Nov.
17

Out of the press box and onto the field

I have a personal announcement.

I am joining up with the new venture in news that Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill are creating, along with Liliana Segura, Dan Froomkin, Eric Bates and others who are coming on board to give shape to this thing, which we are calling NewCo until we are ready to release the name.

Because it doesn’t exist yet, NewCo could take many forms. Only a handful of those possible paths will lead to a strong and sustainable company that meets a public need. Figuring that out is a hard problem, to which I am deeply attracted. So I signed up to be part of the launch team. This post explains why I made that decision and what I hope to contribute.

One voice at the table

About a month ago, I told readers of PressThink about Pierre Omidyar’s plans for a new venture in news, based on my interview with him and an earlier consultation when he was gathering advice. These, I thought, were the key points:

Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.

At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.

“Support” means a powerful publishing platform that talented journalists can bend to their will. It means an up-to-date technology company resting inside the news company. It means editors to save writers from their errors, and maintain high standards. It means first class security and encryption for reporting on sensitive stories. A legal team for when trouble calls. Training and development for young journalists who are learning the NewCo style. Ownership that has pledged to invest it all in the journalism if and when revenues exceed expenses.

“Support” also means: “when you have a big story we bring a large audience to it.” Perhaps the most challenging part of the plan is this: Not a niche product. Has to serve a more general market for news.

“And how are they going to do that?…” is the one question I got more than any other in talking to people after my first post on Omidyar’s plan. Runner-up: what’s going to make this different from other ways to get news online? Those are good questions. So good that when Dan Froomkin and Glenn Greenwald called to ask me if I wanted to help create NewCo, I had to listen.

I also had to ask myself: what could I contribute? I don’t have credentials as an editor or a reporter and I have never started a business. Instead, I’ve been watching journalism evolve with the web since 2003. I’ve been trying to explain what makes it different in the digital era, paying close attention to problems of trust, shifts in authority and the pro-am or participatory forms that have slowly emerged since the rise of blogging around 2000. To put it another way, I have been all over this discussion: “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” I’ve also been advising media companies on adapting to the web and teaching young journalists — my graduate students at NYU — how to contribute to innovation in their craft.

Nobody has titles at NewCo yet. The agreement I have with Pierre Omidyar is that I will advise on building the company and participate in planning discussions as NewCo takes shape. One voice at the table, in other words. I will also explain its approach to journalism in written pieces that resemble my essays for PressThink. I am especially interested in the civic engagement and user participation puzzle, which is one part of …And how are they going to do that?

Also important: building a learning culture within the organization. (NewCo has to be its own J-school or it cannot succeed.) The contract I signed — yes, I am getting paid — is part time for the remainder of 2013. By luck I am on leave from NYU for the spring 2014 term. After the new year I can devote much more time to this venture, which I intend to do.

NYU, where I have made my home since 1986, is a research university. The purpose of that institution is to produce new knowledge. For me and the things I write and care about, NewCo is the most exciting project in journalism today. To be involved from the beginning in the birth of a company based on these ideas is the best test of my learning that I could devise. And I’m sure it will produce new knowledge, which I will share.

Things are going to change around here.

A simpler way to put it: This is PressThink come to life. The second part of this post (which is for the most interested readers…) explains what I mean by that. But first: my involvement in NewCo changes things between me and you, meaning: the people who read my writing and follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Up to this point, I have observed upon — and criticized! — the press from a position outside and independent of it. The only exceptions to that are these (previously disclosed) positions: Advisory board, Digital First Media; consultant, Post Media Network of Canada; director, Gazette Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Today’s announcement is different. From here on, I am a player in NewCo. I’m not just giving advice to a company that pre-dated my involvement. I am involved in the effort to create something. I am being paid $ for my participation. Unlike an “advisory” position there is no real separation between me and the people who are building NewCo from scratch. Therefore I have to publicly abandon any position as an observer or independent analyst of Pierre Omidyar’s new venture in news. Out of the press box and onto the field.

And so when I speak about it you are entitled to apply whatever discount rate you find appropriate. About the intentions of Pierre Omidyar, the journalism of Glenn Greenwald and the eventual product of NewCo I am no longer an independent analyst rendering judgment. Criticism will have to come from others. And I am sure it will.

I cannot say “Can’t wait to get started” because I have already started. And I don’t want to hear anything about “saving journalism” (a phrase I detest) because it doesn’t need saving and anyway that is not the plan. The plan is to build something that can sustain itself and produce excellent work.

Part Two: PressThink come to life.

Here are some posts I’ve written, selected from hundreds, that will meet their test as NewCo comes to life.

The View from Nowhere: Questions and Answers. (2010)

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

The View from Nowhere won’t be a requirement for our journalists. Nor will a single ideology prevail. NewCo itself will have a  view of the world: Accountability journalism, exposing abuses of power, revealing injustices will no doubt be part of it. Under that banner many “views from somewhere” can fit.

Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. (2013)

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

Just as we wouldn’t force a point of view on people or expect them to fall in line, NewCo is not going to insist that everyone follow Greenwald’s lead. That’s not the point of a View from Somewhere approach. Rather: we think the way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to let individual journalists shine in a way that works for them.

The rise of the personal franchise site in news. (2013)

Features of the personal franchise site:

* Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence.
* Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.
* Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states.
* Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive.
* Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.
* Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.

Authority in journalism is shifting to the individual with a voice, subject matter expertise, and a following online. The structure and operating style of the company will attempt to solve for that. We don’t know exactly how yet but that is part of the adventure.

The People Formerly Known as the Audience. (2006)

The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.

We haven’t talked about this much yet, but one of my goals as an adviser is to have built into the platform a more active role for the people formerly known as the audience. Something more than comment threads and share buttons.

From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism. (2011)

It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset.Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.

What if you optimized for three possibilities: high participation, light involvement and none— just consumption? That would be the lesson of the one percent rule of online life, which says that if 100 people gather at your site, 90 will just use the product, ten will occasionally interact and one will become a core contributor. I want to see if we can build systems for that.

When I explained this move to my 12 year-old son, he said: Are you having a mid-life crisis? Nooooo, I replied, but as you get older (I’m 57) you have to find new challenges. “That’s cool,” he said, and went back to his waffles.

UPDATE: Dec. 4, 2013: For more see this interview with me on the Atlantic site: A News Organization That Rejects the View From Nowhere.

Nov.
10

Will CBS News apologize for the reckless denials before its Benghazi story collapsed?

It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were genuine problems with the story until it was forced to by others.

“Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out. That is what we are doing in this case. When we know more, we will tell you.”

Tell me: What is so hard about that? It’s 30 words CBS News never managed to say in its week from hell that will peak during ’60 Minutes’ tonight with an on-air apology for getting duped by a source who gave CBS viewers an eyewitness account of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, even though he told the FBI and his employer that he wasn’t on scene that night.

I will be watching. Let me tell you what I will be watching for. CBS will no doubt apologize for inadequate vetting of “Morgan Jones,” whose story should not have been trusted. It will say that it should have viewed his story more skeptically and done more reporting. It will say that it should have been clearer that its book division had given the same source a contract and paid an advance.

But will CBS apologize for its reckless denials from Oct. 31 to the day the story collapsed? It should, but probably it won’t. I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I will here: Tonight’s apology by CBS will not deal in any serious way with its misguided response to the very legitimate questions that were raised about its Benghazi report. If I am wrong, that will be good news for journalism at CBS and I will happily report it in an update here. (I was not wrong. Update here.)

Meanwhile, here is what I see.

1. Start with the timeline Poynter put together. On October 31 Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reports this:

But in a written account that Jones, whose real name was confirmed as Dylan Davies by several officials who worked with him in Benghazi, provided to his employer three days after the attack, he told a different story of his experiences that night.

