Occupy PressThink: Tim Pool

"Being a livestream he acts as 'eyes and ears' for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he'll do it. They'll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so... The viewers will ask him questions and he won't rest until he gets them their answers."

20 Nov 2011 1:26 am 18 Comments

Recently, Alexis Madrigal, the technology editor of The Atlantic and pretty much the smartest young journalist ’round these parts, re-described occupy Wall Street as an API, or Application Programming Interface.

What he meant is that one of the distinctive features of the movement is its “open” design. “From the beginning, the occupation was meant to take on a life of its own. Organizers and occupiers alike have not tried to maintain control of the message or methodology for spreading ideas or occupations. Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something, trusting they’ll be able to connect to the movement. Hence OccupyHistory and hundreds of like sites.”

How is Occupy Wall Street “like” an API? Madrigal explains:

API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way. So, Twitter has an API that lets app developers create software that can display your Twitter feed in ways that the company itself did not develop. Developers make a call to that API to “GET statuses/home timeline” and Twitter sends back “the 20 most recent statuses” for a user.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

I think it’s a beautiful way of describing the movement. Madrigal’s section on social media:

GET Strategy/social media: Occupy Wall Street had a social media strategy from the beginning. They encouraged all protesters to record their experiences with cell phones and cameras and then used that media to drive awareness of the protest in its early days. Since then, a whole network of social media has emerged from Twitter accounts to Facebook pages to wikis. This web is woven together by a media team as well as outsiders who have begun to act as signal amplifiers and filters. A particularly effective outside effort was the WeArethe99Percent tumblr, which presented stories of everyday people who were struggling despite their hard work.

The social media API works in tandem with the Big Media “interface,” a portion of which is:

GET Decentralized leadership structure: Repeat mantra that the movement is ‘leaderless.’ In practice, have no single leader on whom the media and/or public can focus. Avoid profiles of organizers….

That’s all background to this letter I got. It’s a perfect example of… “Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something.” The letter tells of an adventure in citizen journalism unfolding around Occupy Wall Street. Chris Fornof explains it as well as I could, so I am going to shut up and let you listen to him.

Nov. 18, 2011


This is Chris Fornof. You likely don’t remember me, but I was involved briefly with Assignment Zero. I’m a huge supporter of citizen journalism and try to help out in little ways where I can.

I’ve been glued to media coverage of #Occupy, and I saw something this week that I thought you’d be interested in.

Tim Pool.

Something very special is happening here.

Basically he’s a protester-turned-reporter with a cell phone who is doing some very uniquely awesome things with his streaming ustream coverage. He’s been doing 20-hour live reporting marathons, but what’s extremely powerful is the feedback loop that he has with his viewers (numbering in the 15k+ live, 100k+ daily).

There’s a unique symbiosis happening. Being a livestream he acts as “eyes and ears” for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he’ll do it. They’ll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so (taking extensive feedback, questions, and commentary from the channel viewers). The viewers will ask him questions and he won’t rest until he gets them their answers. There is no delay or time to press. It’s instant. And it’s awesome.

But it goes both ways.

When his camera battery goes low, people swarm into action. Purchasing batteries, locating someone on the ground to deliver, and coordinating delivery. He’s got a dozen batteries, pack and chargers just donated to him so he can keep recording. He mentions he’s getting hungry and somehow people make sure he’s fed with a constant stream of random strangers exactly what he needs when he needs it. This also extends to a few thousand people that will devour twitter and live news feeds to give him active intel so he can stay safe.

The goodwill he’s engendering is ridiculous. Beyond the participation, there’s relationships happening here. I have never seen this kind of support for a journalist before. He logs off for the night and hundreds of people stream in their “THANK YOU!”s and undying gratitude.

He’s got some TIME people following him for the past few days. I expect you’ll hear more about him soon. (Link.) I strongly feel that the kind of reporting he’s doing represents the future of what citizen journalism could be.

