dominated Washington all week was the re-emergence of a scandal narrative. A typical headline: Obama Pivots to Jobs Tour at End of Scandal Filled Week. (That’s from The Note, the politics blog at ABCNews.com, to which Karl is a major contributor.) Well, here’s the line-up for This Week with George Stephanopoulos. No Jon Karl. Instead, ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

10. When a confidential source burns a reporter, a reporter is within his rights to burn–that is, “out”–that source. But it almost never happens because reporters are concerned that potential sources will take it as a sign that the reporter cannot be trusted to keep their names secret. That’s bad enough. But this is worse. Karl had a chance to limit the damage to ABC News from his faulty reporting when he first responded to Jake Tapper’s report. He blew that. Inexplicably, an ABC News spokesperson then doubled down on Karl’s original reporting: strike two. They had a chance to recover by asking Karl to explain how he got misled on This Week. They blew that when they chickened out and asked Jeff Zeleny to appear instead.

11. None of the major networks–ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN–has an ombudsman. This is mystifying to me. They don’t seem to realize that since the rise of the Internet, their reporting is called into question far more easily and far more effectively. This case was especially likely to blow-up in ABC’s face once Jake Tapper’s report appeared online. When one reporter pisses on another reporter’s scoop, the first reporter enters a danger zone. The overwhelming temptation is to defend the story and treat the critique of it by another reporter as professional jealousy. A wise editor would intervene. (Attention: Rick Klein.) That did not happen. When the newsroom hierarchy fails, as it did here, the ombudsman can step in and force an accounting. But there is no ombudsman at ABC.

Jon Karl has dragged the entire news division at ABC (and now George Stephanopoulos) into his self-dug pit. He got played. His colleagues at other news organizations know it. His friends at the network, were they real friends, would try to talk him out of this disastrous state of denial.

* * *

Update, May 19. Today, Jonathan Karl, feeling the heat from peers, decided to make a statement to Howard Kurtz of CNN, who read it on the air. The statement says:

Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it’s become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately.

In the statement he did not apologize. On Twitter he did— for failing to make clear that his reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. My favorite part of his statement is: “Clearly, I regret…” That’s exactly what he and ABC News, through its spokesperson, were refusing to be clear about!

Media Matters has many more quotes from former journalists calling Karl’s actions into question. Also see Josh Marshall’s analysis at Talking Points Memo.

Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks television news, sends this:

On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, Major Garrett spelled out how Jonathan Karl’s Republican source had misrepresented the content of the e-mails in his Exclusive on the previous Friday. But Garrett did not mention Karl by name as the one who disseminated the falsity.

On Wednesday, when Karl covered the publication of the actual e-mails by the White House on ABC World News, he resorted to a post hoc, propter hoc sleight of hand to suggest that they vindicated his previous reporting. Garrett, also on Wednesday, reported the opposite: that the relationship between the State Department’s comments and the CIA’s wording changes were coincidental, not causative.

Per Garrett, the CIA redacted its talking points in response to the FBI’s need not to compromise its investigation, not in response to the State Department’s need to avoid Congressional criticism.

Update II, May 19: After thinking about it some more, here’s the problem for ABC:

If a reporter for your network tells the public he has “exclusively” obtained evidence he has not in fact obtained, causing other reporters for the network to repeat that untruth, and part of his report turns out to be wrong, in a way that a.) is politically consequential and b.) would have been avoided if the evidence was actually in the reporter’s possession… what is the proper penalty?

ABC’s current position: The reporter has to say that he regrets the misreport, and apologize for not being clearer, while benefitting from the confusion he created across multiple reports by sometimes being accurate (that he had summaries of emails read to him) and sometimes misleading us with the claim that he had “obtained” the originals. (Link.)

Can that stand? We will see this week, I guess.

Update III, May 20: Looks like we have our answer. There is now an editor’s note attached to the original “exclusive” by Karl. It reads:

Editor’s Note: There were differences between ABC News’ original reporting on an email by Ben Rhodes, below, and the actual wording of that email which have now been corrected. ABC News should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error. The remainder of the report stands as accurate.

