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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

UPDATE: JULY 1, 2015. This study by Media Matters (a liberal leaning watchdog group) looks at how the major news providers handled climate change denialism among Republic candidates for president.

Several months into the 2016 presidential campaign, the media is frequently failing to fact-check statements by presidential candidates denying the science of climate change. Seven major newspapers and wire services surveyed by Media Matters have thus far failed to indicate that candidates’ statements conflict with the scientific consensus in approximately 43 percent of their coverage, while the major broadcast and cable news outlets other than MSNBC have failed to do so 75 percent of the time.

UPDATE: May 21, 2015.

BEDFORD, N.H., May 20 (Reuters) – Republican Jeb Bush said on Wednesday that the Earth’s climate is changing but that scientific research does not clearly show how much of the change is due to humans and how much is from natural causes…

“Look, first of all, the climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

That’s option 3 from my list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Full stack credibility

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

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

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

Brady writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I see no way of surmounting…

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

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

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

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

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

Is that even a hard call?


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

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

First, the clip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Finally, as I said on Twitter:


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

Other NBC people were involved from the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Part One: Feb. 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: February 7, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: David Shankbone.


A brief sketch of the “full stack” (intellectually speaking…) news and information company.

Meaning: it has its own way of doing things, its own ideas about what is worth doing, and it implements them from end to end.

I was talking to a media executive the other day and he mentioned his ambition to create a “full stack” company. This is a software term. Full stack refers to the different layers of tech that when combined make for a workable product. A full stack developer is competent at all these levels, from server technology to user experience. According to this Chris Dixon’s post, a “full stack start-up” is one that tries to control all the interlocking pieces. He names Buzzfeed and Netflix as two examples of successful full stack companies.

“Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry,” Dixon writes. “The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.” A full stack start-up can “completely control the customer experience, and capture a greater portion of the economic benefits.” The hard part is that you have to be good at so many different things:

Software, hardware, design, consumer marketing, supply chain management, sales, partnerships, regulation, etc. The good news is that if you can pull this off, it is very hard for competitors to replicate so many interlocking pieces. (More on Dixon’s concept.)

As I listened to my media executive talk about owning the content management system, and the content itself, and the analytics tool that tells you how users are interacting with it, and the user experience layer, I thought: “full stack company… what a great metaphor.”

So let’s do that: Let’s push the metaphor. OriginalPancakesImagine a newsroom and information company, a journalism site, that is full stack, intellectually speaking. Meaning: it has its own way of doing things and thinking things, its own ideas about what is worth doing, and it implements them from end to end. From defining the editorial mission to deciding what constitutes “news” to designing the look and feel. Instead of borrowing what the industry does, it makes these products itself, and not just at one layer of the enterprise, but at all the “thought” layers.

Bear with me as I try to explain.

Grantland: what is the niche? You tell me! You can’t say “sports” because it’s more than sports. You can’t say “popular culture” because it’s so heavily grounded in sports. It’s more like: sports, plus what shows up when you map the gravitational pull of sports. That’s the niche. But that niche isn’t borrowed from anyone. The industry didn’t make it. Grantland made it. This is the beginning of a full stack company in news: not a borrowed beat, but an original one.

ProPublica: what is the mission? Not to be “the number one provider and news and information” in blah, blah, blah region. Not: everything you need to know about… Or “all the news that’s…” No. It’s more tightly defined than that:

Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

From whom is that statement of purpose rented? No one! They made it themselves. “Journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong” is a piece of pressthink original to the editors and reporters at ProPublica. People who work for the Associated Press or the Washington Post might like to think that they got into the business to “shine a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong,” but that is not how their responsibilities are defined.

So imagine if every (intellectual) layer in the newsroom “stack” were made that way: original to the editors and reporters involved. What would that even look like? Here it helps to imagine the extreme opposite, where every layer of coverage is derived from the industry standard, from current practice, from the way things have always been done, from what others are thinking or will soon think. Pack journalism, in other words.

A good example is Bloomberg’s new politics vertical. It’s almost impossible to find a more consensus mind than the mind of Mark Halperin, co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics. (With an annual salary said to be north of $1 million.) His stock-in-trade is conventional wisdom, packaged for easy consumption. Halperin is like the first essential layer in a “collapsed stack” newsroom: the guy you would go out and get if you wanted to do exactly what everyone else would later think of doing.

The “full stack” (intellectually speaking) newsroom is populated by anti-Halperins: People who have their own ideas about what is worth covering. They command beats and produce stories that don’t obey pre-existing industry categories. The mission is different, too. The sections of a full stack news site will section off the news in a way you isn’t familiar to you from your grandfather’s newspaper. In a full stack newsroom, the code of conduct that prescribes and proscribes what individual journalists can do contains a lot of original programming— different from what students might learn in a typical J-school.

