Lefty journalism professor tries to discredit the Tea Party by passing along sensational footage to his buddies at the Times!!!

Yesterday I was the target of a "sting" operation by right wing trickster James O'Keefe. I will tell you what happened.

28 Oct 2011 4:48 am 79 Comments

But first, here is the product of that sting, a real culture war artifact: To Catch a Journalist: New York Times, Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky.

It started with a request from a staff person at NYU to allow a prospective graduate student named “Lucas” to sit in on my class on October 17. This is something that happens 8-10 times a semester. Students want to know what they can expect if they come to study at NYU. I said yes because I always say yes. The class he wanted to observe is called “Digital Thinking.” That day I had scheduled a guest speaker: my colleague Clay Shirky. The students had read all of Shirky’s major writings about the transformation of journalism in the digital age and they were eager to ask him questions.

When I got to class, Lucas was already there. I welcomed him, introduced him to the class, and asked my students to be nice to him because he was thinking of coming to study at NYU. About 30 minutes later Clay showed up and we did what college professors do thousands of times a day at universities everywhere.  We tell stories with ideas inside them and share how we think. We answer students’ questions and get them to share how they think. We try to complicate their picture of the world and inspire them to inquire further. This is the work of education. And this is what Clay and I did.

The next day I got a note from “Lucas.”  It said:

Dear Professor Rosen,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to sit in on your class. It was a treat to learn from Clay Shirky. I am leaving town on Friday. I was wondering if we could meet this week to discuss NYU, concentrations and a piece I am working on about Occupy Wall Street. Let me know what days and times work for you. I am pretty flexible.

Cordially,

I met with him two days later in my office. I will tell you what happened there in a moment.

Six days after that, on Oct. 26, the phone rang in my office. It was James O’Keefe. He said he wanted me to comment on something or other. I said there must be a context to this call, so what’s the context? And he began to read me quotes from the class session with Clay Shirky. It took me a few minutes to recognize that, yes, these were things that were said in class, so he obviously had a recording. Once I realized what he was up to I laughed at the absurdity of it and told him, “James, do whatever you want to do.”

At first I was confused about how the tape got made. I asked each of my students if he or she had taped the class. They each said no. I believed them. Then one student remembered we had a guest that day and it all fell into place.

“Lucas” had taped us, surreptitiously. Then he asked to meet with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was part of the sting. He said he wanted to become a political journalist: did I have any advice? I gave him several career paths he could follow. He asked me if being a politics major and a journalism minor would be a handicap. I said no. Then he let me in on something.

He said he had a tape of a Tea Party gathering in which some ugly and extreme (the implication was racist) things were said. He said it was gruesome stuff. He wanted to know how he could get it to the media. To the New York Times. I said the New York Times wouldn’t be interested in something like that, and that he might try to contact Max Blumenthal of the Nation. He asked if I had any other advice for him. I said find a niche and start a blog. I gave him the examples of Ezra Klein, Dave Weigel and Nate Silver to show him that it was possible. I was trying to inspire him! “Lucas” thanked me and left. He had a strange smile on his face.

I now realize he was scamming me and almost certainly taping me. The intended story line, worked out in advance, was lefty journalism professor jumps at the chance to assist with the discrediting of the Tea Party by passing along sensational footage to his buddies at the Times. “Lucas” was there to get me to say the words that, when diced and spliced, would sound like that. But it didn’t work. I told him the Times wouldn’t be interested. So no portion of that tape appears in O’Keefe’s video.

You can see the similarity between this plot and the sting O’Keefe ran on NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller. Schiller was invited to compare notes with O’Keefe’s seemingly sympathetic operatives on how racist the Tea Party was.

About the tape O’Keefe mashed together from Clay Shirky’s words, and a few of my own, there’s not much to say because it’s so incoherent, context-less and, frankly, boring. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post put it: “Just a couple of professors prattling on in not-so-fascinating ways about media and politics.” (For a different view, see Human Events: “exactly the sort of conversation that the most aggressive conservative critics of liberal media bias have nightmares about.”)

A student asked Shirky why the early coverage of Occupy Wall Street was meager and condescending. His answer was to the student and in a way to the protestors themselves: “If you want Occupy Wall Street to succeed, you want them not to get press coverage in the beginning.” O’Keefe turns that into Shirky revealing “the New York Times‘ strategy to support Occupy Wall Street.” The way the tape is edited, the “you” in “you want them” sounds like it refers to Times journalists, and so not covering Occupy Wall Street is really a secret plan at the Times to support the protests.

When Shirky says “we are the most elite…” and I follow it up with “we’re the one percent!” the discussion was about news consumption: journalism professors and students are at the extreme end in attention to news and willingness to pay for it. But you can feel O’Keefe salivating over those words as he splices them in. The implication he wants: we are your overlords!

Those are two examples, but why go on? If you see some scandal in the tape… good luck to you. What reasonable people will see is a lurid mess, which has meaning only within the taken-for-granted world of right wing culture war.

Occasionally I will hear someone exasperated at his tactics describe O’Keefe as a kind of terrorist. This is not wise and it’s not true. He doesn’t use violence; he’s an “entrapment journalist,” as Steve Myers of Poynter put it. But having been targeted, I can see one thing in his methods that is akin to terrorism.

As I said, when someone asks to sit it on my class, I say “come on in.” But my students are now shocked and angry that their learning environment has been invaded by a trickster like O’Keefe. I need to prevent that from happening again. But the only way I can do so is by closing my classroom to all outsiders, or by looking into the background, motivations and character of potential visitors, which is creepy and offensive. O’Keefe has struck at a pedagogical strength–the openness of my classroom–and changed it into a weakness. In that precise sense, and no other, he is like a terrorist.