There have been a few dozen livestreams of the protests that have been fascinating to watch, but Pool has been one of the first to engage viewers like this.

I was hoping sometime that you may be able to get in touch with him. Perhaps advise him. You are well connected in the field of journalism and can likely appreciate the uniqueness of what is happening here. From watching his interactions, Tim seems very level-headed and could likely serve as a good case-study for citizen journalism in action. Who knows?


Thank you for your tireless support for citizen journalism over the years. It’s a long-haul trip but I think the world is finally waking up to the things you’ve been saying. Keep up the great work!


Occupy PressThink (see how well that API works?…) has a few comments about this.

1. Since I know how the term enrages people, I am going to quote my definition of citizen journalism:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

Tim Pool is a perfect example. In fact, I can’t think of a better illustration of what I was trying to get across in sculpting that definition.

2. It’s hard to overlook the fact that his name is Pool. In pressland, a “pool” report is what happens when the entire press corps can’t have access to a news event, so a representative team of 3-4 reporters is sent and their accounts are then shared with the whole gang. They have to be the eyes and ears for others. They have to ask what others would ask. They can’t keep what they find out to themselves. In a way, that’s what Tim Pool does.

3. In his epic post, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, my colleague Clay Shirky writes: “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did…”

Yes. And one of the things we need to experiment with is the relationship (sorry, can’t think of a better word) between journalists and the people who depend on them for reports. “When his camera battery goes low, people swarm into action…” is just that: an experiment in what this relationship could be like: We’ll help you, we’ll feed you, just keep the reports coming.

I wrote about an earlier example of this kind of relationship here: They’re Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial (2007.) As Shirky says, we need more experiments in how the (dependent) users can support the (independent) reporters.

4. From Wikipedia: Pool broadcasts using his 4G Samsung Galaxy SII. See this report on Pool for more on his tech.

5. This might be a good time to mention that Tim Pool is clearly an activist and supporter of Occupy Wall Street as well as a reporter of it. If you believe those things can’t possibly go together, fine, I know where you’re coming from. But don’t expect me to freak out or even care that you wouldn’t call Pool a journalist. As I’ve said before, we should focus less on “who’s a journalist” and more on valid acts of journalism. When we can recognize the act, the “who” becomes easier: anyone committing the act!

6. When young people ask me what they should do if they want to become a journalist, here is what I normally tell them: the most important thing is not to go to J-school, or start a blog, or get a newspaper to hire you (though all those things are good!) but to get yourself into a “journalistic situation.” A journalistic situation is when a live community is depending on you for regular reports about some unfolding thing that clearly matters to them.

If you really want to be a journalist the best experience you can have is to be depended on by people who need you as their eyes and ears, their interviewer, their man or woman in the field. Tim Pool: he’s in a journalistic situation, classically so. And I bet he’s learning a lot from it.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

See also my Tumblr post: Tim Pool, the man behind @TheOther99, is bringing the Max Headroom prophecy to life.

GigaOm: Occupy my TV: The birth of the citizen video reporter. Follows up on this post with a trend story.

Fast Company: Tim Pool And Henry Ferry: The Men Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Live Stream.

NPR’s On the Media: Q and A with Tim Pool.

Mathew Ingram: What happens when journalism is everywhere?

Photo by Paintballbudd. Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

You can follow Tim Pool on Twitter and get word on when he’s live streaming that way.


“Low information voters” and the political press

What if journalists sense that their work never reaches the voters whose inattentiveness is being exploited? What if they somehow know that voters are getting screwed but they've lost faith in their ability to do anything about it?

17 Nov 2011 3:32 pm 26 Comments

Last week, Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s policy wonk who is rapidly becoming their most valuable journalist, brought to our attention a fascinating paper by six political scientists. It’s called A Theory of Parties. I am going to take a little time here to summarize what it says:

“Parties no longer compete to win elections by giving voters the policies voters want,” they write. “Rather, as coalitions of intense policy demanders, they have their own agendas and aim to get voters to go along.”