Immediately, the CBS report is in deep trouble. And anyone with a clear mind can see that. Except the people at CBS. When your key source tells two different stories, something is seriously amiss. The next day, the network should have said: “Whenever legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we investigate.” Instead, Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for 60 Minutes, tells the Post: “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday.” Why?

2. On November 1, Media Matters asks journalism observers with no known hostility to CBS or any political stance on the Benghazi events to comment. They state the obvious. ”I don’t see any way that 60 Minutes would not need to offer an explanation,” says Alex S. Jones, former media beat reporter for the New York Times, now director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “This definitely needs explaining.” In a letter to CBS, Media Matters calls for a retraction of the report.

3. On November 2, the Daily Beast reports on its interview with Dylan Davies, in which he claims that a first-person incident report written in his voice is not his work. He’s never seen that document, he says. He also says that he lied to his employer “because he did not want his supervisor to know he had disobeyed his orders to stay at his villa.”

So now the key source in the CBS report has admitted to lying about the events in question, but we are supposed to believe that to CBS he told the truth and he told the truth in the book for which he was paid an undisclosed sum by a CBS subsidiary. Also we know from an earlier report on Fox News that a Fox reporter had stopped talking to the same source when he asked for money. (Also see this on Fox News and Benghazi.) All of these facts are clear warning signs, making “We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday” appear unwise in the extreme.

3. What CBS says in response to the Daily Beast report is… nothing. As if there was nothing to address. This was false. Huffington Post reporter Michael Calderone was trying to get answers to some extremely pertinent questions:

Did “60 Minutes” know Davies had told his employer that he wasn’t at the compound during the attack? And if “60 Minutes” was aware of Davies’ previous statement, how did the program vet his new account, given that no other witnesses saw him there? Does “60 Minutes” have evidence to be confident that Davies’ dramatic second account is accurate?

4. CBS stays silent about those issues for two more days. Then it decides to speak. But instead of answering Calderone’s questions, or at least saying, “When legitimate questions are raised about our reporting, we check them out…” which would have been the cautious, responsible and sane thing to do, it decides to raise the stakes by defending its work. Lara_Logan_cropThus Lara Logan tells the New York Times: “If you read the book, you would know he never had two stories. He only had one story.” This is bizarrely at odds with what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan then attributes the criticism of her reporting to the intensely politicized atmosphere surrounding the events in Benghazi. But again: this does not address what Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post uncovered. Logan and CBS do admit to one mistake: not acknowledging that a division of CBS, Simon and Schuster, was publishing the “Morgan Jones” book.

Their story is in deep trouble from the existence of two conflicting accounts from the same source, who is an admitted liar, but CBS people are acting like none of this happened, or that no one knows about it, or that only partisan critics care. Why?

5. The next day things get stranger and more denialist. The executive producer of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager, who is also the chairman of CBS News — two roles that in this instance conflict, though no one at CBS notices — tells the Huffington Post that he is a.) proud of the network’s reporting on the controversy and b.) confident that it will hold up.

“We spent more than a year reporting our story about the attack on Benghazi, which aired on Oct. 27, speaking with close to 100 sources in the process,” Fager says, seemingly unaware that these facts make his situation worse. (You spent a year on the story and never learned that your key source either lied to you or lied to his employer?) Like Lara Logan’s comments to the Times, Fager’s words are completely unresponsive to the actual trouble the story is in. Why? (On that, see Calderone’s report from Nov. 8.)

6. The next day, Nov. 7, the denialism falls apart, as the New York Times reports this:

Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, gave the F.B.I. an account of the night that terrorists attacked the mission on Sept. 11, 2012 that contradicts a version of events he provided in a recently published book and in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”

This forces CBS News to say on its website what it should have said on October 31. “We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.”

7. Finally forced by other news organizations to confront what they did not want to see, CBS starts caving. On November 8, Lara Logan appears on the CBS morning news show to apologize. (Video.) “So here’s what we know,” writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Davies never told Logan about the incident report. He never told the co-author of his memoir about the incident report. When the content of the report was revealed, he invented an entirely implausible story about lying to his supervisor in the report because he respected him so highly and didn’t want him to know that he’d disobeyed orders not to approach the compound. And yet, in a story that should have set off all sorts of alarms in the first place, this still didn’t set off any alarms for Logan. She continued to defend Davies and her reporting until news emerged yesterday that the incident report matched what Davies had told the FBI in a debriefing shortly after the attack.

Exactly. On the same day CBS takes down the video of the Benghazi story, leaving only an error message where the clip had been. Helpful! And Simon and Schuster announces that it is withdrawing the book from stores.

8. Then yesterday the conflict of interest that Jeff Fager has as 1.) the executive in charge who would have approved the final cut of the Benghazi story and 2.) the head of the CBS news division, who is supposed to worry about the entire news organization’s reputation more than any individual or show… that conflict comes through in startling fashion via this story in the Washington Post. Give a listen:

CBS News’s chairman expressed disappointment and contrition Friday for a mistaken “60 Minutes” report about the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks, but he suggested the program and his network intended to move past the flawed story.

“Credibility is really the most important thing we have,” Jeff Fager, the head of the network’s news division and executive producer of the weekly newsmagazine, said in an interview. “Did we let people down? Yes. Do people expect us to get it right? Of course they do. Do they expect us to be perfect? I don’t think so. When you come forward and admit a mistake, people will understand.”

Notice: He did not say “we’re going to get to the bottom of this, and find out how it could happen.” Rather, they’re moving on. And as the Post’s Paul Farhi wrote: “There were no indications Friday that anyone at CBS would be fired for the Benghazi report.” When you come forward and admit a mistake: is that what CBS did? Nope. It did exactly the opposite. It admitted there was a problem only after other news organizations brought the story forward. That statement alone should be enough to remove Jeff Fager from further decision-making about who is accountable for this debacle.

9. CBS was not just wrong, it was wrong about an explosive and highly contentious story in which extra care should have been taken because of the risk that a faulty report will be instantly politicized. This is exactly what happened, adding an extra layer of gravity to the situation. As the New York Times wrote on November 8:

The day after the CBS report, several Republican senators held a news conference, demanding that the administration allow congressional investigators to interview survivors of the Benghazi attack. In particular, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that he would block all administration nominations until it met the Republicans’ demands.

An update on this part of the story.
10. Consider:

If Folkenflik is correct, this is worse because the “partisan” label is irrelevant to whether the questions that critics are raising deserve answers. Still, Media Matters is well aware of this discounting practice, and that is why they get the likes of Alex Jones and Marvin Kalb — figures they know journalists at CBS respect as “non-partisan” — to comment.

11. Threshold is the imprint of Simon and Schuster that signed “Morgan Jones” to a book contract. (“Threshold Editions is an imprint of Simon & Schuster that specializes in conservative non-fiction.”) Threshold is the imprint where Mary Matalin is an editor-at-large. Mary Matalin is a partisan political operative and Republican talking head— and now a book editor. If she was involved in the book deal, then she is mixed up with CBS’s collapsed story. Will this be a part of the on-air apology?

12. Lara Logan is not a View from Nowhere journalist. She has opinions on the Benghazi issue. She has spoken about them. In my view, that is not a crime. But it is certainly relevant in evaluating her performance on this story. (See Digby’s post for clips of Logan displaying her world view.) Will this be a part of tonight’s show? Will CBS say something like, “Viewers should have been told that correspondent Lara Logan has expressed strong opinions on the Benghazi story and what the United State should do in its aftermath…”? My prediction: no.

13. CBS has been through this before. It happened in 2004 with the Air National Guard story that ended Dan Rather’s career. There too the network refused to concede that there were problems with the story until it was forced to by others. There too it allowed its people to issue foolish statements of bravado as the story was crumbling. There too it blamed a partisan atmosphere for questions that any clear headed journalist would ask. (See my open letter to CBS News from 2005.) It did not learn enough from that debacle to avoid repeating the pattern. The signs are that it will not learn from this one.