You want to know what goes on in my classroom? Meet the real Clay Shirky. The one I had my students read. Here was their assignment.

We do not have class October 10. It’s a holiday: Columbus Day. It is alleged that he discovered America. Our next meeting will therefore be October 17. This I have designated Shirky Day. You are to absorb what Clay Shirky has to teach journalism and journalists. And so the readings are…

Keynote speech: A Group is its Own Worst Enemy (2003)
Interview with Columbia Journalism Review, Part One and Part Two. (2008)
Blog post: Rescuing the Reporters: (2009)
Talk at Nieman Foundation: (watch the video, please.) (2009)
YouTube: Interview with Jay Rosen (2009)
Ted Talk: The Cognitive Surplus (2010)
Now that I think of it: I gave these links to “Lucas,” so he would get the most out of his visit. I doubt he read them.

Post-script, Dec, 2011:
Actual hate mail, one of hundreds I have received in the same vein, showing the effects of the video’s editing to produce fake outrage.

John Hazelwood, [email protected]
to: [me] date: Mon, Dec 19, 2011 at 1:09 AM

I’ve just listened to a recording of you as an elitist journalist, a one percent-er if you will. What you are Rosen, is a poor excuse of a journalist and a prime example of why journalism has sunk to the pit most of you now occupy. Your comments on the tape remind me of a “jerk” who has no good explanation for themselves and can only rely on “smart ass” remarks.

Oh for the days of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite. You know, those journalist who the American people could trust. Not some snotty nose little boy who is just too full of himself.

Oh, and, Merry Christmas!!

 

NPR’s solution to getting bullied on the playground is to bring more lunch money

This week was pledge drive for WNYC, my NPR station. We're members and gave them $120. I don't want a tote bag for that. I want a CEO who can think politically.

26 Oct 2011 12:46 am 15 Comments

On taking the job, the new CEO of NPR, Gary Knell, said he wanted to “depoliticize” the debate over the future of public radio. This alarmed me, for reasons I will explain.

“It’s not about liberal or conservative — it’s about fairness,” Knell told David Folkenflik on October 2. “We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service, not only in the way we do our jobs, but in the way we disseminate the news.” He later told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to “re-tell” the NPR story so that Congress would see why it deserved taxpayer support. “If you listen over a period of time you hear voices from all ends of the political spectrum on NPR,” Knell added. “I think a lot of the critics, by what they say, don’t even listen to the service.”

At the same time that he said he wanted to de-politicize the debate, Knell announced that he would be fighting vigorously to retain taxpayer support for NPR and its member stations:

In an interview Monday with All Things Considered’s Melissa Block, Knell said federal funds are necessary for public radio stations to help ensure Americans are informed and engaged citizens.

“Certain rural parts of this country, for instance, when you drive across the state, and there is no commercial radio covering local news, [or] local and state government,” Knell said, “the only place is public radio.”

Knell pledged that NPR will continue to seek such funding — which polls suggest a majority of Americans support.

“We’ll have to make up [our minds] as a country, and the Congress will need to decide, as well as state governments, whether this is something important enough to support,” Knell said. “I happen to think it is. But we’ll see what happens.”

Five days before Knell said that, a House appropriations subcommittee introduced legislation to prevent local stations from using any of the funds they get from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support NPR. Normally, they pay a fee to NPR to broadcast programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The House measure would try to cripple that arrangement. There’s a long way to go before it becomes law, but the intentions of the House Republicans are clear: to cut off all federal dollars for NPR, direct and indirect.

Let me summarize what had already happened, then, before the latest turn in the story.

A new CEO (to replace the one forced out by culture war politics and a skittish NPR board) comes into office vowing to de-politicize the situation, to cool it down. He immediately declines the most direct way of doing that, which would be to renounce federal funding, a course recommended by his predecessor. Instead he plans to push for continued Congressional support, but to do it by telling a different story. It’s not about left or right, but about fairness and public service. That’s his different story. The critics don’t actually listen to NPR, he adds. If they did, they would hear a balanced news source with a broad range of views. They would hear an essential service. Through such means he plans to fight for public radio’s share of federal funding and change the minds of those in Congress who have been most critical, which of course means engaging with the Republican party and its activist wing.

Last week, they engaged with NPR. First The Hill, then the Daily Caller ran with this story: NPR host is Occupy DC spokeswoman. It was about Lisa Simeone, host of World of Opera, a show produced by WDAV, a music and arts station in North Carolina, and distributed by NPR, which makes it “an NPR show.” Simeone, a native of Baltimore, had become active in October 2011, one of the groups involved in the Occupy DC movement. She served on its steering committee and acted as a spokesperson.

From the Daily Caller story a four-day culture war controversy followed, ending with Simeone’s dismissal as host of Soundprint, a documentary series that airs on some public radio stations (it is not “an NPR show”) and NPR’s decision to stop distributing World of Opera because WDAV refused to fire her. (Which means World of Opera is no longer “an NPR show.”)

“I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen — the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly — on my own time in my own life,” Simeone told the Baltimore Sun. “I’m not an NPR employee. I’m a freelancer. NPR doesn’t pay me. I’m also not a news reporter. I don’t cover politics. I’ve never brought a whiff of my political activities into the work I’ve done for NPR World of Opera. What is NPR afraid I’ll do — insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?”