In the United States, at least, parties are not politicians of a similar mind banding together to win elections, but “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands” that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the broader public. They “only strive to please voters when necessary to win elections.” But this constraint often doesn’t amount to much “due to voters’ lack of information about politics.” The goal, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is to “cede as little [influence] to voters as possible.” The need to win elections occasionally requires “genuine responsiveness,” but parties mainly push their own agendas and try to get voters to acquiesce.

Interest groups pushing policy demands at odds with the interests of most voters have an especially large advantage at the nomination stage of elections, the authors write. “Most citizens pay little enough attention to general elections and even less to nominations. The few who vote in primaries lack the anchoring cue of candidate partisanship, rendering them open to persuasion. Media coverage of primaries is also generally less than in general elections, further increasing the expected impact of small amounts of paid communication.”

Here is the part that intrigued me as the author of PressThink: “To explain the substantial autonomy we believe parties enjoy, we posit an ‘electoral blind spot’ within which voters do not monitor party behavior.” Through various institutional devices, like complex party rules and procedural votes that no one understands, the major parties “seek to exploit lapses in voter attentiveness” and “keep the electoral blind spot as large as possible.”

To be sure, parties must tread carefully. As V.O. Key famously argued, voters are not fools. Even the poorly informed find cues and heuristics that allow them to make sense of politics and respond with a degree of rationality. A candidate with a reputation for extremism will fare poorly among voters who lack a coherent ideology but still know they don’t like extremism. Candidates who attack popular programs like social security, or promote unpopular ones like busing to achieve racial integration of schools may likewise arouse the ire of voters not usually attentive to politics.”

“Yet, while voters can recognize and resist some kinds of extremism, our main point here is that voters, especially those who swing between parties, know dramatically little about politics. In the competitive world of elections, this makes a difference. We try to capture this difference as an “electoral blind spot” — a policy region within which aggregate electorates do not enforce preferences even when they have stakes.”

So the blind spot is where voters get screwed because they don’t know what’s going on. Far from being a problem for the two major parties, it’s actually their goal to find these spots and enlarge them. The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for the interest groups who know how the system works.

As long as parties stay within the electoral blind spot, they are effectively free to nominate any candidate they want. They have nothing to gain from further compromise, nothing to lose from sticking to their guns. In reality, however, the blind spot is neither clearly demarcated nor fixed for all time. What voters notice, or fail to notice, depends on media coverage, campaign dynamics, suddenly salient events, and how candidates express themselves. In the face of this uncertainty, parties continually test the limits of the blind spot…

This isn’t what political science normally teaches:

√ “A reader who went from our above discussion to leading textbooks on parties and elections would experience a severe disconnect. She would find no hint that parties seek, consciously or otherwise, to exploit voter inattentiveness. Her main impression from the textbook account would be that parties work very hard to win elections…”

√ “In sum, the textbook party puts office-seekers and professional staff at the center and policy demanders at the periphery. This is a much different animal than the one we have theorized, which puts the coalition of policy demanders at the center…”

√ “To posit that American politics is mainly organized by election-minded politicians, as the dominant school of American politics does, is to miss its essence. Organized combat among groups who aim to get more than their fair share of government policy is closer to the heart of the matter.”

√ “We would also agree that business groups, which pour huge amounts of cash into politics, get more than their fair share of government policy. How could it be otherwise? But numerous other groups, from Christian fundamentalists to gun advocates to environmentalists to civil rights activists, behave similarly. They differ from business in the type of resource they pour into politics: more manpower, less cash. But they are trying to do exactly what business groups try to do – pursue their policy demands, which they regard as just and fair, whether most voters agree or not.”

So that’s the theory. What if it’s right? (And I think it is right in the sense of being descriptive; so does Ezra Klein.) This would permit us to say with greater precision what the job of the political press should be: To shrink the electoral blind spot as much as it can. To prevent politicians from exploiting voter inattentiveness by paying closer attention than the voters normally do and sounding the alarm. To point out who’s trying to get “more than their fair share of government policy” and alert the electorate in watchdog fashion. To raise the costs for political actors trying to operate within the blind spot and perhaps restore some accountability to the system.