Watch what CBS apologizes for Sunday night, and what it ignores in making a show of coming clean.

UPDATE, 8:45 PM, Nov. 10. My prediction proved accurate. In a very brief note at the end of ’60 Minutes,’ CBS said it has been misled by its source, apologized for putting him on the air and that was about it. No mention of the book contract, even. Lara Logan, who read the apology, went nowhere near an accounting for the reckless denials I wrote about. Nor did she explain how any of this could have happened. (See Dylan Byers in Politico for more on that.)

Here is how it went: “We end our broadcast tonight with a correction,” Logan said. She then summarized the Oct. 27 story and Davies role in it. “After our report aired, questions arose about whether his account was true when an incident report surfaced. It told a different story about what he did the night of the attack.” Logan said that Davies denied he had written that report, and insisted the story he told ’60 Minutes’ was accurate— and the same story he told the FBI. “On Thursday night, when we discovered the account he gave the FBI was different than what he told us, we realized we had been misled and it was a mistake to include him in our report. For that we are very sorry. The most important thing to every person at ’60 minutes’ is the truth, and the truth is we made a mistake.” The end. The video:

Final note for the night. Two things stand out for me about this correction, besides its basic inadequacy for being so minimal. One is the passive voice: “questions arose,” “an incident report surfaced.” This wording allows CBS to erase the role played by other news organizations in forcing it to face the problems with its reporting.

Attention now turns to Jeff Fager, as the person at CBS (executive producer of ’60 Minutes’) who approved the final cut of a deeply flawed report starring a source CBS knew to have lied to his employer, and the executive at CBS, boss of the news division, who decided that it was time to move on from that mistake. Can that conflict of interest stand? So far it looks like it will.

UPDATE, NOV. 11. Last night the New York Times reported this:

The CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” has not ordered an investigation, and on Sunday a spokesman indicated that the program was going to let its televised apology be its last word on the issue.

Well, there you have it. A thin and inadequate response — according to many critics and journalists and even people who used to work at CBS — will be the “last word.” Or will it? The pressures are still there. Witness:

“In the short term, this will confirm the worst suspicions of people who don’t trust CBS News,” said Paul Friedman, CBS’s executive vice president for news until 2011. “In the long term, a lot will depend on how tough and transparent CBS can be in finding out how this happened — especially when there were not the kind of tight deadline pressures that sometimes result in errors.”

“’60 Minutes’ doesn’t need to apologize anymore. It needs to fully explain what went wrong.” Right. Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post goes through all the the unanswered questions in his excellent piece out this morning. “Sunday’s brief acknowledgment didn’t resemble a news program seriously trying to get to the bottom of how it got duped.”

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks a question that shows how inexplicable the decision-making was:

When are you more likely to embellish or lie? In an immediate after action report when there’s little reason to believe that your own role will ever be a matter of consequence or that the incident itself will become a topic of immense controversy? Or a year later when you write a tell-all book chronicling your exploits for a conservative book publisher and there’s fame and lots of money at stake?

Newsweek, Nov. 22: Lara Logan’s Mystery Man.

She’s a smart, tough, experienced reporter. And the producer and writers and reporters who helped her put this Benghazi story together are honored, respected professionals, many of whom have been covering the region for years. Whoever fooled them, whoever convinced them that al Qaeda orchestrated that attack on the U.S. embassy, had to be smart, incredibly persuasive and savvy about the media. And unquotable.

In other words, an intelligence source. And the person closest to Logan with those credentials is her husband. But he’s not talking.

Nov.
3

Old testament and new testament journalism

“Each form can spur the other, keep it honest.”

This is the sketch I am going to present in a few hours to the Public Knowledge Forum at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Because it is only a sketch, it leaves out a lot of detail and of course over-simplifies in the interest of avoiding another boring conference presentation.

The free press gods initially gave us the old testament. Then the news testament rose and took over for about 90 years. Recently the old testament has roared back to life and now we have something close to parity or détente, in which it is recognized that we need both. “Each form can spur the other, keep it honest,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently put it.

The old

In old testament journalism, “the public” is the people who gather around the news to talk about it. Political argument and the informational goods delivered by journalism — “what’s happening” and how we should think about it — are so intertwined that it makes little sense to separate the two. tp-dropA representative figure from the eighteen century would be the great pamphleteer Tom Paine, the trouble-making democrat who tried to rouse public opinion against arbitrary power.

Today Glenn Greenwald, recently of The Guardian, works the same way. He’s a trouble-maker who tries to rouse public opinion against the misuse of power. In his journalism there is no natural separation between political argument and information about what’s happening. Roger Cohen spoke of colleagues like former Times editor Bill Keller as “old school journalists” who observe the “traditional” claims to impartiality but in my view this incorrect. Greenwald’s is the old school, and New York Times journalism is the more recent tradition.

The events by which Edward Snowden came to trust Greenwald over the New York Times tell us a great deal about the return of old testament influence amid the problems with new testament journalism. But we are getting ahead our story.

In old testament journalism financial support is difficult to obtain, opposition is intense, competition is fierce, the authorities are frequently upset with the trouble-makers in the press, popularity balloons and contracts with events and revelations. It is a wild ride and a precarious way of life.

Old testament journalism began in the U.S. with the campaign to unite the colonies against British rule. A close cousin to freedom of speech, the old testament was memorialized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution— which of course protects other forms, as well. It had a diminished presence in the 20th century as new testament journalism rose to power and the old became a sub-current. But it never stopped flowing and today it draws new life from the internet.

The new

In new testament journalism, “the public” is the people who are outsiders to political events— and to power. They are busy, preoccupied with making a living, raising their kids and attending to other spectacles, and so they need to be kept informed by specialists in news.

Salvation, in new testament journalism, is achieved by separating facts and values, symbolized of course by the division between the news and opinion pages in American newspapers, and by the imperative of “impartiality” encoded into the BBC in Britain and the ABC in Australia. Who is the Tom Paine of the BBC? There is none and there never has been. It’s against their religion.

New testament journalism is a 20th century thing. It is associated with the doctrine of “objectivity” but even more with the rise of professionalism in the press, which began with the first movements toward schools of journalism around 1908, followed by professional associations in the 1920s and 1930s.

In new testament journalism, the media’s financial security is the norm, made possible by high barriers to entry and large capital costs required to deliver news. The new testament style is risk-adverse because the news delivery franchise is so valuable. The mission is not to move public opinion but to maintain trust or, to put it another way, to protect the brand. Audiences tend to be stable. The authorities learn to regularize their relationship with the journalists. Professionalism in journalism and broadcasting interlocks well with professionalism in politics and other knowledge fields. Thus, the rolodex of reliable experts.

New testament journalism also has its heroic forms, especially investigative journalism. Its representative figure is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (or, in the mythic version, Robert Redford) and the symbolic high point is the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974, in part because of the Post’s relentless reporting. Recalling those events, new testament sages talk of “shoe leather reporting” when they want to explain what virtue in journalism is.

Comparisons

Old testament journalism treats everyone as a participant in the great conversation of democracy. New testament recognizes that there are insiders and outsiders, players and spectators. It tries to mediate between them.

In new testament pressthink, people need the facts first. After they are informed by facts they can develop opinions and “make up their own minds.” In old testament logic, people first need to join the argument. Then they will feel the need to keep themselves informed.

New testament journalism is strong on reliability, predictability, civility, professionalism and the maintenance of reputation over time, which has obvious benefits for advertisers and for political coalitions expected to vote to maintain taxpayer subsidies to the BBC and the ABC. Old testament journalism is strong on participation and mobilization. It is more risk-tolerant, less likely to censor itself to avoid giving offense. It gives the individual journalist a voice and identity.