For a different view, reporter David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun turned to Adam Hochberg, who worked as a journalist at NPR for 15 years. He’s now a fellow at the Poynter Institute. “The NPR ethics code makes no distinction at all among NPR full-time employees, freelancers or people involved with what they call acquired programs, which would be produced by member stations or independent producers,” he told Zurawik. “It specifically says that the ethical guidelines apply across the board.”

So, Hochberg explains, “This whole distinction that people are trying to draw where she works for a member station or she’s a freelancer or whatever, in terms of NPR’s Ethics Code, it doesn’t matter. And in my opinion, it shouldn’t matter, because on any given day, ‘Morning Edition,’ for example, is a conglomeration of stories produced by full-time NPR correspondents, member-station people, freelancers and independents. But the bottom line, to the listener, it’s all NPR — it’s all NPR news.”

Hochberg, who teaches radio news and journalism at the University of North Carolina, also said it doesn’t matter, according to the NPR ethics code, whether she is performing as a journalist on a news show or as host of a music program on NPR.

“And even if this weren’t spelled out in black and white, I think most journalists would just look at this and say it’s obvious,” Hochberg said.

Obvious that the host of an opera program who is not being paid by NPR should be prohibited from having a political life if she wants to remain host of NPR’s opera program? Maybe it is to Hochberg, but it is not obvious to the code, which says, for example:

There will be instances where provisions of this code are not applicable to an outside contributor. For example, a freelancer who primarily does arts coverage, for example, may not in some situations be subject to the prohibition on making contributions to political campaigns. Such contributions, however, might limit the range of topics or individuals the outside contributor could cover.

Sounds a lot like Simeone’s situation to me. The code also says….

Producers of standalone programs acquired by NPR should also apply these ethical principles and procedures to the production of that programming. There may be instances in which the type of programming may not demand the application of a particular principle in this code.

Like say, the host of an opera show and her political activities? Clearly, the NPR code of ethics requires interpretation and judgment, but this is the opposite of what Hochberg said. He said it was “spelled out in black and white.”

For an explanation of why NPR acted as it did, we can’t go to the code. We also need the roar of the war. The culture war, that is. In March it claimed the head of Vivian Schiller, the previous CEO of NPR, who was forced out after a right wing trickster, James O’Keefe, secretly taped an NPR fundraising official making volatile comments about the Tea Party. Here’s Brent Bozell, who makes $423,000 a year off the culture war as head of the Media Research Center, in a letter to the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, on October 20:

Dear Mr. Speaker:

Enough is enough. NPR must be defunded.

It has been exposed that NPR host Lisa Simeone has been acting as a spokeswoman for the radical Occupy D.C. group “October 2011.” Regardless of the fact that NPR has recently terminated Miss Simeone, this is an outrageous violation of NPR’s so called ethics rules, which specifically state that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”

This is just the latest in a long list of abuses by this taxpayer subsidized leftist propaganda machine. It learned nothing from the public outrage when it fired Juan Williams in 2010. NPR is out of control, using taxpayer money to lend support to a sometimes violent and lawless mob set on crippling the financial backbone of our country.

NPR is not an objective, independent news broker. NPR is a shill for George Soros and other liberal funders….

And so on, and so forth.

I hope Gary Knell understands that there’s no changing that conversation. Brent Bozell’s letter to John Boehner is going to call NPR a “subsidized leftist propaganda machine” whether or not Lisa Simeone’s opera show is sacrificed. As I said in March:

Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts… These people want to destroy you. You don’t get to decide whether you have political enemies or not. The enemies have that power. But you can decide how to respond to them. The default setting is a series of political defeats.

And the decision to cave on World of Opera is another in that series. This is the problem I have with Knell’s attempt to “depoliticize” the struggle over public radio. When you are the object of a politicized attack, which extends from full time culture warriors like Bozell and O’Keefe to their allies in Congress who want to defund most of the government, not just NPR, it is not within your power to make the situation less political. Your opponents have that power. You do not.

Who politicized World of Opera more: Lisa Simeone by joining October 2011 but leaving her show untouched by politics, or NPR by divorcing itself from the show after taking criticism? I would say it’s NPR. Gary Knell complains that critics don’t actually listen to NPR. But did he listen to World of Opera and hear any “bias” problem with it? I doubt it. It’s about fairness, he says. What about all the people who listen (and donate) to NPR and who think that divorcing yourself from an opera show because the host has a political life isn’t all that fair?

If you’re getting bullied on the playground, bringing more lunch money won’t make it stop. You can’t keep sacrificing people to the culture war and expect things to calm down. Just because you want to make the safe choice doesn’t mean that any of the choices actually available to you are safe. This week was pledge drive for WNYC, my NPR station. We’re members and gave them $120. I don’t want a tote bag for that. I want a CEO who can think politically.

If “he said, she said” journalism is irretrievably lame, what’s better?

Further along in my dialogue with NPR over its embrace of "he said, she said" reporting: two new items to report. Another engagement with NPR's ombudsman. And Voice of San Diego's reporters handbook, which disallows he said, she said.

23 Sep 2011 5:26 pm 35 Comments

For the background, see: We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. This post is a continuation of that one.

First item: the NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, asked me to contribute to an experiment that is unfolding at his latest post: The Media, Civil Liberties and Security in Post-9/11 America. The experiment is: “Instead of doing the normal ombudsman thing of getting an internal response and pronouncing judgment, I am throwing open the discussion to everyone. I will moderate the discussion, weigh in periodically and republish some of the insightful comments.”

Well, alright! We’re down for that.