My point is: if you want to succeed in news and information provision, a smart play is to go “full stack” on all your competitors, intellectually speaking. That means defining the beat the way no one else defines it, and coming up with a mission that differs from the industry standard. If you’re not willing to go it alone, your best bet is to admit to this up front and then compete for scoops with dozens of others who are trying to score in the same way that you are trying to score. If that’s your game, then own it.

Photo credit: Jack and Jason’s Pancakes.


A (brief) banking theory of newsroom trust.

The less help you give me in the tricky act of extending my trust to you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance.

In this short post I want to clear something up about how trust operates in a news operation. I am going to use examples from the New York Times, which is risky — because the Times is singular — but I don’t believe the calculus is much different at the Los Angles Times, the Times of India or the Times of Trenton in Central New Jersey.

I will introduce a quick “banking” theory of trust, in which some acts of publishing deposit trust in the newsroom bank, while others are more revenue neutral and still others draw trust from previous deposits. To frame the same point another way, some decisions that editors make put stress on accumulated reserves of trust, while others add to those reserves. From this point of view, trust — credibility! — is not something you have or don’t have as a news provider. Rather, the way you operate can build up or draw down the “reserves” of trust.

Let me sketch three simplified trust scenarios, not because they represent the full range of possibilities but only to get the basic point across. They are presented in order: from most transparent to most opaque, and therefore from trust-producing to trust-consuming.

1. “Don’t take our word for it. Judge for yourself.”

This is when a news organization renders a judgment, and then provides the users with the tools and information to “check” that judgment by conducting essentially the same operation themselves. If I summarize what Senator Rand Paul said on ‘Face the Nation’ this week, and then link to the transcript so you can assess for yourself whether my summary is fair and accurate, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m allowing you to discover on your own how faithful my summary is to the original. If my paraphrase is tendentious, you have everything you need to find me out and dock me points for distorting what Senator Paul said. But if my description is confirmed by the transcript I showed you, that’s points for me.

This is what I mean by a trust deposit. The manner in which the news is presented allows for trust to accumulate in the presenter. A good example from the New York Times is this feature by the Upshot: who will win the Senate? It’s a forecasting model. Not only does the Times show its work by linking to the code and data on Github, but it also allows users to create their own forecast. Here, the Times is so confident in its calculations, it allows readers to re-run those calculations and compare what they get to what the Times concluded.

That’s trust-building— unless, of course, you’ve cooked the books. Then it can be devastating. Which is another way of saying: there is risk in being transparent.

2. “We had to make a call. Here is our reasoning.”

A busy news operation is full of judgment calls. That is what editors get paid to do. Wise editors will explain themselves when their judgment is called into question. If they level with the users (readers, viewers, listeners) and lay out their reasoning, they won’t satisfy or convince everyone, but they can at least achieve a “trust neutral” result. Meaning: we can see how the decision was made, even if we do not agree with it.

A good example is Times editor Dean Baquet’s recent decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Lots of disagreement about that. But through the intervention of the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, Baquet had to explain himself, which is good.

Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.

“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.

Even after this, a great many users are going to find themselves in tension with the New York Times over its judgment call. But they are able to see what the reasoning is. They know it was considered carefully. This I am calling trust neutral. No deposit, no withdrawal.

3. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.”

When the newsroom can’t provide the data and tools so that we can re-run the experiment and see what we get, when it can’t explain its reasoning so that even if we disagree we can see where the editors are coming from, when it has to conceal how it came to its conclusions and simply gesture at the complications involved without permitting us to enter into them… under conditions like these, the operation is drawing on deposits of trust put there by earlier acts of journalism that turned out to be trust-worthy.

Two examples from this recent front-page story in the Times:

American counterterrorism officials said on Wednesday that they now believed that Chérif Kouachi, the younger brother, was the aggressor in the attacks — not Saïd Kouachi, the older brother, as they first thought — but that Saïd may also have traveled to Yemen, as American and French authorities have said.

Who are these officials? We don’t know. What evidence leads them to this conclusion? We don’t know. That’s “trust us” journalism. Risky, in a different way.

A member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said the joint timing of the two operations was a result of the friendship between Mr. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, not of common planning between the Qaeda group and the Islamic State.

Wait: an Al Qaeda source was granted anonymity? How did that happen? From this account we do not know. What makes the Times think this source speaks for Al Qaeda? Again, we don’t know. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.” That’s a withdrawal slip.

