To have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the Trump candidacy…

Last week in the Washington Post I said that journalists covering the candidacy of Donald Trump may have to come up with novel responses. Here I elaborate by asking you examine this image:

21 Jul 2016 9:21 pm 20 Comments

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 4.20.26 PM

That’s the line-up of interpreters presented by CNN on Tuesday of this week. They all fit under one of three categories: Journalists who cover politics for CNN (Gloria Borger, John King, Nia-Malika Henderson); political operatives who have worked for more traditional candidates (David Axelrod, Van Jones, Ana Navarro); and surrogates whose value to the conversation is that they reliably support Trump (Jeffery Lord, Andy Dean.)

But is that mix good enough? Can those three types — political journalists, operatives, surrogates — bring enough perspective to make sense of the Trump phenomenon?

My answer: No. Not even close.

The journalists are on screen mainly because these are the people CNN has at hand. They’re already being paid, so they have to be used. The operatives are there because, according to the producers, politics is a game and these are people who know how the game is played. The surrogates are there because in order to elude criticism — a massive and undeclared factor in political coverage — CNN needs to present itself as “balanced.” It’s hard to find anyone who from experience knows a lot about politics and also supports Donald Trump, so CNN has to pay people to even the scales.

Notice: all of these reasons are producer-centric. They aren’t responding to user demands, or the demands of the phenomenon itself. Jeffrey Lord is there because CNN needs him on air to feel fair and balanced. His job is to help CNN ward off criticism that it is one-sided or insufficiently Trumpish. This is the same reason Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was hired by CNN. The decision has nothing to do with serving audiences, explaining politics, or telling voters the hard truth about their choices. It’s about avoiding criticism.

In order to have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the candidacy of Donald Trump an executive producer of election coverage at a major network would need to call on different categories than the three we commonly see: journalists, operatives, and surrogates. Here’s a partial list of the “slots” you would need to fill to even come close to a useful and rounded view…

Parody: In many ways, Trump’s is a joke candidacy, a parody of a presidential campaign. The wall that Mexico will pay for is much closer to a goof on the political class than it is to any serious policy proposal. One of the slots on our revised roundtable should therefore go to someone who is attuned to this dimension and can evaluate how well the candidate did in extending his parody to the most sacred rituals in American politics, like the acceptance speech.

Stay shocked. “Many forces will be at work in the coming weeks to normalize Trump,” wrote E.J. Dionne in May. “Please don’t mainstream [him].” Dionne’s plea deserves its own chair, a slot on the televised roundtable for someone whose only job it is to stay shocked, remain alert to the unprecedented, the hard-to-believe, the amazing, the chaotic. This person’s job is exactly what Dionne said: never normalize Trump. Remain awestruck.

‘Dominance politics’ and the imperative of humiliation. “A series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.” Here I am quoting Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has pursued this interpretation for months. (Brilliantly, I should add.) There should be someone on the pundit’s roundtable who is paying close attention to the manner in which Trump tries to establish his dominance over all comers and humiliate anyone who would try to contest his superiority. Hearing that person opine on the latest speech, or press conference maneuver would be useful and illuminating.

Narcissism watch. Anyone aware of what “narcissism” really means would also be aware that Trump is a classic and illuminating case. Narcissists are distinguished not by self-love — that is a common misconception — but by a weak sense of identity that needs constant shoring up. It is hard for the narcissist to tell what is self and not self. A pundit alert to the paradoxes of this condition might be able deliver insights that would baffle a campaign operative.

Reality TV. No roundtable attempting to size up Trump is complete without someone who can view his events through the lens of Hollywood values, entertainment priorities, reality television imperatives, the demands of the script— worlds in which Trump has truly excelled. Van Jones cannot do that. Jeffrey Lord cannot do that.

