From Judith Miller to Julian Assange

Our press somehow got itself on the wrong side of secrecy after September 11th.

9 Dec 2010 6:41 pm 36 Comments

For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday, September 8, 2002.

On that morning the New York Times published a now notorious story, reported by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, in which nameless Bush Administration officials claimed that Iraq was trying to buy the kind of aluminum tubes necessary to build a nuclear centrifuge. Press critic Michael Massing, who in 2004 reviewed these events, describes what happened:

Gordon and Miller argue that the information about the aluminum tubes was not a leak. “The administration wasn’t really ready to make its case publicly at the time,” Gordon told me. “Somebody mentioned to me this tubes thing. It took a lot to check it out.” Perhaps so, but administration officials were clearly delighted with the story. On that morning’s talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. “It’s now public,” Cheney said on Meet the Press, that Saddam Hussein “has been seeking to acquire” the “kind of tubes” needed to build a centrifuge to produce highly enriched uranium, “which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.” On CNN’s Late Edition, Rice said the tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” She added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—a phrase lifted directly from the Times.

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Building a Better Explainer: NYU and ProPublica Will Collaborate and Share What They Learn

PressThink has an announcement to make! ProPublica is making it at the same time. (Here's the official press release.)

30 Nov 2010 9:57 pm 9 Comments

The Building a Better Explainer Project

ProPublica, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NYU’s Studio 20 program, which is focused on innovation in journalism, announced today a joint project to experiment with new ways of doing “explainers,” a form of journalism that provides the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news.

The goals of the project are to improve the art of explanation at ProPublica’s site and to share what is learned with the journalism community.

The Building a Better Explainer project will extend for the remainder of the 2010-11 academic year. Graduate students working under NYU professor Jay Rosen, and consulting closely with the editors of ProPublica, will:

* research best practices in explanatory journalism;
* collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;
* pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at ProPublica.org;
* experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the web
* investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with web users;
* share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world.

“An explainer is a work of journalism, but it doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story,” Rosen said. “It addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge. We wanted to work with the journalists at ProPublica on this problem because they investigate complicated stories and teach what they’ve learned to other journalists. It seemed like a perfect match.”

“Orienting readers and giving them context has long been a key component of good journalism,” said Eric Umansky, a senior editor at ProPublica. “But the Web allows you re-think what forms that can take and how it should be done. We’re thrilled to be working with Studio 20 and Jay on experimenting with that.”

Bringing clarity to complex systems so that non-specialists can understand them is the “art” of the explainer. For instance, an explainer for the Irish debt crisis would make clear why a weakness in one country’s banks could threaten the European financial system and possibly the global recovery. A different kind of explainer might show how Medicare billing is designed to work and where the opportunities for fraud lie.

“Good explainers are engaging, not only informative,” said Rosen. “They lower the barrier to entry to news stories that are difficult to summarize in a headline.”

The project site is Explainer.Net, which launched today. It will be edited by the Studio 20 team. The site will highlight outstanding work in explanation, interview skilled practitioners and update interested audiences on the project’s progress.

Now for the background on this project…

It begins two years ago, with This American Life’s hugely successful one hour documentary, The Giant Pool of Money. To my mind it’s the greatest explainer ever heard. That led to my 2008 post, National Explainer, which is about a flaw in the model of information acquisition that got built into the existing news system:

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

My conclusion was: “If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes before the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.”

Meanwhile, Matt Thompson, then a fellow at University of Missouri, now at NPR’s Argo project, was thinking along similar lines. To actually understand the biggest stories in the news we need to know “what just happened” and we also need a grasp of the “longstanding facts.” One without the other doesn’t work. But typically we only get the “what happened” part. He later refined those terms. The news system, he wrote, gives us “episodic information,” but a series of episodes cannot actually inform us.

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue…

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

It turns out that in order for information about things like the public option and budget reconciliation to be useful to you, you need a certain amount of systemic knowledge to be able to parse it. You need an [effective] framework for understanding health care reform before the episodic headlines relating to health care reform make any sense.