At issue is this NPR report on counter-terrorism procedures at the Mall of America in Minnesota, which has its own police force. Working with the Center for Investigative Reporting, NPR discovered some extreme tactics that appeared to have ensnared completely innocent people, like the guy making a videotape of the wonders of the Mall of America for family members who are from another country. The impression given was of massive overkill, and a kind of institutional paranoia.

More than any story in NPR’s prodigious coverage related to the 9/11 anniversary, the mall series divided listeners, who responded by the score. The two-part series, titled “Under Suspicion,” was either hailed for exposing violations of civil liberties or condemned for undermining the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts.

The question the ombudsman wanted to raise was this:

How far should NPR go in giving its own context and conclusions on what the consequences of its investigation might mean for our civil liberties versus our protection against terrorist attacks?… After 20 minutes, I was left with the strong impression that the mall force was poorly trained, over-zealous and probably not needed. But you may have come away with other impressions. At no point, did the journalists provide a bottom-line assessment of what their investigation meant.

But should they? Here’s the question again:

One reason we love NPR so much is that, as in “Under Suspicion,” it uses a technique called “storytelling” to explain or evoke complicated subjects through the stories and voices of real people. An alternative is to put us all to sleep with the droning analysis of a reporter. But does that mean that at no point should the story try to make bottom-line sense of it all for listeners? Is this taking “we report, you decide” to false limits? I am not suggesting that the reporters give opinion, but should they turn the corner on their own investigation and themselves analyze what it means?

I think it’s important that our big national news organizations have ombudsman, a human portal for complaints and questions. I think it’s shameful that CNN and Fox News–both highly profitable companies–do not. So if the NPR ombudsman asks me to contribute to an experiment he’s running (the email I got read, “I’d like to invite you to weigh in…”) that is a request I take pretty seriously.

Here is what I sent back to him. It has been posted at the NPR site:

I read Edward Schumacher-Matos’s post carefully. I listened to the NPR report. And I think I understand the question you are asking. So here is my reply.

Mister ombudsman, I have a wish for NPR. The wish is that it will someday permit its reporters in comparable situations to level with their listeners by saying: “Having investigated this and talked to a lot of people, having done the reporting and thought about it a lot, I would like to share with you some of the conclusions I have come to. I do not present them as facts. For they are not facts. Nor do they represent the position of NPR. As you know, NPR doesn’t take positions. Rather, these are my own takeaways, an NPR reporter’s “key lessons learned,” the conclusions I feel most strongly about, because they came through so powerfully in my reporting. Here, then, is what I think I know about this story, after thoroughly investigating it. You are welcome–indeed, you are encouraged–to argue with me. And I could be wrong. But fair warning: I have reasons for saying what I am about to say….”

Frankly, NPR is not at this point yet. Realistically, it cannot do what I ask. But someday it may see the benefit in my suggestion. I know this is hard to hear, and I mean no offense to the hard working people there when I say it, but NPR is right now too weak to permit its reporters this kind of interpretive freedom. It is too afraid of criticism. It has been spooked by the bias police. It sees not coming to conclusions as… well, as some kind of virtue, but this is a mistake. Not coming to a conclusion is a virtue only when you have not done the reporting to support those conclusions. When you have done the reporting, withholding your conclusions is a kind of bias in itself.

In a way, what it says to the listeners is: you can’t handle the truth. And that is not the way to build trust or earn respect.

Second item: I’ve been trying to tell NPR that a lot of people are onto “he said, she said” journalism; they understand how lame it is. Among them is Andrew Donohue, the editor of Voice of San Diego, which is one of the best born-on-the-web news sites to have emerged in the last few years. In reply to my exchange with NPR he agreed to send me Voice of San Diego’s “new reporter orientation” guidelines. They’re not an ethics code, exactly– more of an “expectations code.” As you’ll see, the guidelines explicitly warn new reporters away from the “he said, she said” approach.

I think the entire document is intelligent and forward-thinking. It corrects for many of the defects in mainstream journalism, and tries to inspire Voice of San Diego reporters to do better. NPR could learn a lot from it. (For example: “We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.”) This is the first time it has been published. (VOSD just won a General Excellence Award from the Online News Association.)

Voice of San Diego: New Reporter Guidelines.

We only do something if we can do it better than anyone or if no one else is doing it.

* We must add value. We must be unique.

Three things to remember for each story:

* Context
* Authority
* Not just what is happening, but what it means

There is no such thing as objectivity.

* There is such thing as fairness.
* But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
* We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
* We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.

Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.

* We don’t have a dogmatic or ideological bent. But we do believe San Diego can and will do better.
* We can have better infrastructure, a healthier environment, a better education system, a responsive, efficient and transparent government, a better understanding of our neighborhoods’ challenges, a thriving economy and an ever-improving quality of life. If anything, this is our bias.

Be the expert.

* Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.
* No “he said, she said.”
* The day we write a headline that says: “Proposal has pros, cons” is the day we start dying.
* There is no such thing as 50/50 balance. There is a truth and we work our damndest to get there.
* Sometimes two viewpoints don’t deserve 50/50 treatment.
* Most of the time there aren’t two sides to something, anyways. There are 17. Who’s not being represented? If they’re not speaking up, how can you represent them?
* We don’t just “put things out there.” We’re not “only asking the question.”
* We don’t ask questions with our stories. We answer them.
* We don’t write question headlines, unless they’re so damn good that we can’t resist:
* We don’t do this: “Did City Official Take Bribe?”
* Or, to cite a recent example: “Did Wikileaks Hack Servers?”
* We’d maybe do this: “How Did a City Official Ended Up With Millions in Donations?”
* We’re not someone’s goddamn transcription service.
* They can relay their own news. In a world where leaders are able to communicate directly with their constituents very easily, we have to a.) make sense of what they say and b) find out the things they don’t want to say. It’s the only way to effectively use our limited resources.