Old testament journalism has vices too. It is financially precarious and so it can often be bought off. It goes to extremes more often and may distort the picture by neglecting the inconvenient fact. In old testament journalism the constant danger is that the truthtelling will decay into propaganda and news will become comfort food for loyalists. In the new testament style, the danger is that truthtelling will decay into “he said, she said” and the dialect of insiders that I have called “the savvy.”

Détente

Today, well-known troubles with the business model have weakened new testament journalism by eroding monopolies and opening the field to lower-cost competitors. The internet solves the distribution-of-news problem for all players. As my colleague Clay Shirky has said, it changes publishing from an industry or a job to a button. This has allowed the old testament forms to gain new life. Other weaknesses in new testament traditions have been exposed, as well, such as the intimidation of the press after September 11 and the failure to detect a faulty case for war in Iraq in 2003.

A kind of new testament fundamentalism common in journalism from the 1970s to the 1990s held form through the early years of blogging in this century. It felt scorn for the more opinionated style and ridiculed its followers as “echo chambers.” It defined itself as “the traditional” and dismissed everyone else as marginal. This was arrogance born of monopoly.

But then new testament journalists started blogging themselves and more recently they have taken to social media with genuine enthusiasm. Today they are not as confident that they have all the answers. They know that their business model is broken. They can see the advantages in personal voice and persuasive power that accrues to the Glenn Greenwalds and other practitioners of the personal franchise model in news. They understand that the people formerly known as the audience want to participate more in the news and that the insiders are less trusted than ever.

All of these forces are pushing new testament journalism toward reconciliation and détente with the old, a symptom of which is this exchange between former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Greenwald. Keller says:

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of…

True. Neither form has a monopoly on virtue. Great journalism, as Greenwald often says, can come from both traditions. I’m Jewish, and so more of an old testament guy. But I too think we need both, plus future forms that combine the two in novel fashion. The messiah hasn’t come yet.

Oct.
16

Why Pierre Omidyar decided to join forces with Glenn Greenwald for a new venture in news

Yesterday word leaked out that Glenn Greenwald would be leaving the Guardian to help create some new thing backed by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. I just got off the phone with Omidyar. So I can report more details about what the new thing is and how it came to be.

Here’s the story he told me:

In the spring of this year, Pierre Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if he decided to build something from the ground up.

As he was contemplating the Post purchase, he began to get more alarmed about the pressures coming down on journalists with the various leak investigations in Washington.

Pierre Omidyar

Pierre Omidyar

Then the surveillance stories started appearing and the full scope of the threat to independent journalism became clear. His interest in launching a new kind of news organization — capable of sustaining investigative work and having an effect with it — intensified throughout the summer as news from the Snowden files continued to pour forth.

Attempts to meet with Greenwald to discuss these plans and to find out more about how he operates were unsuccessful until this month. When they finally were able to talk, Omidyar learned that Greenwald, his collaborator Laura Poitras, and The Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill had been planning to form their own journalism venture. Their ideas and Omidyar’s ideas tracked so well with each other that on October 5 they decided to “join forces” (his term.) This is the news that leaked yesterday. But there is more.

Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.

At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.

By “support” Omidyar means many things. The first and most important is really good editors. (Omidyar used the phrase “high standards of editing” several times during our talk.) Also included: strong back end technology. Powerful publishing tools. Research assistance. And of course a strong legal team because the kind of journalism NewCo intends to practice is the kind that is capable of challenging some of the most powerful people in the world. Omidyar said NewCo will look for “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following.” He suggested that putting together a team of such people means understanding how each of them does his or her best work, and supporting that, rather than forcing everyone into the same structure.

Part of the reason he thinks he can succeed with a general news product, where there is a lot of competition, is by finding the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined. The trick will then be to combine that with the things technology companies are good at.

“Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement,” he said, mentioning Netflix as a clear example. NewCo will have to serve users of news in the same personalized way, he said. He didn’t want to reveal too much at this stage, but as the founder of eBay he clearly has ideas about how a next generation news company can be built from the ground up.

NewCo is a new venture— a company not a charity. It is not a project of Omidyar Network. It is separate from his philanthropy, he said. He said he will be putting a good deal of his time, as well as his capital, into it. I asked how large a commitment he was prepared to make in dollars. For starters: the $250 million it would have taken to buy the Washington Post.

I asked him if Greenwald was closer to a lead writer or an executive editor. He said the agreement to join forces was so new that they had not discussed roles and responsibilities. All they know is that they want to work together to create NewCo. Poitras will bring expertise in video and documentary. Scahill is a somewhat similar figure to Greenwald: an independent national security journalist with editorial obsessions in which he has become expert.

Why is Omidyar doing this? He said that his involvement in Civil Beat (a news site he started in Hawaii) stoked his appetite to try something larger in news. “I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.” He said he had watched closely over the last 15 years as the business model in journalism collapsed but he had not “found a way to engage directly.” But then when the idea of buying the Washington Post came up he started to think about it more seriously. “It brings together some of my interests in civic engagement and building conversations and of course technology, but in a very creative way.”

A final factor. His “rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world.” The U.S. has the First Amendment. When the freedom to practice hard-hitting investigative journalism comes under threat here, he said, that’s not only a problem for our democracy but for the chances that democracy can work anywhere. NewCo will be designed to withstand that threat.

Now for the disclosure: As Omidyar was making the rounds to talk to people about his plans I was one of those he consulted with. That happened in September. So he knew I was familiar with his thinking and that’s probably why he chose to talk to me. That’s my initial report. I may have more to say as I sift through my notes and think about what he told me.

UPDATE, 1:00 PM Oct 16: An additional detail that I should have mentioned: the business model isn’t fully worked out yet, but this much is known: all proceeds from NewCo will be reinvested in the journalism. Also: there is no print product planned. This is all-digital.

Some additional thoughts after processing the news: I think it’s highly significant that Omidyar is coming to this project after his adventure in creating Civil Beat. (For more on that, see this account at Nieman Lab.) Civil Beat started off as a pay site with a high price tag ($20 per month) and then sought a partnership with Huffington Post Hawaii, so as to combine the benefits of the high traffic, advertising model with the smaller-reach, paid subscriber system. That shows the kind of tinkering necessary to get to sustainability.

But note: What Omidyar learned from trying to create a serious, civic good with online journalism in Hawaii did not discourage him from attempting something larger. On the contrary, his appetite only grew. Thus, the chances that he is heading into this with a naiveté about the economy of digital news production seem to me quite slim. Many of the illusions he started with — we could also call them hunches — have already been modified by experience. And out of that experience has come this much bigger gamble, with a quarter billion dollars behind it. That says a lot.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

From Omidyar’s own statement at his foundation’s site, My Next Adventure in Journalism.

I explored purchasing The Washington Post over the summer. [Through that] I developed an interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens. I think there’s more that can be done in this space, and I’m eager to explore the possibilities.

Right now, I’m in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization. I don’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like.

What I can tell you is that the endeavor will be independent of my other organizations, and that it will cover general interest news, with a core mission around supporting and empowering independent journalists across many sectors and beats. The team will build a media platform that elevates and supports these journalists and allows them to pursue the truth in their fields. This doesn’t just mean investigative reporting, but all news.

This NPR interview with Omidyar puts more detail to that statement. Best if you listen to it.

Adrienne LaFrance worked at Civil Beat, Omidyar’s news site in Hawaii. She writes about the experience:

Earlier this year, Omidyar opened the Civil Beat Law Center, an organization that helps people better access government information. The center is available to anyone, including individuals and reporters from other news organizations, in the hopes that it will lead to more open government.