It used to be impossible to provide this background because space was at a premium and broadcast time was precious. But in the digital era the scarce resource is the user’s time and attention. And, as Thompson pointed out, a stream of context-less updates is not a productive way of informing people who have limited bandwidth and an abundance of information options.

“Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop.” This was the way I put it at the South by Southwest panel in Austin that Thompson and I were on, along with Tristan Harris of Apture.com and Staci Kramer of paidcontent.org. We called that event “the future of context,” and created a separate site for it with essays and guest posts by others. (See: futureofcontext.com. You can listen to the SXSW panel here.)

The Austin event was a success: the room was packed, the tremors continued for weeks after. This convinced me that the future-of-context puzzle was important to the rebooting of news, and that a lot of people were tuning into it. In May of 2010 I started discussing with editors at ProPublica a possible collaboration in which my Studio 20 students and I would try to build better explainers for them. They were receptive.

So that’s what we are going to try to do. We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site, explainer.net, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.

We can’t fix the flaw in the old system’s model of information acquisition; that’s baked in. But while we’re building a better news system we should be trying to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Resentment News (and More Blondes Per Square Foot): Explaining What Fox News Channel Is

Not sure whether I will continue to do these things, but I recorded my second Late Night with PressThink video. It tries to explain "what Fox News actually is, which really means explaining it to myself..."

22 Nov 2010 1:33 am 14 Comments

The original is here if you wish to embed. Some of the key concepts:

Resentment

On Fox, the news exists in order to generate controversy. And controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings. So this is my most concise idea about Fox: we should consider it “resentment news.” I think that’s the genre in which it trades… Resentment of whom? Well, a cultural elite that is corrupt and maneuvering behind the scenes to exercise power.

Myth

Resentment of the cultural elite as a recurring theme in news puts me in mind of something that the critic Roland Barthes—a Frenchman—said about myth. Myth in the sense of a kind of ideological narrative that motivates people to particpate in politics and engages their emotions. And what Barthes said is: “many signifiers, one signified…” Or to put it another way: many stories—every night there’s new stories on Fox—one narrative that endures. Many provocations, one lesson. The liberals, the cultural elite, are at it again. And this is the essence of myth: that no matter what happens, the story remains the same, [which] is one reason the whole notion of Fox as a news channel is a little dubious: because nothing ever changes in Foxland.

The Paranoid Style

As I say in the clip, one of the best texts for understanding Fox is the famous essay by historian Richard Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It shows that this way of generating resentment has deep roots in our political culture, a theme I explored in my 2003 post: Bill O’Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News. (“The Fox News host is a new type in the press, but an old type in politics. And O’Reilly’s style—resentment news—is gaining.”)

Blondes

A whole other way of understanding Fox begins with the logo… The logo of course goes back to 20th Century Fox, the movie studio, and reminds us that the roots of Fox are not in the Murdoch empire at all, or in news, but in entertainment. And the logo, which is searchlights angling in different directions, speaks of movie premiers, and the entertainment world and the glamour associated with it. And this is why—these roots in the DNA of entertainment–Fox is distinguished by its blondes. Blondes are really important for understanding the formula of Fox: more blondes per square foot than any other news network.

Lack of confidence

What we have to understand about Fox as a political organization is that it really lacks confidence, it lacks the courage of its convictions…. That’s why its slogan isn’t “news from the right,” or “a conservative take on the world,” or “it’s time to put the liberals in their place,” but Fair and Balanced… This is responsible for a lot of the strange behavior that you see from people in Fox, most recently from Roger Ailes, who is the head of Fox News network, calling NPR a bunch of Nazis… What these outbursts and these irrational explosions tell us is how little confidence the people of Fox have in their identity as a political organization, even though they don’t make any secret of it, I mean with all the presidential contenders for the Republican nomination on their payroll, and the organizing of rallies, and raising money and so forth. But because they lack confidence, when other people talk about that political identity they get mad.

Here’s the video: it’s 15 minutes.