“Identity politics for white people” is a phrase I first heard in this August 2015 essay by Ben Domenech. More recently it was the subject of this report by Nick Confessore: For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance. “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups,” said one of his sources, “so white people have to, too.” Instead of turning to another political consultant with a savvy take on the game of politics, Anderson Cooper should be asking his expert on white resentment to weigh in.

Political correctness. A portion of Trump’s appeal has to do with his open defiance of what is often called “political correctness.” If I were an executive producer of campaign coverage trying to capture the Trump phenomenon, I would dump Gloria Borger (what does she add, really?) and insert a careful student of this form of backlash politics, in which rules about what you “can’t say” are broken and energy is thereby released.

 

Facebook backs off on the View from Nowhere

Today Facebook released a document it calls: News Feed Values. It's a start on beginning to define some editorial priorities.

29 Jun 2016 10:16 am 5 Comments

Even a start — and that’s all this is — is news, though. Because for a long time Facebook wouldn’t even say it had priorities. It would describe you as the editor of News Feed: you, rather than Facebook.

It would say things like: “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” (2015) Or: “We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors. We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed.” (2014)

Here’s what I said back to Facebook about this habit of theirs:

Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it…

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

The document released today is not a revelation, but it does say a few interesting things. Here is my summary of News Feed’s editorial philosophy:

Your social graph comes first, not the public world. Informing you is a higher priority than entertaining you. But we think “information” comes in many forms, not just serious news. A good recipe for beer can chicken is information to the person who is looking for it. We don’t exclude points of view we don’t like, or favor the sources we do like. We let the invisible hand of user choice make those decisions. Except: We do try to edit out what people find misleading, sensational, spammy— mere click bait. We do police nudity, hate speech, personal abuse, and violent or overly graphic content. Above all, we design News Feed to keep people on our platform because—

Actually the last part isn’t in there. I added that. To me it’s the obvious thing missing from this attempt to state the values that are built into News Feed. No one should expect Facebook to be a traffic distributor because that is not a priority the company has for its product. Again, this is obvious but as long as they’re trying to clarify what they stand for they should clarify that.

One more thing Facebook says in the value statement it released today: its committed to the personalization of News Feed as a kind of right that users have. “You control your experience.” I will be worth watching how this rights revolution in news display unfolds.

Now that they’re publicly committed to certain values the next thing Facebook needs is a public editor to synthesize complaints and get answers when the company falls short. It also needs to iterate on today’s statement as often as it revises the algorithm for News Feed.

“Depends on your point of view…” These are weasel words for political journalists.

I often comment on the absurdity of the relentlessly down-the-middle approach cultivated by CNN, PBS, NPR and other "mainstream" news organizations. I don't trust this style. I think it is practiced in bad faith.

18 Mar 2016 11:25 pm 41 Comments

Last night I came upon a new exhibit in my running critique. I will show it to you, and then try to interpret what it means. It happened on a program where he said, she said and “we’ll have to leave it there” are a kind of house style: The Newshour on PBS. (Link.) Let’s set the scene…

* A big story: the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply— a major public health disaster.
* Latest news: the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing at which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, and EPA Administrator Gina McCarth, an Obama appointee, both testified.
* Outcome: They were ritualistically denounced and told to resign by members of Congress in the opposing party. (Big surprise, right?)
* Cast of characters in the clip I’m about to show you: Judy Woodruff of the Newshour is host and interviewer. Judy_Woodruff_at_Spotlight_Health_Aspen_Ideas_Festival_2015David Shepardson is a Reuters reporter in the Washington bureau who has been covering the Flint disaster. (Formerly of the Detroit News and a Michigan native.) Marc Edwards is a civil and environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech. (“He’s widely credited with helping to expose the Flint water problems. He testified before the same House committee earlier this week.”)

Now watch what happens when Woodruff asks the Reuters reporter: who bears responsibility for the water crisis in Flint? Which individual or agency is most at fault here? (The part I’ve isolated is 2:22.)

Here is what I saw. What did you see? The comment thread is open.