By operating this way, the Times is drawing on the reserves of trust built up by operating in a more transparent and believable fashion on other occasions. For if we are to trust the account, we have little to go on that is given by the account itself. If it materializes at all, our trust draws on previous reportage by the Times that earned our trust.

I’m not questioning whether the Times has a track record that can be trusted. In many ways it does. I’m trying to point out that some news stories put a heavy strain on the trust I extend to the Times, while others add to that feeling of confidence. Smart editors will avoid putting undue strain on my trust— like when anonymity is extended to sources for trivial reasons.

As it happens, the public editor took a look at this story, as well. And the editors tried to say: “Here is our reasoning.” Standards editor Philip B. Corbett explained:

“It is not as if we are allowing Al Qaeda to spew propaganda or make threats,” Mr. Corbett said. He told me that “the bar is set very high” for using any such information and that it requires particular skepticism and efforts to corroborate.

The bar is set high, but we don’t find out what those special efforts were. So this is “you’re just going to have to trust us…” in slightly different form.

The banking theory of newsroom trust draws attention to the fact that some acts of journalism are easier to trust in than others. The harder you make it for us to trust you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance. The solution is to build up your reserves by operating in a transparent fashion most of the time. In other words: Journalists, show your work.


When to quit your journalism job

When the sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make, there you have a well-run editorial company. So measure your own newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

These notes were inspired by recent events at the New Republic and First Look Media, articles like this one, and some not-for-publication talks I’ve had lately with young staffers who were troubled by what they saw happening at their place of employment. They also build on this series of tweets about “product” and on conversations I have with my students all the time.

1. If you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit. By “understand the business model,” I mean you can (confidently) answer this question: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sustain the enterprise and permit it to grow? Can’t answer? You have the wrong job.

2. If your instinct is to say, “that’s the business side’s problem,” sorry: your instinct is wrong. That whole way of talking, in which the business “side” takes care of the business model so the journalists can just do their journalism… that’s wrong, too. It’s infantilizing you. The more you believe it, the more likely you are to be placed at the kids table— organizationally speaking. And properly so, because you’re a dependent.

3. The business model is not the business only of the business “side” (a wretched metaphor) because a vital part of any such model is the way in which the editorial staff creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand. These are the sorts of goods a good sales staff sells. It’s your job to understand the business model, because you have to know what kind of good you’re being asked to create, or you won’t be any good at creating it.

4. Take Politico. One part of its business model is a print edition distributed for free on Capitol Hill, but only when Congress is in session. Those who have business before Congress advertise to reach the people who work on Capitol Hill, especially the ones who work for members of Congress. The famous “metabolism” of the Politico newsroom and its “all politics, all the time” coverage make it a must-read among Washington insiders, which Congressional staffers aspire to be. The editorial staff creates value by being relentlessly “inside” DC politics. (Which is also what makes Politico so annoying to outsiders.) The sales staff — get ready for a word you hate — then monetizes the newsroom’s creation by selling ads in the print edition.

5. If either staff misunderstands the other’s work, Politico is in grave trouble. But Politico is not in grave trouble. It is expanding, conquering new worlds— lately, it’s Brussels and the EU. The journalists who work there understand what kind of value they’re being asked to create. The sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make. This describes a well-founded and well-run editorial company. So measure your newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

6. Speaking of words you hate: get over it. Understanding the business model may require you to learn some terms to which you don’t immediately cotton. BFD. Since when are journalists allowed to back away from language they don’t instantly understand? That was never the deal. If you report on corporate finance, you can’t say: don’t give me this debt-to-equity bullshit. No way. It’s your job to understand what is meant by these terms. That requirement doesn’t disappear just because it’s your own business at stake.

7. When I see journalists throw up their hands at new media or Silicon Valley “buzzwords,” I smile. Because my students aren’t permitted to do that, and they’re going to eat your lunch. I teach them to find out what terms like pivot, native advertising, microtargeting, value-added and, yes, “vertical integration” mean. They aren’t allowed to cry “buzzword!” unless they understand what was originally intended by the phrase before it was degraded by overuse or picked up by poseurs. If they blanche at the word “brand” I make fun of them.

8. “Product” is one of those terms. What technology people mean by product is something editorial types have to learn. Product is the built thing that users actually interact with, which includes the front-end technology, the editorial content, any ads or commercial material that users encounter, plus the experience of using the thing. It’s all that. When Steve Jobs said design is not how it looks, design is how it works… he was talking about products.

9. In tech, “what should the product be?” is a hard question, and the answer is constantly shifting as technology advances, platforms rise and fall, and user behavior shifts. What works keeps changing, so you have to keep asking yourself “what should the product be?” For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an easy question to answer. The product should be great journalism! Break news, lead the pack on big stories, find brilliant writers and pay them so they don’t go to someone else. That’s how you make a great product. It’s hard to do, but easy to define.