Tell the truth.

* This means not being mealy mouthed and not being bias-bullied.
* Stand up to bias bullies. Tell them why you did something. Let them challenge you on it.
* If someone calls you biased, don’t be scared. Don’t dismiss it either. Reflect on it and answer with conviction.
* Don’t go quote-hunting for something you know to be true and can say yourself. Don’t hide your opinion in the last quote of a story.
* Take a stand when you know something to be true or wrong.

Care about your beat more than anyone else.

* It is your way to make San Diego a better place to live.

Focus on big problems

* David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has a quote that can be paraphrased this way: Journalism is good at solving small problems or taking small bites of a big problem. It’s not good at solving big problems.
* It’s easy as a journalist to take a stand against a six-figure salary. It’s easy to take a stand against an expensive meal on an expense report.
* Why do we take stands on those things and why are we afraid to take stands on bigger issues?

If you can’t find a good answer any of these three questions, drop the story:

* Why did I choose this story?
* Why will people care? (Not why should they care, but why will they care.)
* Why will people remember this story?

Avoid ‘churnalism’

* It’s not your job to have everything on your beat. It’s your job to have the best things.
* Don’t worry about getting scooped. Worry about not consistently making an impact.
* Love the title of this Columbia Journalism Review story: “The Hamster Wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere.”
* A quote: “The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.”
* Another: “You say, ‘Why not have it?’ I say, ‘Because it isn’t free.’ The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.”
* We are a small group with limited resource. Everything we do must [pay off for the users.] * We can learn a lot from sports journalism. (That’s for a different day.) But here’s one great quote to always keep in mind from sportsjournalism.org: “Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.”

Avoid the news voice whenever possible.

* Sometimes it’s necessary.
* But you should never write a story [the way] you think journalists are supposed to write it. Write like you would if you were trying to get your friends interested in an email. Lighten up. Be creative. Have fun. Be conversational.

Bring us in the implications, not the event.

* So it’s not “Booze Ban Voted Through Council Committee.”
* It’s “Booze Ban Has One Final Hurdle Left.”

Don’t be boring. People don’t spend their free time on boring things.

* That’s it.

Don’t tell me stories about “critics” or “some”

* I don’t have a clue who “critics” or “some” are. But they managed to be the most quoted people on the planet.
* I need to know who they are for that viewpoint to carry any validity.
* And I need to know what, if any, financial stake they have in the issue. Honestly. (Just a sample of headlines in the news in a five-minute search this fall: “Some say Escondido police union’s flier crosses the line…” “Some say new constitution would solve state’s woes…” “Critics say Washing Oily Birds Is Wasteful…” “Observers Say Time Right for Santander IPO…”
* I’ve read stories that use blanket “critics” in different spots to describe people on the opposite ends of the arguments. It was so confusing.

Have fun! Be creative! Push the envelope!

* You don’t do this for the money. So let’s have some fun.
* Try something that’s never been tried before. Or try something that someone else did somewhere else. Don’t do a story just to do it. Or because it’s an interesting exercise.
* Think about what will impact people or policy makers. What will they want to read or what will force them to make a change?
* Be a student of today’s great journalistic innovations.
* Be a leader of today’s great journalistic innovations.

(Jay again…) Awesome, isn’t it?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

I did a radio interview about “he said, she said” at NPR with Amanda Marcotte.

There’s a Metafilter thread about this post. It’s pretty good.

Former Vice President for News and Information at NPR, Bruce Drake, says in the comments:

Apropos of the “wish” you had for NPR in the second paragraph of your response to the ombudsman.

I have very mixed feelings about it, although with the reservations somewhat outweighing what I see are the plusses.

The main plus is that it would be pretty interesting radio (and, probably, the same goes for print).

My reservations are that this could be very confusing for news consumers, and especially so in the format of radio.

This is not to underestimate the intelligence or curiosity of listeners (“Hey, I’d like to know what that reporter REALLY thought”), but I could see where it could come across as sounding like editorializing and fuzzing the line around the perception of the reporter’s role to people who are not as immersed in or as careful listeners as someone like you.

There’s more. Read the rest.

A former ombudsman for NPR, Jeffrey Dvorkin, says in the comments:

The public’s view of the “he said/she said” dilemma is more about the increasing frustration over the limits of balance. Journalists often feel constrained by “ethical standards” and “guidelines” imposed from above, while management worries that lobbyists and advocates will condemn any attempt at contextualization as examples of liberal bias. A better approach is for news organizations to spend more time (and money) on doing as complete a job of reporting as possible. This includes allowing and encouraging reasonable and fair conclusions. What the public wants (and needs) is journalism that feels confident enough in its own abilities to serve the audience as citizens first and as consumers of media, second. To do anything less is to capitulate to self-censorship. Which is just what the political critics of journalism want.

The NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, replies to me:

Jay,

In many ways, your wish is my wish. Stories that are long form, extensively researched and comprehensively sourced should come with conclusions – a clear progression of lessons (as you call them) rooted in the hard work of reporting. But what do we tell our audience when an investigation doesn’t reach a strong or sweeping conclusion? Few do.