The Reuters journalist defaults on the question he was asked. He cannot name a single agency or person who is responsible. The first thing and the last thing he says is “depends on your point of view.” These are weasel words. In between he manages to isolate the crucial moment — when the state of Michigan failed to add “corrosion control” to water drawn from the Flint River — but he cannot say which official or which part of government is responsible for that lapse. Although he’s on the program for his knowledge of a story he’s been reporting on for months, the question of where responsibility lies seems to flummox and decenter him. He implies that he can’t answer because there actually is no answer, just the clashing points of view.

Republicans in Congress scream at Obama’s EPA person: you failed! Democrats in Congress scream at a Republican governor: you failed! Our reporter on the scene shrugs, as if to say: take your pick, hapless citizens! His actual words: “Splitting up the blame depends on your point of view.”

This is a sentiment that Judy Woodruff, who is running the show, can readily understand. He’s talking her language when he says “depends on your point of view.” That is just the sort of the down-the-middle futility that PBS Newshour traffics in. Does she press him to do better? Does she say, “Our viewers want to know: how can such thing a happen in the United States? You’ve been immersed in the story, can you at least tell us where to look if we’re searching for accountability?” She does not. Instead, she sympathizes with David Shepardson. “It’s impossible to separate it from the politics.” But we’ll try!

For the try she has to turn to the academic on the panel, who then gives a little master class in how to answer the question: who is at fault here? Here are the points Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech makes:

* Governor Snyder failed to listen to the people of Flint when they complained about the water.
* Synder trusted too much in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.
* He has accepted some blame for these failures, calling the Flint water crisis his Katrina.
* EPA, by contrast, has been evading responsibility for its part in the scandal.
* EPA called the report by its own whistleblower “inconclusive” when it really wasn’t.
* The agency hesitated and doubted itself when it came to enforcing federal law. WTF?
* EPA said it had been “strong-armed” by the state officials as if they had more authority than the Federal government.

Who is responsible? That was the question on the PBS table. If we listen to the journalist on the panel we learn: “it depends on which team you’re on,” and “they’re all playing politics,” and “it’s impossible to separate truth from spin.”

Professor Marc Edwards, more confident in his ability to speak truth to power, cuts through all that crap: There are different levels of failure and layers of responsibility here, he says. Some people are further along than others in admitting fault. Yes, it’s complicated — as real life usually is — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to assign responsibility. Nor does responsibility lie in one person’s lap or one agency’s hands. Multiple parties are involved. But when people who have some responsibility obfuscate, that’s outrageous. And it has to be called out.

Now I ask you: who’s in the ivory tower here? The journalist or the academic?

I know what you’re thinking, PBS Newshour people. Hey, we’re the ones who booked Marc Edwards on our show and let him run with it. That’s good craft in broadcast journalism! Fair point, Newshour people. All credit to you for having him on. Good move. Full stop.

What interests me here is the losing gambit and musty feel of formulaic, down-the-middle journalism. The misplaced confidence of the correspondent positioning himself between warring parties. The spectacle of a Reuters reporter, steeped in the particulars of the case, defaulting on the basic question of who is responsible. The forfeiture of Fourth Estate duties to other, adjacent professions. The union with gridlock and hopelessness represented in those weasel words: “depends on your point of view.” The failure of nerve when Judy Woodruff lets a professional peer dodge her question— a thing they chortle about and sneer at when politicians do it. The contribution that “not our job” journalists make to unaccountable government, and to public cynicism. The bloodlessness and lack of affect in the journalist commenting on the Flint crisis, in contrast to the academic who is quietly seething.

In December I wrote something on how journalists and their bad habits are implicated in our hyper-polarized politics. (“Tone poem for the ‘leave it there’ press.”) Please excuse me for quoting myself:

Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one.

This has to stop.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Big thanks to Max Larkin for technical assistance.