I would have retracted the report, both the online and and on air versions. Not only because of the sourcing problems. The entire story seeks to make a scandal out of the fact that that the talking points were edited, or as Karl says on air “dramatically edited!” But how else do you get inter-agency agreement on what to say? Karl says on the air that many of the changes were “directed” by the State Department, but State didn’t have the power to direct anything. With the editor’s note and Karl’s updates attempting to rescue his “exclusive,” the thing is now a mess. All to avoid confessing error and protect a misbegotten scoop.

Academic opinion as surveyed by Salon is strongly against Karl and ABC for flunking the basics of transparency.

Here’s NPR’s report, quoting this one.

The Washington Post fact checker takes on this episode, in particular the White House’s claim that Karl’s Republican sources must have fabricated and “doctored” the emails they talked about with him. He is not impressed with this claim, awarding it Three Pinocchios (significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.) “We see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists.”

Update IV, May 22: It is in the nature of these disputes that they get more granular as they go on. Andrew Tyndall, who monitors TV News at the Tyndall Report, has been thinking it through. He sends me an after-action report that I am publishing here. Tyndall effectively isolates the layer of Jon Karl’s report that was, yes, a genuine scoop but also an important part of the story, if you really want to know what happened with the Benghazi talking points: The precise steps through which interagency drafting weakened the text into something opaque and, eventually, deceptive and wrong. That additional detail advances the story, as the Weekly Standard’s earlier reports did. No doubt this is why Karl and ABC are insisting their story “stands.”

But as Tyndall says, Karl’s report also tried to explain these changes–it went into the who and the why–by vaguely suggesting that the White House rep and the State Department rep directed them to be made, or somehow controlled the process. He wants to establish a kind of authorship or custody by State and the White House because he is aiming at another prize, beyond his “precise steps” scoop: catching Jay Carney in a lie or bald misstatement of fact.

The statement he was aiming at was the closer for his Good Morning America report on May 10. “They [the White House] initially said only one word had been changed.” He’s trying to show us that together, State and the White House changed a lot of words. Karl wanted to go beyond his exclusive. He wanted a scoop and a nailed lie too. But he mis-nailed it by getting a bum quote, and by failing to establish the undue authorship claim.

With that in mind, read Andrew Tyndall’s take:

The essence of Jonathan Karl’s scoop in the Benghazi Consulate story on ABC on May 10th, was his exclusive revelation that the talking points prepared for members of the Intelligence Committee by the CIA (the ones that also guided Ambassador Susan Rice on those Sunday morning shows) had gone through a series of 12 drafts, each one more vague and less informative, with the end result that their imprecision turned out to be deceptive. Specifically, the decisions not to redact the point about the anti-blasphemy protests, but to redact the point about the al-Qaeda-connected Ansar al-Sharia militia, amounted to misleading the public.

It is that process of deception-by-redaction that Karl has defended as the central point of his exclusive, and has led him to stand by it. Karl never actually uses the term “deceit” but his implication is clear.

There are two subsidiary elements to the story, which Karl either stated or implied, that do not contradict his deception-by-redaction thesis, yet do cast it in a different light. First, who made the changes? Second, what was the motive for the changes?

1. Who made the changes? Karl’s exclusive on May 10th asserted that either the White House or the State Department made at least some of the changes. The story leads with Jay Carney’s claim that those two institutions only changed one word, a claim that Karl contradicts. He later, on May 15th, reported that the final changes were made by the CIA. He remains silent about which of the intermediary changes were made by the White House or by State instead, yet he stands by his premise that some of them were.

2. What was the motive for the changes? In his exclusive report, Karl focuses on the State Department, with its concerns not to open itself to criticism from members of Congress, as the motivator for the redactions. Subsequently a memo has surfaced, written by Ben Rhodes at the White House, that casts doubt on the State Department’s influence over the CIA. First, Rhodes never singles out State’s concerns; second, he does single out the FBI’s concerns that its investigation should not be compromised, as is standard procedure.

The fact that Karl’s reporting relied on an incorrect paraphrase of Rhodes’ memo, which inaccurately did spell out State’s particular concerns, makes Karl’s decision to point to State as the motivator less convincing. In Karl’s defense, he did not report on World News, either on the 10th or the 15th, that the changes were made to the talking points because of State’s input; only that they were made after State’s input. This distinction between “after” and “because of” is never spelled out for viewers.