You say that NPR has been scared away from conclusions. I have only been on the job three months, but haven’t found cowardism. I could be mistaken, but what I have found so far is a belief in using compelling and fair storytelling that over the course of a report conveys the facts and competing interpretations through the voices of people interviewed, and only limited voiceover. This allows listeners to draw their own conclusions, though I agree that sometimes listeners are left confused over how to weigh the competing points of view and who to believe. We need a reporter we trust to guide us with his or her own context and analysis, too.

The Mall of America story I cite, however, is a perfect example of an investigative that gives us what seems to be an important insight into abuses of civil liberty in the name of counter-terrorism, but still is only a limited insight.

No major conclusions can be drawn. My point was that it was this summation that should have been given. This said, the very investigation and lengthy report reflects that NPR was not shy from tackling a politically sensitive subject. I hope it never is.

Thanks!

Washington Post chat with writer and humorist Gene Weingarten:

ON THE OTHER HAND
Hi Gene, Just came across this critique of “he said, she said” reporting. It seems to be in line with what you’ve talked about in the past, although your description of it, “On the other hand, Mr. Hitler contends….” is much more colorful.

GENE WEINGARTEN :
Yeah, Rosen’s talking about the same thing. It’s basically a straw man type of writing, involving phony moral equivalencies. It’s cowardly: It lets you avoid finding the truth.

Peter Segal, the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell me, comments on “he said, she said” and the production of innocence at NPR.

So: this is a pretty pointed critique of my friends, but I found it interesting, in that it discusses one of the big underlying questions of contemporary journalism: when do you owe your audience not just the facts, but the truth? And how do you determine what that is?

We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR

Apparently, NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. It's not about editorializing. Or taking sides. It's failing to do the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims.

15 Sep 2011 8:03 pm 83 Comments

First I’m going to tell you what happened; then I’m going to comment on it.

I set my clock radio to NPR because I am a fan and loyal listener. A week ago I woke to this report about new rules for licensing abortion clinics in Kansas. The report stood out for me as an exquisite example of that dubious genre known as “he said, she said” journalism, which I’ve been complaining about for some time.  My 2009 essay on it attempts to explain the persistence of this form; it also gives a definition:

“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

In last week’s NPR report, the dispute was about the new requirements for abortion clinics in Kansas. These rules were an attempt to drive the few remaining clinics out of business, said abortion providers and their defenders. Nope, just common sense policies for protecting women’s health, said opponents of abortion. I didn’t think that leaving it there was good enough, so I sent a complaint to the NPR ombudsman. Then I turned it into a post at my Tumblr blog, including the audio clip so readers could hear for themselves:

My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.

According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do!  And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.

It is obvious to me that there’s something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination.  ”He said, she said” does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks. That’s putting your needs—for political refuge—ahead of mine as a listener. I don’t appreciate it. It makes me trust you less. And one more thing, a little lesson in realism. They’re going to attack you anyway, and crow in triumph when your CEO is forced out by those attacks. Ultimately there is no refuge, so you might as well do good journalism.

A short time after this was posted, Edward Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombud, said he would soon have a reply. He also said that he doubted the abortion report was “the lowest form of journalism.” But I didn’t say “lowest.” I said the “he said, she said” genre is one of the lowest. Sounds trivial, but I don’t think it is.

Yesterday his column went online. Lowest Form of Journalism or Constructive and Fair?  He thought I had over-reacted, and he got the reporter involved to comment, as well. For which I am grateful: thanks, NPR, for being so responsive. On Twitter, Greg Collard, a news director for an NPR affiliate, said the same thing: “Your criticism was way over the top for that piece.”

Was it? Let’s dig in. I think in many ways NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. For example:

We forwarded Rosen’s criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:

“I’ve covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.

“It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering. So, I don’t do that, with abortion or other issues.”

Take a position on the issue? No, Kathy. This is not what I’m saying: at all. Lohr tried to change my criticism into something she knew how to respond to. Thus, our exchange went something like this.

Me: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who’s right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?

Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don’t understand is: That’s not my job!

I do understand how you define your job. What I’m asking for is more reporting, not editorializing or picking a side.

For example: Opponents of abortion in Kansas say the regulations are just common sense. NPR could compare the proposed regulations for abortion to other procedures that are performed at clinics in that state: do the regulations for, say, colonoscopies specify that storage areas for “janitorial supplies and equipment” must be at least 50 square feet per procedure room? Or is that kind of requirement unique to the state’s proposed rules for abortion? I don’t know the answer, but NPR could try to find out. And if it’s not NPR’s job to find out, who’s job is it?

The ombudsman gave another example of the same point: It’s not about editorializing, it’s doing the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims. Abortion opponents have submitted to Kansas courts 2,500 pages of evidence arguing that abortion clinics nationwide are unsafe. Edward Schumacher-Matos:

I would like to see NPR directly tackle the claims of operating room safety, instead of leaving the matter only to the courts. Such claims are apparently hard to measure, even though the Kansas abortion opponents say they have 2,500 pages of documentation supporting their claims… Such a report, however, requires a lengthy investigation. Who knows? It might find that there are indeed safety problems in some abortion clinics. A report earlier this year by Lohr found sordid conditions in a Philadelphia clinic, for example. Or the investigation might find that might find that the 2,500 pages of “proof” contain little of substance and that the safety requirements are silly.

Exactly. And is that editorializing? No. It’s evaluating the evidence. Reporting! You know– journalism! But when you don’t have time to do that… or you lack the knowledge required… or you’re fearful of the criticism that might follow (or all three at once) what do busy journalists tend to do? They fall back on “he said, she said.” It’s understandable. But it is not admirable.