Ron Fournier of The Atlantic writes about the same moment and completely ignores the Reuters reporter, as if he wasn’t there. Also:


One of the reasons that journalists default to “depends on your point of view” when asked where responsibility lies is that they are wary of enlistment in partisan politics. And that is a valid concern. But it is false to equate holding people accountable with taking sides. That’s just lazy, formulaic thinking. Here’s a portion of the “About” page for ProPublica, an investigative newsroom in New York that does nothing but accountability journalism. Watch how in defining what they do they carefully distinguish it from joining up with the political circus:

In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change. We uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform. We do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.

It’s possible to hold power to account journalistically without “taking sides” in a political dispute. But you have to actually think about the best way to do that for your newsroom. My objection to “depends on your point of view” is that it is thought-less in precisely this way.

This “reporters notebook” item by Lindsey Smith of Michigan Public Radio answers the where does responsibility lie? question very well. And it clearly shows that the journalists involved in reporting on the Flint water crisis had to deliberate — think hard about what they uncovered — to get there, because the answer is complicated. Lindsey Smith writes that in making a 50-minute documentary on “how did this happen?” they came to a conclusion:

By not requiring Flint to treat the river water in a way that would’ve helped keep lead out of the drinking water, MDEQ became the most important focus for the “accountability” portion of this documentary.

Through months of research and lengthy, recorded interviews, my editors and I came to the conclusion that, had the water experts (specifically officials at MDEQ and the engineering firm Flint’s emergency manager hired), done a better job, then who made the decision to go to the Flint River shouldn’t have mattered. If they would’ve required corrosion control treatment, treatment any normal large city in America uses, treatment that the federal government has now made completely clear is absolutely required, the lead problems Flint has faced may not have ever happened.

That’s not to say all the responsibility lies there. Rather: accountability begins there. And that does not depend on your point of view. It flows from actual reporting. (Hat tip, Dustin Dwyer.)

A few things to keep in mind when you’re angry, frustrated, or bored with campaign coverage.

This began as an email I was going to send to a reporter who asked me for comment on the complaints of Bernie Sanders supporters about unfair treatment. I decided to post it. I do realize it will satisfy no one.

10 Mar 2016 3:51 pm 20 Comments

Campaign coverage as usual lacks any higher or deeper purpose beyond chronicling the race and figuring out who is likely to win. This purposelessness is the originating problem, in my view. The alternatives that are typically put forward — captured in two over-used abstractions, “issues” and “policy” — do not stir the juices among campaign journalists or inspire creative effort within their organizations.

Who wants to spend their time chronicling the policy proposals of a candidate who is not going to win anyway? No one. And if the candidate is likely to win, the story of how they did it (and what it takes…) is always more exciting to journalists than policy prescriptions that are unlikely to be adopted because they were crafted to gain votes in a presidential election, to sound right to the right groups of people, not to pass Congress after the election.

As long as the available alternatives are posed this way: chronicling the ups and downs of the race and figuring out who’s likely to win — also known as horse race journalism — on one hand, vs. “issues” and “policy” coverage (dutiful business…) on the other, nothing will really change. We will continue to be stuck in these fruitless debates wherein supporters of the candidates who are not winning in the estimation of journalists cry foul because they get less attention, which then makes it harder for them to win.

Bernie Sanders supporters are currently trapped in this catch-22; it enrages them, but it is not unique to their candidate. These complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears (sorry for the cliché) because journalists receiving them actually believe: “If you wanted your candidate to receive more coverage, you should have backed someone who was more likely to win!” But journalists who think that way won’t say it that way because a.) it sounds mean, uncharitable in the extreme, and b.) somewhere they have a bad conscience about surrendering to their own horse race tendencies.

In one breath they think: Who are these people claiming we should give their candidate more coverage? They should have thought of that before they backed an obvious loser! But in the next breath they think: issues, policy, public problem-solving, material differences among the candidates in what they would do if elected… that’s what the election is supposed to be about. We should cover that.