That decision offers as much of a window as to his venture with Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill as his three-and-a-half years at the helm of Civil Beat does. Omidyar identified a problem – that agencies routinely reject requests for reports, documents and other information that should be readily available – and created something of his own to find a solution.

At Poynter, John Temple, who was editor of Omidyar’s Civil Beat when it launched, says: “He’s got a journalist’s sensibility. He enjoyed the hunt for a story, and he’s very open to experimenting with how to tell the story and using contemporary approaches.” That said, Omidyar “gives you the space to do your job.”

Reacting to the news of Omidyar’s investment, Dave Winer writes: “Key idea: News orgs not only have expertise at creating news, they are great at consuming it too. Use that to help define the news reading experience of the future.”

The Huffington Post account has a bit more detail and some comments from Omidyar:

“The role of the press, in particular, the role of the press in a democracy is extremely important, extremely critical, and it’s something that I think we often take for granted in the U.S,” Omidyar said. “But we’ve seen attacks on press freedoms and the fundamentals of newsgathering operations when you have these leak investigations that really put a chill on reporting, as well as, surveillance now also a puts a significant chill on reporting.”

“Even in a country that has such strong laws, the First Amendment, we see some weakening, some attacks on press freedoms,” he continued. “So this an opportunity for me to engage in something I care deeply about and do it operationally — not simply as a philanthropist.”

In a sense, then, Omidyar’s new venture is further blowback from the surveillance state’s overreach, which I have been writing about since June. When you think about how much trouble Greenwald and Poitras have caused for the NSA and its sister agencies, and then contemplate an entire news organization founded to make that kind of reporting more likely — with pro-publish lawyers! — it puts new gloss on the notion of unintended consequences.

NPR’s “On the Media” interviewed me about this story. You can listen here.

Jack Shafer of Reuters: “As welcome as Omidyar’s money is, his commitment to the investigative form and an open society is what I’m grateful for.”

A devil’s advocate view of billionaires funding investigative journalism.

More: Billionaires won’t save journalism!

For those who want more, you can find a excellent, linky round-up of all that’s been written about this news here.

Here’s an nine-minute interview with Jeremy Scahill about the new venture with Omidyar. It has a few more details about the “horizontal” operating style the founders envision.

Over at Metafilter, some of the commenters are pretty hostile to the new venture. One says: “I love Greenwald and think he is one of the most important journalists working today, maybe the most important. But the whole project smacks of dot-com/’TED talk’ blinkered arrogance— thinking they can reinvent an industry and instantly do better than people with hundreds of years of experience. Like those people who think Tesla is better qualified to build an electric car than Honda or Toyota or Nissan because the founder is a ‘genius.’”

The Economist on the method of Omidyar’s philanthropy. “With the non-profits it backs, ranging from Kiva, a microfinance website, to the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes open government, Omidyar Network practises ‘venture philanthropy-— developing a non-profit start-up in the same way as a new business venture, except for not expecting it to make money one day.”

To wrap this up, two from the New York Times media columnist, David Carr. His interview with Omidyar here, and his column on a larger trend: “Quality news has become, if not sexy, suddenly attractive to smart digital money.” More:

“Technologists have a view, perhaps inflated, that they can make the world better,” Mr. Omidyar said in an interview over the weekend. “There may be limits to doing it only through technology, or perhaps you get tired of doing it only through technology. So getting into content and broad communication is appealing.”

It would also be a mistake to believe that the only thing digitally enriched players bring is money. The investment of intellectual capital will be just as important. If ever an industry was in need of innovation — of big ideas from uncommon thinkers — it is the news business.

I agree with that.

Oct.
4

The BBC’s 16 questions to Glenn Greenwald

Hey, that was a tough interview! No, not really.

This week Glenn Greenwald was interviewed on the BBC for the first time since the revelations from Edward Snowden began to flow. The program on which he appeared, Newsnight, is one of the BBC’s premiere productions. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. Here’s the clip:

Below I have listed the 16 questions asked in this interview. These are my paraphrases but they are very close paraphrases.

1. Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?

2. 58,000 documents! GCHQ says this is a car crash coming. [No question.]

3. Metadata connections are often used to track terrorists. By revealing them, you may have caused would-be terrorists to change their tactics. So it’s possible you’ve made it easier for terrorists to evade detection. [No question.]

4. How can you be sure that your actions have not made it easier for the terrorists. You can’t prove a negative, can you?

5. Is it shocking that spy agencies spy? Don’t you think a majority of people would be reassured by that and feel safer because of it?

6. You still have a vast cache of materials from Snowden. Is it in your bedroom in Rio? People want to know: how can you guarantee that it’s being kept secure?

7. When David Miranda was stopped at the airport he was carrying a password on a piece of paper. For a lot of people that doesn’t inspire confidence in your methods. [No question.]

8. After Miranda’s detention you said you would be far more aggressive in publishing things about the UK government and they will be sorry for what they did. That was months ago: is something coming down the pipeline?

9. Can you see why those statements were seen as you, Glenn Greenwald, acting as a campaigner and an activist?

10. Do you fear for your safety?

11. Do you feel you could travel to the US or Britain?

12. Are you still in touch with Edward Snowden?

13. How do you know he hasn’t been forced to give up secrets if he’s under Russian protection? You can’t be sure that he hasn’t had to give up something, can you?

14. Given the precariousness of his position, does Snowden really feel all that safe?

15. This is in some ways like a spy film. How did you identify him when you first met him?

16. Do you think he might end up in an American prison?

I’ve been talking about this interview on Twitter today because to me this is a weak form of journalism. It takes common criticisms made of the subject and simply thrusts them at him one after the other to see how he handles it. The basic format is: “People say this about you. What is your response?” Questions 1-7, 9 and 13 are all of that type.

Defenders of this style always say the same thing: Hey, that was a tough interview! People in the public eye should be made to answer their doubters. You may not like it, especially if you’re a fan of the person in question, but that’s our job as journalists: to be tough but fair.

No, your job as a journalist is to decide which of the common criticisms have merit, and ask about those, leaving the meritless to chatrooms. It is also to synthesize new criticisms, and ask about those. It is to advance the conversation, not just replay it. People say these bad things about you– what is your response? is outsourcing the work to other interested parties. It doesn’t make for a tough interview; it makes for a predictable one, easier for the subject to handle. It’s also the cheapest and simplest way to manufacture an “adversarial” atmosphere.

Greenwald’s reaction is here. As he notes, it’s a strange decision to make the interview about the various charges against Greenwald and not what his journalism has uncovered.

UPDATE, OCT. 5. The BBC has now posted to YouTube the video of the entire program on surveillance, which, according to Ian Katz, the editor of BBC Newsnight, is necessary context for understanding the Greenwald interview, which was a part of it. Also, Katz replies to my criticisms here.

In the comments, the former head of BBC Global News, Richard Sambrook, weighs in. “I agree it was an ill-thought through interview and consequently weak.”

Oct.
2

The production of innocence and the reporting of American politics

“What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting.”

For a certain class of journalists in the United States — a dwindling class, I think — the following holds true:

Alongside the production of news and commentary about American politics they feel compelled to reproduce their own innocence. What I mean by “innocence” is a public showing by professional journalists that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias.

I have written about the production of innocence before

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!

I think it is proper that we call this quest an agenda, even though “agenda” is a loaded and abused term. The innocence agenda undermines the product. News and commentary, the picture we get of what is happening in the nation, can be fatally distorted by the journalist’s need to demonstrate even-handedness. But there’s another problem. In the self image of the professional journalist, nothing can ever come before truthtelling, almost by definition. Because it violates this sacred and absolute rule, the production of innocence is shrouded in denial, defensiveness and mystification. We cannot have a rational conversation with the people who practice it because to admit that they practice it would be, in effect, to resign from their profession. This they refuse to do.