But. What if those who operate the political press don’t think they need a theory of parties in order to cover partisan politics? (After all these are intensely practical people, right?) What if “the press,” a loosely organized and fairly mindless institution to begin with, barely an institution at all, is simply unable to recognize that it already has an implicit theory of parties that is badly in need of revision?

Or, switching problems, what if political journalists sense that their work never reaches those “low information voters” whose inattentiveness is presently being exploited? What if down deep they don’t actually believe in their power to correct for the blind spot? What if they somehow sense that the voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their own ability to do anything about it? What if they have long ago accepted that the watchdog role is a myth and they’re only talking to “political junkies,” the highly informed and attentive pubic, anyway?

In all of those cases, we might expect them to retreat to something they can do. Something I have tried to give a name to: cultivating their savviness and tutoring the attentive public in that sensibility.

Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that (how will this play with the voters?) haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.

In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.

The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. But we could also define it as they point at which the press reverts to savviness because engaging the broader electorate is beyond its means or intention. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for players who know how the system works.

A note to my conservative friends

A few things about the practice of journalism and the American news media on which the conservative movement and I agree.

30 Oct 2011 12:31 pm 52 Comments

The attempted “sting” against me and my NYU colleague Clay Shirky by James O’Keefe (which you can read about here and here) had its intended effect. It sent even more culture war resentment my way than is normally sent my way. (“The most striking thing about this is the lack of any ethical consideration whatsoever…”)

So I thought it might be good time to address my conservative friends and readers, not on the differences I have with them but on a few areas of (possible) common ground.

I don’t think this will change a thing. It won’t increase mutual understanding, correct for caricature or open space for honest dialogue. There is no such hope for such in the culture war climate we have in the United States, especially around the performance of the news media. But it’s worth doing anyway. Here, I am going to speak to what I take to be common attitudes within the conservative movement generally, based in part on things I hear coming at me from the right. So when I say “you” I really mean tendencies, not individuals.

1. You think the New York Times is “a liberal newspaper” and so do I. In 2004 the New York Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, said just that: The Times is a liberal newspaper, in part because it reflects the city in which it is edited. Here’s what I wrote about Okrent’s column:

One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper. And even though he meant “…on social issues only!” it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times— and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he’s right.

Recently Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, endorsed that view. He also said it’s extremely important for journalists to try to distance themselves from the beliefs they have going into a story.

2. You think the mainstream press should stop claiming it has no view of the world and so do I. The way I read them, conservatives often get exasperated (get real, Jay, they are regularly enraged…) at the way mainstream journalists present themselves as viewless and “above it all,” such that if you’re dissatisfied with their portrait the likely reason is that you refuse to face reality as it is, because that’s what news reports from mainstream journalists do: they depict reality, not the way you see it or I see it but simply “…the way it is.”

I think this attitude is corrosive and mistaken. Not only have I criticized it, under the heading The View from Nowhere, I have tried to suggest what might take its place.  This is what I wrote:

I could be wrong, but I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.

In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”

In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”

If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.

See also Conor Friedersdorf, Stop Forcing Journalists to Conceal Their Views from the Public.

3. You think NPR should stop supporting itself with taxpayer dollars and so do I. Writing about an earlier stunt by James O’Keefe, which resulted in the forced resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, I advised NPR thusly:

* Abandon viewlessness as the official ideology at NPR. Replace it with pluralism. Meaning: NPR acknowledges that the people who work for it have a diverse mix of views and starting points. It is unreasonable to expect that these won’t factor into their work, but it is perfectly reasonable to hold everyone at NPR to basic standards: accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency. That means you can click on the name of any editorial staffer and find out where they’re coming from

* Renounce the two percent or so of its budget that it gets directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other federal agencies, eliminating that as an hot button issue. (NPR finances are explained here.)