And when challenged on it, NPR journalists do not say: sorry, we didn’t have time to figure out who’s right. They say things like: “It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering,” which is a non-sequitur. Or they say what the NPR ombudsman did:

Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment. If that was his concern, the public health experts felt it was sufficiently communicated. His criticism, however, does demonstrate that NPR’s reporting comes under attack from both the right and the left.

In other words: we get hit from both sides, which suggests that our reporting is straight down the middle. Our critics are ideologically motivated, but we are not ideological, and that is probably why they find us deficient.

I think this is lame. You can judge for yourself, but I say there was nothing particularly “left” in my post criticizing NPR for relying on he said, she said. True, I have no sympathy for abortion opponents in Kansas, but I also don’t know–and didn’t claim to know–what an honest attempt to investigate these clashing truth claims would find. Maybe the Kansas regulations do have a public health justification, and some basis in common sense. I doubt it, but without investigating myself, how do I know? Isn’t this why we need journalists willing to dig into the matter? Isn’t this why we need NPR?

A subtler, but more interesting problem came with this passage from the NPR ombudsman:

Lohr’s piece made clear that politics were at least as big a driver here as patient safety. By happenstance, this past weekend I was with a group of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, most of them women who favor abortion rights. Some of them had heard the NPR report and had no complaints with it. They felt it was an everyday story presented in a straightforward way.

Weird! “Lohr’s piece made clear that politics were at least as big a driver here as patient safety.” No, it did not, Mr. Ombudsman. What Lohr’s piece said is: some think politics is the big driver here, but others claim that public health and common sense are behind the regulations. Nothing clear about it. In fact, it’s the opposite of clear. It says: we have no idea who’s right. You figure it out!

But when Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri President and CEO Peter Brownlie says on NPR that the regulations are “riddled with requirements which do nothing to improve the safety and health of women,” that kind of quote sends a coded message to, say, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (most of them women who favor abortion rights.) The coded message is: NPR is including in its report what you guys think these rules are really about. The logic here is representation of recognized interest groups, not clarification of the actual dispute, or verification of the actual facts.

Thus, NPR is saying to its listeners: Pro-choice? Your side is heard. These regulations are trying to drive abortion providers out of business. Pro-life? Squawk not, we got you covered. These rules are just common sense, public health measures. But it would be great if there were no more abortions in Kansas! I have written about this pattern, too. I call it the production of innocence.

The unstated message of which is: don’t complain. Your views are in there.  Which is why I wrote: ”He said, she said does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks.” If I’m correct, then interest groups are likely to be satisfied with this kind of treatment, but a huge portion of the audience is going to feel confused, stranded between warring camps, or poorly informed.

John McQuaid, formerly a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, picked up on this dynamic. Over Twitter he wrote, “NPR’s ombud basically says: for the truth, read between the lines.” Which is strange, he said, because it assumes “a level of subject matter or journalistic expertise most people don’t have.” Let me say it again: He said, she said is not about serving listeners. Rather it protects journalists from complaints that the most vocal interest groups are likely to raise. Thus:

The Atlanta-based Lohr, a go-to reporter for NPR on abortion issues, in NPR, is respected by both sides in the contentious abortion debate as fair.

See what I mean? He said, she said is a kind of three-way pact among journalists and the two most obvious sides in a predictable dispute. Groups on the left get their quotes. Groups on the right get corresponding quotes. The journalists at NPR get protection. It’s the listeners who get screwed.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen to this story, which aired September 15. “During a House hearing Wednesday, Republicans attacked the administration’s decision to fund Solyndra. Democrats defended the loan program and accused Republicans of trying to twist the story for political gain.” Republicans attacked. Democrats defended. And NPR has no idea who’s right, or what’s up.

I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. Do you?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Minnesota Public Radio had me on the air to discuss “he said, she said journalism” with former NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard and the editor of Voice of San Diego, Andrew Donahue. It was a very good discussion, as these things go. The host was Kerri Miller. Listen here.

A former Vice President for News and Information at NPR, Bruce Drake, says in the comments:

Speaking in general, if he-said-she-said reporting is one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, then the resort to the “We get attacked by both sides” is the lowest form of justification or defense when a piece of reporting is questioned.

A former ombudsman for NPR, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in the comments:

Senior managers have been known to publicly rebuff the pressures and defend the journalism. But not often enough. And there is a downside to public funding and local station influence. When the pressures are too intense, NPR has articulated a less than robust defense of its own journalism, fearing a loss of support. This happened regularly during the Palestinian Intifada. Public broadcasting remains vulnerable in that regard. NPR journalists want to do the right thing. But sometimes that instinct to do journalism with an edge, as one listener told me is his preference, is replaced with mere balance, much to the detriment of the listeners.

Kelley Griffin, a News Director at an NPR affiliate, in the comments:

[A simple thing to look for is] outside verification. Has the Kansas state health board set restrictions on square footage or storage for any other outpatient procedure? Has the state collected any complaints over the years that point to safety problems related to these aspects of the procedure? How will the state determine that the proposed regulations are medically necessary (or whatever their health board’s charter requires). I know the state wouldn’t talk because of the lawsuit – a stance that drives me crazy – but I would certainly have my reporter press them to give background and history of the agency that relates to the issue at hand, even if they won’t talk about the issue at hand.

I think while journalists are afraid of expressing opinions, the idea of giving a story more context shouldn’t be scary at all, and that’s all we’re talking about here. Keep asking questions: How do you know that? What’s your proof? How much exactly will it cost you? How do you know that?

Precisely. And NPR’s answer to that is: “Sorry, we can’t take sides.” As I said, it’s a non-sequitur.