On the other hand, as said, he did report that some of the intermediary changes were in fact made by either State or the White House, and earlier on the 10th, on Good Morning America, he quoted from an e-mail (again, one he had not seen but had been read to him) that the CIA changed some words after being “directed” to do so by State (later that day on World News, Karl made no stronger claim than “input” from State).

So, Karl’s scoop about the fact of the changes in the talking points was a genuine one. His reporting on who made the changes and why they were made is vague or shifting or absent.

Designs for a Networked Beat

"When the users know more than the journalists, what are good journalists supposed to do?" These are lecture notes and links from my presentation to the editors of Quartz, May 13, 2013.

13 May 2013 6:30 pm 16 Comments

The ideas that I share with you tonight originate in a personal obsession of mine that is now 14 years old. It dates back to 1999 when I read this article by Andrew Leonard in Salon: “Open Source Journalism.”

Leonard’s piece is not a manifesto. It tells the story of a specialty site, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, which lacked confidence that its draft article about cyber-terrorism was good enough. So Jane’s decided to consult the readers of Slashdot, who knew a lot about the subject. And they made the article better. (Here’s the original Slashdot thread.)

This, I felt, had implications for beat reporting.

Also in 1999, Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, strung these simple words together. “My readers know more than I do.” It was one of the discoveries he made covering Silicon Valley during the first internet boom. DanGillmor2Of course this would have been true in 1959. Gillmor was one of the first to see what was different about 1999. The people who knew more than he did could easily reach him with that knowledge. They were more connected: to the reporter and each other.

This too had implications for beat reporting.

* * *

In 1999, that fateful year, Dave Winer published his seminal post, Edit this Page, in which he said: “Writing for the Web is too damn hard.” He and others were then working on blogging tools that would explode over the next year or so: Winer’s Frontier, blogger.com, Live Journal, and later Movable Type.

To me, Edit This Page is the moment just before the web goes from Read Only to Read/Write. (Later, of course, it would become read/write/share.) In 2009, Winer put the consequences as clearly as he could: “The sources go direct.” They can now publish directly to the users.

This had further implications for beat reporting.

Behold, then, the spirit of 1999:

* “My readers know more than I do.”
* Open source journalism can work.
* Edit This Page, which became blogging
* “The sources can go direct.” (And they do.)

The spirit of ’99 affected me personally. These are projects I undertook in the same spirit:

2003 PressThink
2006 Assignment Zero
2007 Beatbloging.org
2008 Off The Bus.

So this is my obsession, distilled down:

When the users know more than the journalists, what are good journalists supposed to do?

Many people who are here tonight do this kind of work every day. A good name for it is networked reporting, which is by now an established practice. Consider:

* Live blogging as demonstrated by The Guardian and the New York Times Lede blog is an inherently networked practice.

* So is Andy Carvin’s “twitter anchor”.

* CNN’s i-Report is a network of contributors that can be activated when there is breaking news.

* Web forms as used by ProPublica, The Guardian and other sites allow for collecting data from those very users who know more than journalists.

And, of course, it is routine for journalists to find sources through social media.

We’ve made a lot of progress since 1999! But not nearly enough. So this year I shared my obsession with my graduate students in NYU’s Studio 20 program. We began with a simple definition of networked reporting:

When the many contribute (easily) to reporting that is completed by a few… that’s networked reporting.

Our aim was to make incremental progress on that problem by doing small projects with six partners using 2-3 person teams. Here’s the list of projects. My partner was Quartz, Atlantic Media’s new business publication. I wanted to work with Quartz because their concept of editorial obsessions intrigued me. I proposed that we work together on designing a networked approach to covering what they call an “obsession.” They would give me the specs, I would reply with my designs.

The specs from Quartz are here. (“Put together a suite of tools and techniques for quickly booting up a network around a fast-moving, ongoing global news story that cuts across traditional beat boundaries and is worth obsessing about…”) The tools were researched and tested by Anna Callaghan, a journalism grad student at NYU. We decided to use covering bitcoin as window into digital money as the “fast-moving, ongoing global news story” that we would design a networked approach for.