Finally, for an extended and highly intelligent reflection on the ideas in this video and my first one, see Andrew Tyndall: When Jon Stewart Met Rachel Maddow. A snippet:

There is no denying that MSNBC’s primetime line-up is liberal and that FNC’s is conservative. What I do deny is that MSNBC’s ideological and cultural role in the body politic is symmetrical with FNC’s. Generally speaking, the conservative wing of American politics is organized differently from the liberal-progressive wing and it is inconceivable that their news media would not be different too.

I agree with that. Tyndall is author of the Tydnall Report, which tracks what the network newscasts cover. He is also a loyal PressThink reader and commenter.

Building a Better Explainer: Help Us Out

My graduate students and I are embarking a big project that revolves around a particular genre in journalism: the explainer. And we need your help.

17 Nov 2010 2:35 pm 7 Comments

An explainer is a special feature that does not provide the latest news or update you on a story. Rather, it addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge, such that items in the news don’t make sense, fail to register as important or add to the feeling of being overwhelmed.

A simple example of an explainer is a timeline. A more intricate one is crisisofcredit.com. Slate, of course, has been running an explainer column for years. The New York Times recently published You Fix the Budget, an interactive graphic that helps explain why the budget is so hard to balance. Cloud Computing in Plain English explains a term computer users may have heard but not understood. Explainer meets aggregation: Matt Thompson’s moneymeltdown.com/.

Explainers are typically needed when an issue has a long history (and we’re coming in the middle of the movie) or the problems involve complex, interdependent systems that overwhelm the average user (as with health care reform in the U.S.) or the new system coming online is unfamiliar to us and doesn’t work the way we expect things to work (as with many changes in technology.)

Journalists have always seen “explanation” as part of their brief, but until the Web era they were limited in what they could do to provide essential background knowledge because space was tight, time was precious, and news was fundamentally about what’s new. But online it’s possible to serve the updates (the news) and provide the knowledge necessary to understand the tangled problems and complex systems from which much of the news arises.

It’s not only that space is almost unlimited online (though the user’s time and attention are not.) It’s also that the tool kit has been expanded. The journalist’s powers of explanation have increased with video, audio, graphics, animation, data journalism all coming into their own. Meanwhile, the need for explainers has also increased with the flood of information coming at people, much of it without the vital context that permits us to feel more informed. That’s a problem. As Matt Thompson has said, We Can’t Keep Offering the News Without Context.

I wrote about these issues in my 2008 post, National Explainer, which was about the revelation I experienced after listening to the greatest explainer ever heard, This American Life’s one hour documentary about the mortgage lending crisis, “Giant Pool of Money.”

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it. (How one caused the other was explained in the program’s conclusion.) ‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports about Americans losing their homes, the housing market crashing, banks in trouble, Wall Street firms on the brink of collapse.

And that’s why explainers are important to the future of news. Got it?

My Studio 20 students and I have embarked on a year-long project intended to move the ball forward on building a better explainer for the new system of news. Our first step is to assess the state-of-the-art. So if you’re inclined to help us out, take a look at the questions below and add in anything you know. (Or use the comments.) Thanks!

What Jon Stewart Meant to Tell Rachel Maddow

I took to YouTube last night to record my interpretation of Jon Stewart's lengthy and at times halting interview with Rachel Maddow, in which two people who obviously like and respect each other--and watch each other's shows--struggled over what's right and wrong in cable news.

15 Nov 2010 9:34 am 27 Comments

I’m posting it here so we can have a debate in the comments.

I’ve never done one of these before, not sure I will again. I guess it turned out alright. But you tell me! (The clip is 15 minutes long. The original is here if you prefer to watch it at YouTube or want the embed code.)

Some additional material for those who care:

Here’s the full cut of the interview Rachel Maddow did with Jon Stewart on MSNBC, Nov. 11, 2010. It’s over an hour.

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The View from Nowhere: Questions and Answers

"American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims..."

10 Nov 2010 2:04 am 52 Comments

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics.
—Brian Stelter, Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams, New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010

(This Q and A was conducted by Jay Rosen, solo. He did the questions and the answers.)

Q. You’ve been using this phrase, “the view from nowhere,” for a while–

A. Yeah, since 2003

Q. So what do you mean by it?

A. Three things. In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

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