The NPR ombudsman returns to the subject. (On Twitter he says: “To celebrity NYU jorno prof @jayrosen_nyu from lowly Columbia J visit prof, I still disagree! Good lesson, wrong story.”)

The problem is that the NPR abortion story out of Kansas that Rosen cites remains the wrong example. It was a simple daily story that did a sufficiently good job in pulling together the facts on what happened, with analytical commentary from different sides.

Is more needed? Of course. That’s why you have follow-up stories. Instant, conclusive analysis in a three-minute report on the safety of clinics in Kansas that perform abortions is almost humanly impossible without being glib, sarcastic, cynical, biased, or all the above. You didn’t have to listen between the lines to know that abortion politics is a major factor in the Kansas deliberations – whatever the truth is on safety. Listeners aren’t stupid. They know they got a straight report, no matter their own biases, and that the question of safety remains just that: a question to be reported further.

I wrote a follow-up to this post: If “he said, she said” journalism is irretrievably lame, what’s better? (Sep. 23, 2011) Bruce Drake and Jeffrey Dvorkin appear in the comments there, too.

An Australian journalist comments on the “he said, she said” genre.

It is the antithesis of everything I learned as a young reporter, way back then. I was told that the job of a journalist was to test daily assertions for their veracity. For a modicum of truth – as far as one was able to ascertain.

In the past this may have taken hours, days or weeks. It was important that any utterance was tested by a journalist and, if printed, worth the paper it was written on.

Instead, the scenario in the modern 24 hour newsroom is: crazy deadline; few staff, many juniors; press release; phone quote, email, twitter; quick edit; bish-bosh-bash, news bulletin assembled; web site amended; out it goes.

Forget it. It’s done. Let’s wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Steve Buttry responds to this post at his site.

While I have called for updating some of the details in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I love the direct, elegant wording of its first principle: Seek Truth and Report It. “He said, she said” reporting shrugs off this responsibility. In fact, it presents lies equally with the truth, which is hardly different from lying.

Terry Mattingly, the editor of Get Religion (a site about press coverage of religion) reacts:

As someone who has followed debates about abortion coverage (and media-bias research linked to it) for 30-plus years, here’s the bottom line on this skirmish.

Yes, opponents of legalized abortion hope that these regulations make life more difficult for abortion providers.

However, yes, it has been shown that hellish conditions exist in some abortion facilities, conditions that risk the lives of women. The question is whether these abuses are so widespread that state action, via these regulations, is justified. Does anyone doubt that NPR will need to quote experts on both sides during that debate? Does anyone expect conflict to vanish on the interpretation of the evidence gathered during that debate?

Mattingly also said I was being somewhat unfair by focusing on a single story when a news organization’s priorities are seen in the pattern of coverage over time. My reply to that.

Terry Heaton in the comments with a different critique of “he said, she said” reporting. “Today’s journalists simply don’t know how to present an argument and instead allow those with skin in the game to do it for them.”  In other words, it’s a kind of outsourcing.

Nifty dismissal of this kind of critique by a New York Times reporter… in 140 characters.

Harris Meyer says he consistently complains about “he said, she said” reporting and never gets a reply from the NPR ombudsman.

The Quest For Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism (PressThink, February 2010) is a different post about journalists’ refusal to exert a factual check. In this one, the “text” is provided by the New York Times.

This takes 15 minutes to watch. My video essay on Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and “he said, she said.”

Building Froggietown: A Parent’s 9/11 Story

This is something I wrote when the shock of September 11th, 2001 was still... there. I am reprinting it today to mark the ten year anniversary of that event. Peace.

11 Sep 2011 10:20 am 4 Comments

In Manhattan, Sep. 25, 2001

My colleagues and I held a teach-in last week for journalism students at NYU. An intellectual vigil, if you will. For the first time since I became a professor, I saw in the faces of students how much they needed us. Events had made them vulnerable to knowledge they hoped we had. Of course we needed them too. Their hoping most of all.

Too young, I never went to a campus teach-in during the 60s. But I read of them, and why they happened. When events got too big, you couldn’t teach about anything else. Here was that event again. So we got a room, collected the faculty, printed our posters and went forward into cultural memory. “Sixities don’t fail me,” I remember thinking, yet only for a moment.

In one of the first comments, a young woman said she wondered if she has what it takes to be a reporter. All she wanted to do on September 11th was stay in bed and hide. Because she couldn’t bring herself to head for Ground Zero, she began to ask: could I ever be a real journalist?

Of all forms of courage a good journalist needs, the willingness to place yourself in danger has a small part. I’m grateful there will always be reporters and photographers who do that; and when a correspondent is hurt or killed trying to cover the news, the story is of heroic sacrifice. Most of the time, for most in the press, intellectual courage is most demanded.

(more…)

Why Political Coverage is Broken

My keynote address at New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology. (Melbourne, Australia, August 26, 2011.)

26 Aug 2011 3:21 am 66 Comments

This talk had its origins in my appearance about a year ago on the ABC’s Lateline with Leigh Sales. We were discussing election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event. Every day journalists can ask, “who’s ahead” and “what is the strategy for winning?”  A perspective that appeals to political reporters, I said, because it puts them “on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do.”

I then mentioned the ABC’s Sunday morning program, The Insiders. And I asked Leigh Sales if it was true that the insiders were, on that program, the journalists. She said: “That is right.” I said: “That’s remarkable.” She… well, she changed the subject. And let me add right away that Leigh Sales is one of the most intelligent journalists I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?”  Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.

(more…)