And so silence is the sea on which the entire subject floats. The practitioners don’t defend their practices, but that is the least of it. They won’t identify themselves as practitioners in the first place. They are tenacious in holding to the pattern, but they cannot describe, illuminate or justify the pattern because this would be to concede that “telling it the way it is” is a priority modified by other and greater priorities— like “making it super clear that we take no side.” To admit that is to admit that you are a shill, a mouthpiece.

But here comes the confusing part. For in the production of innocence you are not a shill or mouthpiece for someone else: a company, a political party, a powerful interest… but for a certain image of yourself as “above” all that. You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.

What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation? And what if you are risk adverse? As in the case of Time magazine, the PBS Newshour, NPR and CNN, just to name a few homes for the style I am describing. In a situation like that, you are going to fall back on the easy production of innocence, but you are not going to recognize that this is what you are doing.

I bring up this messy and confusing subject for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone paying attention to political news this week. The shutdown of the Federal government is one of those events where the temptation to advertise your own innocence is almost overwhelming… for a certain kind of journalist.

For more on this problem see James Fallows in the Atlantic: Your False-Equivalence Guide to the Days Ahead.

Also see Dan Froomkin: Shutdown coverage fails Americans.

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less…

The Washington Post feels that desire. Here are some of the results:

In The inability to come together to do the right thing, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault

Even before much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday, the players were already staking out their positions in the battle to come: the fight over who was at fault.

President Obama argued that Republicans were to blame, for using a budget bill as a means of extortion to roll back health-care reform. No, the GOP shot back, it was Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who were responsible, for refusing to negotiate.

The Post really feels it, part two:

Shutdown crisis shows Washington breakdown

Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.

The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear.

Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching standoffs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.

Cokie Roberts of NPR feels it, as well. Here is her analysis of the situation:

I think that we’re seeing a real breakdown of government operations in Washington. The inability to come together to do the right thing in terms of the country is really dramatic now. And we’ve seen this before in our history, but this is a period that is very rough.

At Time magazine agendalessness is always on the agenda. Their take:

Shutdown: Obama and Republicans Trade Blame as Deadline Is Crossed

Federal agencies were ordered to beginning shutting down late Monday evening amid finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans as to who was responsible for the United States’ first government stoppage in 17 years.

What unites these treatments is the eagerness to blame both sides. The emphasis is on things like “the inability to come together to do the right thing” and other hyper-symmetrical images like the “shutdown blame game” and “finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans.”

That is the innocence agenda at work. What those involved in it fail to acknowledge is their own investment in a permanent and unyielding image of political symmetry. But I think the high point has passed for this kind of reporting. It still exists, and deserves to be called out, but with the critique of “false equivalence” now a part of the journalist’s daily life and the rise of point-of-view reporting to normal status online, the artifice is shakier than ever. New entrants like the Guardian’s U.S. edition and aggressive newsrooms like ProPublica and McClatchy’s Washington bureau simply don’t treat the production of innocence as important. Eventually it will be seen as dragging the quality of news down, and the best people will be embarrassed to practice it.

So let Cokie Robetts wax on about “the inability to come together to do the right thing.” Meanwhile, the AP’s David Espo described the situation fairly without resorting to claptrap like that.

Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop “appeasing the tea party” and quickly follow suit. Despite the presidential plea – and the urgings of their own leaders – House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation’s three-year-old health care law. (Hat tip, Media Matters.)

When you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need to advertise your own innocence.

Aug.
28

PressThink is ten years old. To celebrate I’m asking its readers to de-lurk. Want to play?

Your turn: so who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Tell us.

It was ten years ago this week that I was writing test posts and putting final touches on the site that would officially launch as PressThink on September 1, 2003. It started with this introduction. The key lines:

I am a press critic, an observer of journalism’s habits, and also a writer trying to make sense of the world. I am interested in the ideas about journalism that journalists work within, and those they feel they can work without. I try to discover the consequences in the world that result from having the kind of press we do.

I call this blog PressThink because that’s the kind of work I do. The title points to forms of thought that identify “journalism” to itself— but also to the habit of not thinking about certain things. The subatomic force that holds the pack of reporters together as they swarm around a story, there’s an example of pressthink. Without it there could be no pack; the pieces would come flying apart.

So that’s who I am, and what I do, and what interests me. But who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? I am borrowing this idea from the excellent science blogger, Ed Yong, who once a year asks readers of his site to de-lurk— that is, introduce themselves, and perhaps say a bit about why the come back. So if you’re willing, hit the comment button and de-lurk yourself.

Meanwhile, over the next few days I am going to post some reflections on ten years of blogging as they occur to me, which means I will also be able to answer questions posted in the comments if you have them. The first one is below:

1. How has doing this blog affected your career?  Last night on Twitter, after I mentioned it had been ten years, Joey Baker asked me how blogging has affected my academic and writing careers. I had never asked myself that, though I always knew that starting PressThink was a huge, life-changing plus. But once Joey asked me of course I started thinking about it.

The biggest effect comes down to the language I find myself within. Everyone is shaped by the language they habitually speak; but with writers it is a lot more so. Blogging forced me to find a language — a writing style — that would include (meaning: not repel) any of the following because blogging showed me that all of the following were possibly interested.

* Working journalists, any kind. (Like, say, Janine Gibson, but there are many more)
* Peers in the press commentary game. (Like, say, Margaret Sullivan, but there are many more…)
* Bloggers whose blogging verges on journalism or comments on the news. (Like Marcy Wheeler)
* Academics interested in the press and its behavior, whatever their discipline. (Like Brad Delong)
* Journalism students or others hoping to make a career of it. (Like Peter Sterne)
* Non-journalists who have to deal with the press as part of their job. (Like Shel Israel)
* People deeply engaged in politics who have to contend with the power of the media. (Like Anne Marie Slaughter)
* Heavy users of journalism, simultaneously fascinated and dissatisfied with the product. (Like Stuart Zechman)
* Ordinary readers who sense that something is amiss. (Like… you!)
* The denizens of digital culture — geeks — who recognize what is shifting in news production. (Like Jillian York)
* Publishers, any kind. (Like Tim O’Reilly)
* Office-holders who have occasion to reflect on the powers of the press (like Tom Watson)
* People in other countries who feel their press is influenced by the American press (Like Mark Colvin.)

All of those people follow me on Twitter, by the way, and vice versa.

Blogging forced me to speak in a language that would always include all of them and never repel any of them. But at the same time, a blog is “the unedited voice of a person,” as Dave Winer, a huge influence on me, once said. The demands of trying to include, not necessarily “everyone,” but certainly everyone on the above list, and at the same time express myself, in an unedited (uncensored) way, the discovery of a language — an intellectual style — that could accomplish all of those things: that is how blogging affected my career, Joey Baker. It forced me to find my way within the limits of a vernacular, which meant keeping in touch with what matters about the press to all of the people in the categories I have listed.

2. Did you know this blog has a theme song? Here it is. That song, more than any other totem I can find, expresses the attitude I try to write with. I’m not saying that my posts are equal to it, only that they are influenced by it.

What about you? Who are you and what do you do and what interests you enough to show up here occasionally and read these posts? Hit the comment button and speak.

Aug.
26

To make journalism harder, slower, less secure

That’s what the surveillance state is trying to do. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. Only a more activist press, working together, stands a chance of resisting this.

Last week, the novelist and former CIA operative Barry Eisler published one of the most important posts I have read about what’s happening to the press since the Snowden revelations began in early June. In it, he tries to explain why authorities in the UK detained Brazilian national David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow airport and confiscated all the technology he had on him. (Miranda, as everyone following the story knows, is the spouse of The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. He had been acting as a courier, bringing documents on encrypted thumb drives back and forth between Greenwald in Brazil and his collaborator, Laura Poitras, in Germany.)