* * *

Warning: These ideas are 100% synthetic. They are not original to me. They have emerged from the practice of networked reporting and the use of social media tools by thousands of journalists since 1999. So if your instinct is to reply, “we did that four years ago!” you’re right. You probably did.

Pro tip before we begin: It’s smart to treat the One Percent Rule as a design principle for a networked beat.

Thus, a networked beat…

√ makes better products for the 90 percent who will only consume…

√ from efficient interaction with the 10% who will possibly engage, while

√ recruiting the best of the 1% into co-production.

My eight steps to a networked beat follow:

Step 1: Define the right combination of news flows for this particular beat.

Step 2: Put an intelligent filter, made for multiple uses, on the combined flow.

Step 3: From smart filters on combined streams, make a series of simple and useful products.

Step 4: Start to register, verify and make contact with the best independent sources on the beat.

Step 5: When they’re good enough hook the filtering tools up to the work flow for beat coverage.

Step 6: Launch your “inbox on steroids” and prove to the users that it works.

Step 7: Bring key sources (from step 4) and fellow obsessives into co-production. And be prepared to compensate.

Step 8: Go pro-am. Try some campaigns. Crowdsource from an earned crowd.

Another way to display the same design is to describe the different levels of investment in networked reporting. You could also call them stages of development. I see three:

Level One (steps 1-4): Minimum viable product. It includes:

* Bot for the beat: an automated Quartz Twitter feed for bitcoin news
* People to follow: a list of people who converse and share links about bitcoin.
* Rock solid explainer: original content by Quartz explaining background to bitcoin for its users.
* Preferred sources list: the best of the best, selected and vetted by Quartz
* River of news: An automated feed of bitcoin news via select sources curated by Quartz.(Like this one for tech.)

* Register as a Quartz bitcoin source: (Legal name or pen name allowed. This is one way people can raise their hand as a fellow obsessive, and get vetted.)

* Good alert systems for writers and editors, making assignments easier and coverage better
* Newsroom talent ready to do stories when signals are strong.

Level Two (steps 5-6). Committing to the beat.

* Twitter feed for beat, handmade and a human voice

* Link and comment blog fed by Quartz filters.

* Inbox on steroids

* Beat journalism made clearly distinct from commodity coverage

Level Three (steps 7-8). Turn to the community

* Engage key contributors in co-production, similar to the moment when a successful blog becomes a group blog by hiring from the comments.

* Launch a sources poll. A weekly survey of obsessives, carefully designed to consume a finite amount of time per week, which takes the temperature of the beat but also provides clues to what the beat should be covering by asking the people who care the most. (Sort of like this.)

* Crowdsourced investigations. By now a known practice.

* “Quest journalism,” an example of which is here.

Summing up: My recommendations for Quartz.

Recommendation 1. Invest now in Level One development: unique news flows and intelligent filters– something Quartz should try to become good at. Very good. This is my primary recommendation.

Recommendation 2. “Filtered by Quartz.” We think there are brand opportunities for Quartz in making its own: Intelligent filters, Preferred sources, Rivers of News (another Dave Winer concept.)

Recommendation 3. Influence the development of tool companies that make your filters smarter and your work easier. Little Bird and Storyful are two we especially recommend.

Recommendation 4. Pick your spots for fuller investment in a beat via metrics that flow from the minimum viable product. An obvious example: where the alert systems are spitting out very good story ideas, the beat is ready for more investment.

Recommendation 5. Put all tools and practices to the “enterprise journalism” and “unique signature” tests. Meaning: you’ll know it’s working if the tools and methods recommended here help Quartz transcend commodity coverage and produce journalism with a unique signature. If they don’t help with that, drop this approach.

Recommendation 6. Quartz Pro. There’s a possible business opportunity in monetizing signaling systems that you know from Quartz experience work. That’s why its crucial to bring some of the obssessives in from the cold, so to speak.

Recommendation 7. Campaigns can be good punctuation points. Once they’re over, fold your tent and move on to other beats.

Recommendation 8. Stage Three beats are an insight community, as Techdirt’s Mike Masnick calls it. Some will pay to know what a crowd earned this way thinks.