Reflecting for any length of time on this conflict is too painful for intelligent and self-aware journalists. Cognitive dissonance is the most likely result. Who’s gonna win? is of immediate import to the nation and more interesting to the audience, they believe. But what these candidates would do if elected is more valid journalistically, symbolized by a strange word they use for this part of the problem, “substance.” (As against “process.”) Picking between the two — substance vs. process — is hard. They say they do both, but when it comes to determining the portion of coverage that various candidates “deserve” there are no points for being the most substantial. There could be, maybe there should be, but there isn’t in the system as it stands.

Overlaid on this are, of course, the obvious commercial pressures that vastly favor Trump in this election (the handy term for which is “ratings”) and the ancient tests of newsworthiness: the different, the new, the unexpected, the man that bites dog, the spectacular, the OMG, the bizarre. These also favor Trump, hugely. And he’s winning the Republican primary, so he has the trifecta: ratings, OMG and horse race. Good luck moving the press off that!

Purposelessness is the deeper problem, I have said. But the people who produce campaign coverage don’t agree with me. They think this criticism is weird, tone deaf. They know they pay a lot of attention to the horse race, but they don’t apologize for it, because they truly believe: this is what readers, viewers and listeners prefer. The race is exciting! People want to know who’s likely to win. They don’t want to waste their votes on a loser. They want to be brought inside the process, the circus, the show. The high-minded complain, but consumers love the product. No contest.

What I mean by purposelessness is that the producers and authors of campaign coverage would find it hard to answer this question: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the ultimate goal of our coverage in 2016? It’s not to elect a particular candidate. (As Jack Shafer said to his colleagues today: “Your job is neither to stop Trump nor advance him.”) It’s not to make the case for the D’s or the R’s. (That’s the job of the parties.) It’s not to win the ratings or the battle for clicks. (Corporate bosses love that, but it’s not what gets political journalists jazzed.)

They could say, and some of them would say, “to equip people to cast an intelligent vote,” but if that were the purpose then it would be no contest in the other direction: “substance” would win over “process” with regularity. (Again those are not my terms, they are native to the campaign press.) Another possible answer would be: to vet these candidates and make sure they and their proposals meet the presidential test. A worthy goal but it has little to do with “who’s gonna win and how are they doing it?” which is a majority of the coverage.

When you put it all together you realize the purposelessness is intentional, or at least functional, it works just enough for everyone to keep the system as it is. Not to be too cute, but it has a purpose. For another way of saying weak on questions of purpose is “strong on advancing no agenda” and in mainstream journalism that’s good… right?

I guess what I’m saying is this: Campaign journalists have a system for determining who gets the most coverage. They have no system for determining who deserves the most coverage.

The justness of campaign journalism will change only when the people who produce it have enough confidence to declare an agenda that is not ideological or political, that does not tilt the field for this candidate or that party but rather instructs the press in where the spotlight belongs. (Example of what I mean.) Until that day, these abstractions will float around — issues, policy, substance, process — and people will continue to get mad.

“We temporarily lost our minds.” Some thoughts on SB Nation’s Daniel Holtzclaw debacle.

This is a key moment for Vox Media and its internal culture, which has been one of the company's strengths. Vox can emerge a better, wiser, tougher company but only if the truthtelling is real— and made public.

6 Mar 2016 11:12 pm 30 Comments

holtzclaw

On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.

For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”

A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did:

The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” told the story of how they destroyed his.

What I mean by a mystery is this: When the editors of a site receive complaints about a work they have published, and after reviewing it quickly find their decision to publish it indefensible, they are telling us, in effect, that they had temporarily lost their minds. They had quit being editors, but when alerted to the vacancy looked upon their AWOL selves with shock and horror. From the outside it’s hard to imagine how that switch happens. Continuing to defend the indefensible, as Newsweek has done with its bitcoin story (still online, unretracted) is a lot less admirable than what Vox did, but somehow easier to understand than “Hey, we temporarily lost our minds…”

In the case of “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” — quickly removed from the internet by SB Nation but still available in a cached version — an internal investigation is underway. It is being conducted by Vox Media’s editorial director, Lockhart Steele. According to Greg Howard’s report, he is being assisted by five women who work for Vox: Recode founder Kara Swisher, Eater executive editor Helen Rosner, Vox.com managing editor Lauren Williams, Katie Nimick of Vox Media human resources, and Miriam Nissly, who works in the company’s legal department.