Eisler’s explanation of this pivotal event is the most persuasive I have seen.

1. Sand in the gears

“Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State,” he writes. You’ve already commandeered the internet for state use and you have most of the world’s communications monitored and stored. Journalists are beginning to realize than none of their means is secure, so they’re retreating to face to face meetings, traveling backwards in technological time to evade your reach. But you find out about one of these meetings: Greenwald’s spouse is visiting Berlin. Eisler explains:

The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication — a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another — can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists’ efforts harder and slower.

Recognizing that you can’t bring journalism to a complete halt, you try to throw sand in the gears. David Miranda was detained and questioned under a terrorism statute in Britain. What’s the connection? As Eisler says, “Part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.” He writes:

To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things: first, button up the primary means of human communication — today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that’s left to the population when everything else has been bugged. Miranda’s detention was part of the second prong of attack. So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden’s leaks. The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options — that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

2. Working together

The day after Eisler’s post appeared, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed found out — and the Guardian then announced — that some of the Snowden documents had been shared with the New York Times, which will report in partnership with the Guardian on some NSA stories. Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, had forced the Guardian editors to halt work in London on the Snowden leaks. But…

Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment which guarantees free speech and in practice prevents the state seeking pre-publication injunctions or “prior restraint”.

It is intended that the collaboration with the New York Times will allow the Guardian to continue exposing mass surveillance by putting the Snowden documents on GCHQ beyond government reach. Snowden is aware of the arrangement.

Sunday night, Ben Smith broke more news: another skilled newsroom, the investigative non-profit site, ProPublica, is also working on Snowden stories with The Guardian. This is the right move. They are trying to make journalism harder, slower and less secure by working together against you. You have to work together against them to publish anyway and put the necessary materials beyond their reach.

As I wrote in my last post, the surveillance state is global, so the struggle to report on its overreach has to move about the globe, as well. Another good sign:

In an open letter to David Cameron published in today’s Observer, the editors of Denmark’s Politiken, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, Norway’s Aftenposten and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat describe the detention of David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as harassment.

They say that the “events in Great Britain over the past week give rise to deep concern” and call on the British prime minister to “reinstall your government among the leading defenders of the free press”.

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers wrote a similar letter to Cameron. They understand this is a global fight. The rest of the British press is only beginning to wake up to it.

3. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in.”

In an appearance last month on Charlie Rose, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden was asked about the “appropriate balance” between secrecy and transparency.Michael_Hayden,_CIA_official_portrait

Hayden said that if it were up to him, he would “keep it all secret” because NSA could best operate that way. But: “I know I live in a modern democracy,” which won’t allow anyone to operate for long without a “national consensus” underpinning the program. You can’t have a national consensus without a national discussion, he admitted. And you can’t have such a discussion “without a significant portion of the citizenry” knowing something about what you’re doing. And so, Hayden said, he had come to accept that the NSA had to “shave points off of our operational effectiveness” in order to become “a bit more transparent to the American people.”

As a former head of the CIA and the NSA, Hayden said he understood that he would be constrained by what American democracy thought acceptable. All he wanted from Congress was clear guidance. “Tell me the box,” he said, making a square with his hands as he talked. “Give me the box you will allow me to operate in. I’m going to play to the very edges of that box.” He said he would be “very aggressive,” and probably “get chalk dust on my cleats” but still:

You, the American people, through your elected representatives, give me the field of play and I will play very aggressively in it. As long as you understand what risk you are embracing by keeping me and my colleagues in this box, Charlie, we are good to go. We understand. We follow the guidance of the American people.

Hayden’s sketch of a surveillance state properly constrained by a wary public left a few things out, of course. When the Director of National Intelligence can lie to Congress in open session and keep his job, Hayden’s system has broken down. When United States senators, alarmed about what they are told, cannot alert the American people because of secrecy requirements, Hayden’s “through your elected representatives” becomes a hollow phrase.  Over-classification makes “national consensus” impossible on its face. A ”secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans” is not likely to generate much discussion… is it? Hayden’s descriptions sound reasonable — reasonable enough that Charlie Rose didn’t push back on them — but the behavior of the surveillance state doesn’t match up with his soothing words.

WHICH IS WHY WE NEED JOURNALISTS! In fact, we can go further. Without including in the picture an aggressive press that is free to operate without fear or coercion, the surveillance state cannot be made compatible with representative democracy. Even then, it may be impossible.

4. The establishment press is beginning to get it

Barry Eisler concluded his compelling post with this:

The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too. Whether they’ve miscalculated depends on how well they’ve gauged the passivity of the public.

Making journalism harder, slower and less secure, throwing sand in the gears, is fully within the capacity of the surveillance state. It has the means, the will and the latitude to go after journalism the way it went after terrorism. News stories alone are not going to make it stop. There are signs that the establishment press is beginning to get it. Sharing the work of turning the Snowden documents into news is one. David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is another. “It is true that Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald are activists with the kind of clearly defined political agendas that would be frowned upon in a traditional newsroom,” Carr wrote. “But they are acting in a more transparent age — they are their own newsrooms in a sense — and their political beliefs haven’t precluded other news organizations from following their leads.”

Only if they can turn a mostly passive public into a more active one can journalists come out ahead in this fight. I know they don’t think of mobilization as their job, and there are good reasons for that, but they didn’t think editors would be destroying hard drives under the gaze of the authorities, either! Journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.

Aug.
20

Conspiracy to commit journalism

“If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, they won’t succeed by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge.”

Alan-RusbridgerThe mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

                                                                               —Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian

That’s the government telling the editor of a national newspaper: Time’s up, no more of that journalism stuff! We’ll decide when there’s been enough debate. Stop now or we’ll make you stop. Rusbridger’s response: We will continue our careful reporting of the Snowden material. “We just won’t do it from London.” (The Guardian has a U.S. operation based in New York.) From Reuters:

The Guardian’s decision to publicize the government threat – and the newspaper’s assertion that it can continue reporting on the Snowden revelations from outside of Britain – appears to be the latest step in an escalating battle between the news media and governments over reporting of secret surveillance programs.

This battle is global. Just as the surveillance state is an international actor — not one government, but many working together — and just as the surveillance net stretches worldwide because the communications network does too, the struggle to report on the secret system’s overreach is global, as well. It’s the collect-it-all coalition against an expanded Fourth Estate, worldwide.

When Wikileaks first exploded onto the political scene in 2010, I wrote this about it:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”)

Wikileaks was modeling the concept. Now we are seeing different expressions of it every day. ”We just won’t do it from London” is one. The collaboration among Edward Snowden, an American exile living in Russia, filmmaker Laura Poitras, an American living in Berlin, and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, an American living in Brazil— that’s another. A few days ago, when Greenwald’s spouse, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow airport by the UK branch of the surveillance state, Greenwald naturally alerted The Guardian’s lawyers in the UK, but he also alerted officials in the Brazilian government, who brought pressure to bear through the foreign ministry.

This tells us something. The battle I referred to is not a simple matter of the state vs. civilians. It’s not government vs. the press, either. It’s the surveillance-over-everything forces within governments (plus the politicians and journalists who identify with them) vs. everyone who opposes their overreach: investigative journalists and sources, especially, but also couriers (like David Miranda), cryptographers and technologists, free speech lawyers, funders, brave advertisers, online activists, sympathetic actors inside a given government, civil society groups like Amnesty International, bloggers to amplify the signal and, of course, readers. Lots of readers, the noisy kind, who share and help distribute the work.