10. Make fun of Buzzfeed and Vox all you want (though I would advise against it.) One thing those companies have accomplished: everyone is on the same page about product. This is a huge advantage for them. For if the tech people keep using “product” the way they define it, and the journalism people hear it the way they understand it, the news organization that employs those people will eventually come to grief. So if you work in a company like that, I have a link for you.

11. There is a person who is supposed to prevent that. Traditionally, that person is called “the editor.” Nothing has yet been invented to take The Editor’s place, so if your site doesn’t have one — which is said to be the case at — your site is dysfunctional. Most people think The Editor’s job is to hire, fire and supervise the editorial staff, set standards, direct coverage and be the final word on what is published. And that’s correct, but there is more.

12. The Editor has to come to a clear agreement with the publisher and commercial staff on: a.) what the business model is, meaning: how are we going to sustain ourselves and grow? b.) exactly how — in that model — the editorial team creates value for the business, and c.) the zone of independence the editorial team will need to meet those expectations. Not only does The Editor have to secure that agreement, he or she must agree with it, as well. And be able to explain it to anyone who asks. There can never be a situation where The Editor doesn’t know what the business model is, doesn’t accept it as appropriate and doable, or can’t articulate it. A situation like that cannot last, as Franklin Foer of the New Republic learned this month.

13. Every successful publication that does journalism operates with a kind of contract between The Editor and the people who own the joint. (Unless they’re the same people.) If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.

14. If you work on the commercial “side” (misleading image) of an editorial company and you cannot explain the kind of value the journalists have to add for the business model to click on all cylinders, or if you see them as merely an expense item — and a whiny, entitled one at that — then you too are in the wrong job. Please leave as soon as possible.

15. But what about separation of church and state? I already said: the editorial team requires an agreed-upon zone of independence to do its work. That’s a key separation. But separation of church and state has no value as an intellectual principle. Meaning: it’s a dumb and risky situation for you when you don’t understand how your organization plans to sustain itself. Want more? Separation of church and state — for all the good it did in a previous media era — also meant “no seat at the table when the key decisions were made.” Is that really what you want?

Updated from the original to add number 14.


“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Many years ago I was sitting around in a hotel bar with some journalists who were telling tales, and one of them started an anecdote this way:

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

I stopped listening at that point, but not because he was boring. Something struck me about that phrase, “I needed a story.”

I knew what he meant, of course. He had an editor. His editor would want to know: now that you’re all settled in Chicago, when can I expect some production from you? But a good reporter doesn’t need to be told told this. I’m new on the beat and I need a story. Completely reasonable, from the journalist’s point of view. But from the public’s point of view — or even a truthtelling point of view — the same phrase sounds kind of weird.

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Okay, you needed a story. But was there a story that needed to be told?

Or, less charitably: Who cares if you need a story? What we need is a good signaling system to know what’s going on. If it fits the shape of a story that can be counted toward your production quota and keep your editor in New York happy, great! But keep this in mind: your need for a story may clash with the public’s need to be alerted only when there is a story.

I don’t have a big point to make here. It’s a small point. A need for story is something that journalists should watch out for. It could be a trap.

Here are two passages from Eric Wemple’s analysis of the Rolling Stone story about rape on campus. The editors now say they have lost confidence in its primary source, a woman called Jackie who described a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house:

On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”

Doesn’t it sound like she needed a story, which fit certain “criteria?” Does to me.

Wemple also quotes from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post, for which he interviewed the author:

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

Wemple comments: “A perfect place, in other words, to set a story about a gang rape.” A Rolling Stone story about campus rape needs to be set somewhere. But think about it: is this need legitimate?

Judith Shulevitz in CJR:

Erdely told Rosin that she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true—that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

In non-fiction a need for story and what the story “needs” in order to work — to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page, to fit genre requirements — these are all danger zones.

Almost no word has more prestige in journalism than “story.” It also has way too many referents. Story = the thing that appears in the newspaper, the thing that you chase not knowing if it will appear in the newspaper, the thing you drop when it turns out “there’s no story,” the larger thing (the #Ferguson story) made up of many stories, the exposé plus the controversy about the exposé, the ongoing thing that over years generates multiple articles, the thing you try to keep alive by finding another angle, another reason to update, the two inch item, the twenty-two inch item.

When all are represented by a single word, story, which is fused to professional identity — as in journalist as storyteller, a sacred equation — confusion, hidden danger and fatal fuzziness are likely. Watch out, journalists. You need story. We need truth.