“A major editorial miscalculation was made, and it’s on us that we figure out why and limit the chances of it happening again,” Steele told the New York Times. The meltdown happened in SB Nation’s “longform” division, which was launched in 2012. It publishes narrative non-fiction that takes months to report. That work has been suspended while the investigation unfolds.

“We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure,” said Spencer Hall in his note to readers shortly after the piece was pulled. “There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.” Please underline that word “promise.” Greg Howard reports something different: “What the company finds may well remain unknown; we’re told the results of its inquest are unlikely to be made public.” That is not good.

I think this is a key moment for Vox Media and its internal culture, which has been a major strength. A weird thing about these meltdowns is that it’s entirely possible for Vox to come out of this a wiser and stronger company that’s even more attractive to editorial, technical and commercial talent. But that only happens if the investigation is thorough and the truthtelling is real and detailed— and made public.

In a memo to employees obtained by Deadspin, Vox’s vice president of editorial operations, Kevin Lockland, wrote: “You have every right to be angry and disappointed. We are committed to taking appropriate actions to earn back your trust, which we know will take time.” That’s a good sign. But of course it is the trust of readers that is equally a stake in this investigation. And the confidence of future employees, especially women and minority journalists, who may or may not want to join Vox. For as Greg Howard observes:

This story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important. It isn’t because diversity is charity, or because giving opportunities to people other than white men is a Christlike thing to do, but because everyone has blind spots, and everyone fucks up.

Exactly.

Diversity = blind spot minimization. Real diversity is an improvement in editorial vision, such that things appear “in their corrected fullness.” (The phrase is Sheldon Wolin’s.) Howard’s reporting on how the meltdown happened reveals that Elena Bergeron, SB Nation’s senior editor — a very experienced journalist and “the only person of color and the only woman among SBNation.com’s top layer of editors” — had seen the disaster coming. She “explicitly and repeatedly drew attention to the story’s flaws in the days leading to its publication— and was, somehow, ignored.” Somehow ignored? That’s part of the mystery. But it has to be explained. If the explanation is kept within house, what does that tell minority journalists who will in the future be recruited by Vox?

I know a few people at Vox. I know how seriously they take minority recruitment. What happened to Elena Bergeron’s voice is now a public issue. It has to be addressed… publicly. This is too obvious to belabor any further.

Departing from what has been reported, I want to add a few thoughts and speculations of my own to the mystery of how “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” got published.

The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.

There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.

Which brings me to another point about putting such pieces online. In 2009 I called it “audience atomization overcome.” It means that the internet is extremely efficient at allowing people who draw the same conclusion to locate each other and realize their number. Whereas before the internet people who thought upon reading your piece “well, that’s odd,” or “this is appalling,” or “seriously, Rolling Stone?” had little recourse but to write a letter to the editor or complain to a friend, today if the sentiment is widely shared these readers quickly realize they are not alone, and that their collective disbelief is much stronger than the editors’ belief in what was just published. Audience atomization has been overcome.

The writer and software engineer Paul Ford had this in mind when in the wake of the SB Nation debacle he mused about adding a “Very Concerned!” button to content management systems. “Anyone—designer, intern, editor—could click that button. Once they click, an email goes straight up the chain (to the top of the company) flagging that someone, somewhere is concerned.” But why limit it to the people you employ?

What if you created a special reader’s program of, say, two hundred people who read your publication? Make sure they are as diverse as hell—race, gender identity, sports teams, location, age, education. Recruit them quietly. Pay them something small but meaningful: $100/month to read 10 or so stories each. They’d read them anyway; here, they get money for reading them early and carefully.