This type of sunlight coalition — large and small pieces, loosely joined — is a countervailing power to the security forces, the people who are utterly serious when they say: ”You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more,” the same people who, as Bruce Schneier has written, “commandeered the internet” for their use because, viewed from a certain angle, it’s the best machine ever made for spying on the population.

If sunlight coalitions are to succeed, it won’t be by outwitting surveillance. Not better technology, but greater legitimacy is their edge. This attitude was perfectly captured by Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, who shut down his email service when the surveillance state demanded his submission. “I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore,” he said.

Sunlight wins when the deeds exposed turn out to lack legitimacy under the greater scrutiny they receive because of the exposure. That can only happen through open argument over known facts. The argument is always about the same thing: what is truly in the public interest, and what violates justice, decency, common sense, national conscience, the requirements of a democracy. As Rusbridger told the BBC:

“If they were to arrest David Miranda in Heathrow car park they would have to use bits of the law which have checks and balances to protect journalistic material, among other things, but by doing it in a transit lounge they are operating in a kind of stateless way where they can interrogate someone for nine hours, seize whatever they want, under rules that are about terrorism. Once you start conflating terrorism and journalism, as a country I think you’re in some trouble.”

A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Those who would expose the misdeeds of an agency like the NSA need good arguments, not just good sources and good lawyers. Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money. It has to speak to ends that are almost as universal as the emotion of fear, an always-on power source for the “collect it all” consortium.

Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential. All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us about, ”You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back?” Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post asked Rusbridger about that. His answer:

“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.

That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.

“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.

Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

You can find all the pieces I’ve written on Snowden, the press and the surveillance state here.

Public radio’s The World interviewed me about this post. Listen here. (It’s 5:41.)

John Naughton in the UK reacts to this post: Democracy as a ‘game.’

The big question, to my mind, is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance deemed essential by the national security state is compatible with democracy.

The answer I’m heading towards is “No”.

Former CIA agent turned novelist Barry Eisler tries to explain why David Miranda got stopped at Heathrow by the UK authorities. His answer: to make further journalism about the Snowden material more difficult. I think he’s got it.

The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication — a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another — can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists’ efforts harder and slower.

Does this sort of “deny and disrupt” campaign sound familiar? It should: you’ve seen it before, deployed against terror networks. That’s because part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.

“If you support a free press publishing leaked state secrets you are apparently condoning terrorism. If you don’t object to his detention loudly, you are condoning the secret state.” On CNN.com, former BBC executive Richard Sambrook reflects on the hardening of positions.

Social media, advocacy journalism, the need to define and claim the narrative and to be heard leaves little room for middle ground, but it is there that this conflict will be resolved. In that gray area, the ethical bridge between these positions will have to be rebuilt.

My contribution to Sambrook’s bridging project in this post:  ”Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique.”

Mark Ambinder, national security reporter and columnist, explains his reasons to be troubled the NSA, and, in a separate column, why concerns about it are overblown: 5 reasons the NSA scandal ain’t all that. ”I really do think tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations,” he writes. Conor Friedersdorf isn’t buying it.

The Press Gazette in Britain asks why newspapers in the UK are largely letting The Guardian go it alone, and not jumping fully into the fray.

Aug.
15

When you’re in a Fourth Estate situation

As things stand today, the Fourth Estate is a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some do not. Some who have it are part of the institutional press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

“I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore.”

Those are the poignant words of Ladar Levison, founder of Lavabit, a secure email service that he voluntarily shut down when faced with some sort of demand from the U.S. government to reveal user information. The precise nature of that demand he cannot talk about for fear of being thrown in jail, perhaps the best example we now have for how the surveillance state undoes the First Amendment. But we know that Lavabit was used by Edward Snowden to communicate with the outside world when he was stuck in the Moscow airport. So use your imagination!

If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore… is a perfect description of a “Fourth Estate situation.” That’s when we need a journalist to put hidden facts to light and bring public opinion into play, which then changes the equation for people in power operating behind the veil. If it doesn’t happen, an illegitimate state action will persist. “My hope is that, you know, the media can uncover what’s going on, without my assistance,” Levison said. He’s like a whistleblower who will go to jail if he actually uses his whistle. All he can do is give truncated interviews that stop short of describing the pressure he is under.

At least one thing is clear: Snowden’s determination “to embolden others to step forward,” which I wrote about in my last post, is starting to work. Ladar Levison is proof.

This week the New York Times magazine published an amazing account of the Fourth Estate situation that Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald found themselves in, once they were contacted by Edward Snowden. The author, Peter Maass, included this:

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

The idea of the press as the “fourth estate” is usually traced to English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881.) Here he is, writing at a time when journalists were newly arrived on the political stage:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. It used to be that the only way to “speak to the whole nation” was through the major media channels that reached everyone. The Fourth Estate became the editors and reporters who worked in Big Media newsrooms. But as Peter Maass pointed out, Poitras and Greenwald don’t operate that way. They make alliances with the press establishment to get their stories out. If necessary, they will go it alone. Greenwald raises his own money from readers who support what he does, as he explained in a June 4th column in The Guardian:

Ever since I began political writing, I’ve relied on annual reader donations to enable me to do the journalism I want to do: first when I wrote at my own Blogspot page and then at Salon. Far and away, that has been the primary factor enabling me to remain independent – to be unconstrained in what I can say and do – because it means I’m ultimately accountable to my readers, who don’t have an agenda other than demanding that I write what I actually think, that the work I produce be unconstrained by institutional orthodoxies and without fear of negative reaction from anyone. It is also reader support that has directly funded much of the work I do, from being able to have research assistants and other needed resources to avoiding having to do the kind of inconsequential work that distracts from that which I think is most necessary and valuable.

For that reason, when I moved my blog from Salon to the Guardian, the Guardian and I agreed that I would continue to rely in part on reader support. Having this be part of the arrangement, rather than exclusively relying on the Guardian paying to publish the column, was vital to me. It’s the model I really believe in.

This was the last thing he wrote for the Guardian before the Snowden story took over his life, but he dropped a hint of what was coming. “I’ve spent all of this week extensively traveling and working continuously on what will be a huge story: something made possible by being at the Guardian but also by my ability to devote all of my time and efforts to projects like this one.”

The point I’m driving at is not that the institutionalized press is no longer needed, or no longer powerful. Greenwald clearly benefits from being a Guardian journalist. The Guardian has other reporters it can put on the story. It has editors to save writers from errors and misjudgments. It pays for plane tickets and lawyers. It has global reach. These are huge advantages.

But people who find themselves in a Fourth Estate situation — “If the public knew what power was doing, power would not be allowed to do it anymore” — have power themselves now. If they have the goods, if they have the will, if they have “a tongue which others will listen to,” they can speak to the nation. And some will! The Fourth Estate is really a state of mind. Some in the press have it, some don’t. Some who have it are part of the press. Some, like Ladar Levison and Edward Snowden, are not.

A Fourth Estate situation has its own strange and radiating power. People caught up in one will take enormous risks. They will sacrifice their freedom. They will crash the company they spent years building. They will defy the state. They will do a lot to bring the hidden facts to light. Working together, sources, journalists and readers may soon publish a blockbuster story without the institutional press being involved at all.

Again, I’m not saying we don’t need The Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, El País, O Globo, the BBC, the CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. We definitely do. But they are not the Fourth Estate. If the public knew what the government was doing, the government wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore. Everyone who tries to act on that tense situation: they, together, are the Fourth Estate. (Senator Ron Wyden, for example.)

I believe Bruce Schneier was correct when he wrote in the Atlantic this week that the U.S. government has “commandeered the internet.” He urged the big technology companies to fight back. But even if they don’t, others will. And when they make that decision, they will pick up the tools of journalism and try to alert the public. If the press won’t help them, they will go it alone. Wise professionals in journalism will understand this, and select accordingly.