4. You think I should just admit I’m a liberal. So do I. I try to practice what I preach to journalists: that it’s easier for people to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. I don’t pretend to be a person without political views or starting points. Since 2004 I’ve had an FAQ at my blog that includes this statement.

Politically, where are you: left, right, middle of the road, liberal, conservative?

My views on issues would be standard Upper West Side Liberal Jewish babyboomer— even though I don’t live in that neighborhood. I am a registered Democrat. I supported Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, over David Dinkins (D) and I am fan of the job Bloomberg has done as mayor. I’ve written for Harpers, the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, Washington Post, Salon and Tompaine.com, to list a few, but not the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard or the Washington Times. I was media editor at Tikkun magazine for a while. That should be enough to place me on your spectrum.

Update: April 2008. As I mentioned here, I am a supporter of Barack Obama for president and I hope he wins. I haven’t given money, or donated time, or been in contact with the campaign, but I voted for him in the primary and intend to do so again in November, 2008. Just thought I should make that clear in this space.

5. You think Dan Rather engaged in outrageous misconduct back in 2004 and so do I. Every conservative who participates in media critique remembers the episode in the fall of 2004 when CBS aired a deeply flawed documentary on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard record. Dan Rather, then the anchor of the CBS Evening News, not only defended the work but attacked the people who were questioning it. I thought Rather was very, very wrong and I wrote about it repeatedly. A representative clip, from the day after CBS released a big report on the episode.

Dear Dan Rather: “Lest anyone have any doubt,” you said in your statement yesterday, “I have read the report, I take it seriously, and I shall keep its lessons well in mind.”

I still have my doubts. Perhaps these would be lessened if, for example, you had bothered to spell out which lessons you saw for yourself, and for CBS News in the review panel’s report.

  • Was it the lesson about the deadly consequences of dismissing criticism because you think you know the motivations of the critics?
  • Was the lesson that a prudent journalist ought to fear and respect the fact-checking powers of the Internet?
  • Or was it that by stretching yourself thin you had stretched thin the credibility of the very network you thought you were serving by taking so many assignments?
  • Maybe the lesson is not to apologize when you think you did nothing wrong.

We have had post-mortems that were published before, but not as detailed as this. What lessons are in the report for you, Dan Rather, will be established in public discussion, as the findings sink in. Today, for example, we are discussing, in rhythm with the news cycle, whether CBS News showed political bias in its mishandling of the Air National Guard story. Tomorrow it will be some further refinement.

I would not go so far as to say that you, Dan Rather, need to write a blog. You don’t. But take the money you spend on the person who is sometimes called your spokeswoman, and hire yourself a skilled blogger, to do a Dan Rather Reports blog. Here you post additional source material, put tapes of your interviews, and also explain yourself, react to crtics and follow up on stories aired by 60 Minutes.

Participating in debate around the blog and online journalism worlds could be as simple as lose the spokesperson and meet with your personal blogger for 20-30 minutes a day. He does the rest. Morning talks are turned into posts quoting you; your blogger gets the links to go with them and “runs” the blog, including comment sections. Whenever you want to write, you do.

The blogger is a feedback loop and fail safe device. Part of what she does is monitor the online world for what is being said about Dan Rather and his reporting. Such a person, well connected to the discussion, would have been extremely valuable to you during the twelve-day period, Sep. 8-20, 2004. After six months of your blog, statements like this from Linda Mason, your new vice president for standards: “Dan does think he’s constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn’t be doing any stories…” would be rendered inoperative by reason of being inane.

One more: a bonus agreement between you and me. You think heavily-edited programs like 60 Minutes should release all the footage from their interviews so we can judge how fair the final product is, and so do I.

That’s five-and-a-half patches of common ground. If I think of more, I will add them to this post.

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.


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:


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.


Washington Post chat with writer and humorist Gene Weingarten:

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.

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?