This is now your “reader’s council.” Give them unlimited access to drafts of articles and ask for feedback and notes, and give them the same “Very Concerned!” button you gave to your editors. Make it all totally anonymous—no way for the editors to reach them, or know who they are. Now instead of waiting for the Internet to take you to task, a group of strangers can take you to task, quietly, on a regular basis.

This is diversity, of the distributed kind.

Finally, a point about clichés. Here is something Poynter.org published not long ago: 15 political clichés journalists should avoid. Advice like this presents clichés as a glitch in one’s writing, a problem of attentiveness. You can avoid clichés by recognizing them early and steering around them.

I have read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” four times. It is teeming with clichés. The “nice guy” who no one could believe is a rapist. The father who swears his son could never have done this. The dedicated athlete always found in the weight room, determined to make it to the NFL. (He doesn’t.) But the kinds of clichés that doom the piece are not glitches in the writing. They are way beyond the use of tired phrases that one could avoid. Rather, the author of this work thinks in clichés, superficialities that were fatal to the piece before he ever typed a word. This is not a matter of technique. It cannot be cured by better editing, or reminders from Poynter. It is not a lapse into cliché but a prior condition that should have disqualified him from ever taking on this subject.

I’m not going to even mention the author’s name because this is not about him. The editors are at fault. The writer they chose was completely over-matched by his subject. When it was proposed… a piece asking “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw, really?” …a proper answer would have been: is Joan Didion available?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

UPDATE, March 9: Glen Stout, the editor of SB Nation longform, who commissioned the piece in question, is fighting back. His lawyer sent a letter to Deadspin demanding a correction, and included exhibits like emails sent and drafts amended. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post tries to sort it out: Ex-SB Nation editor seeks correction/retraction from Deadspin over Daniel Holtzclaw story. Here’s the lawyer’s letter with quite a lot of detail.

Erik Wemple (March 10): Internal review of SB Nation’s Holtzclaw story close to completion.

If you care at all about editorial integrity (or “longform,” narrative journalism) you really should read the doomed text, “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” There is no need for me to repeat the many on-point criticisms that have been made of this article. Instead I will link and highlight:

* L.V. Anderson at Slate, The Worst Parts of SB Nation’s Deleted Story Lionizing a Convicted Rapist. “You may be wondering how many times [the author] directly quotes Holtzclaw’s victims in his 12,000-word piece. The answer: exactly once.”

* Barry Petchesky at Deadspin (a Gawker site): “Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors — ‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’ — over and over again for 12,000 words.”

* Jessica Luther at Fansided (a Sports Illustrated site.)

[The author’s] starting point is as a man who watched Holotzclaw’s entire college career, who sees Holtzclaw as an athlete first, and who imagines Holtzclaw’s story as a tragic arc. The victimized women are simply an anomaly to be explained away in the otherwise successful life of a nice guy who happened to become a convicted rapist. Yet, for plenty of sexual assault survivors, the fact that everyone in their community and friend group believed that the man who raped them was a “good guy” who “would never do such a thing” kept them quiet, made them fearful of coming forward, made them doubt what happened to them, etc.

* A Deadspin commenter who is admirably concise:

Jeez, didn’t you read the story? He was a former football player who once played football but no longer played football, and was well liked by the people who liked him! And those rapes he committed but maybe he didn’t? You weren’t there so who knows?

Crazy as it sounds, that is a good summary of what SB Nation published and then un-published, once the editors came to their senses. That the author never should have been given the assignment you can tell by trying to read his concluding paragraph. It is almost insensible:

Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything he had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That the author should never have been given the assignment you can also tell from his apology note.

Maybe when the crash site investigation is concluded it will find that the problems began with the dubious proposition that because Holtzclaw’s football career had been under-covered, SB Nation — a sports site — had something vital to add to the story of his crimes and conviction. That the writer had covered Holtzclaw when he was in college may have given the editors a false sense that they were in possession of some kind of exclusive.

“The fact that he was a football player — and a pretty good one, who fell just short of the N.F.L. — seemed to have escaped all other coverage.” These are the words of Glenn Stout, editor of SB Nation’s longform division, in an email to a writer’s group that the New York Times obtained. “I think people will be talking about this one,” he wrote.

But there’s the mystery again. When you read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” it’s almost impossible to believe that a competent editor read and signed off on it. It’s that bad. But Glenn Stout is a serious journalist, a respected editor. From the comments at Deadspin:

Matt Tullis
MarcabExpat
2/19/16 9:14pm
I’ve written five pieces for SB Nation Longform, and Glenn Stout has been my editor on all five pieces. In all five instances, the editing was exhaustive. Of course, I can only speak for my own experience, but every single story I’ve written for the site, has gone through round after round after round of edits and revisions. And it’s always resulted in the story getting better.

Spencer Hall, editorial director of SB Nation, told Deadspin: “Glenn has worked his last day at SBNation.com.”

I have written often about editorial meltdowns. They interest me:

* “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin. (March 10, 2014)

* “Events by which ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ came to be published are now the best argument I have for you on diversity in the newsroom. (Jan. 22, 2014)

* Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation. (April 6, 2015)

Journalists as ‘hit squad:’ Connecting the dots on Sheldon Adelson, the Review-Journal of Las Vegas and Edward Clarkin in Connecticut

In which I give my opinion — an educated guess — about what I think happened, and call on GateHouse Media executives to level with us.

27 Jan 2016 8:05 pm 19 Comments

It’s been more than three weeks since Politico’s Ken Doctor, working off conversations he had with unidentified executives at the company, published this story: After Adelson: Gatehouse moves to repair Las Vegas damage. Since then, nothing has emerged to fill in the baffling unknowns that are so threatening to the company’s reputation. GateHouse Media executives seem to think they can skate on this, that the story will peter out, that we’ll forget what they have left hanging.

Will we? I hope not. That’s why I updated 19 times over six weeks my 11,000-word post on the mysteries surrounding the sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal from GateHouse Media to the family of billionaire Sheldon Adelson. (Read it if you’re just coming to the story. I promise: the events there will amaze and amuse you.)

This I believe: To be a player in the news industry is to accept a business model that incorporates public trust. Without it, the assets you own aren’t worth as much. GateHouse Media owns 125 daily newspapers in the U.S., and some 500 smaller publications in 450 markets. It still operates the Review-Journal in Las Vegas (circulation around 165,000). By failing to address the very serious questions left hanging by the sale — many of which arise from the Review-Journal’s own reporting — the people who run GateHouse Media are, I believe, playing havoc with its reputation, which could eventually affect the value of the holding company, New Media Investment Group (NYSE: NEWM.)

But even if I am wrong about that: How can readers of the company’s news products who may be aware of the Adelson mess trust in what they are reading every day? How can journalists working for GateHouse have any confidence in company leadership if serious questions of institutional integrity go unaddressed? Why would editorial talent with options elsewhere stay or take a job there? When it’s impossible to trust in what it says about itself, what is a newspaper company worth, really?

Let’s go back to what Ken Doctor reported on Jan. 4. He said Gatehouse executives…

can be accurately described as “horrified” — thankfully and properly — by the many missteps involved in the Adelson sale. Company leadership’s first instinct was to hire a crisis management expert. Now it has come to realize that the problem of Las Vegas could more widely affect the view of the whole company.

Exactly so. Doctor did not mince words when he described what the problems were. They originate in this still-amazing story that appeared on the Review-Journal website Dec. 18: Judge in Adelson lawsuit subject to unusual scrutiny amid Review-Journal sale. (If you have not read it yet, what I have to say in this post won’t make as much sense, so please: click the link.) Doctor writes:

It appears that Adelson, or his people, tried to commandeer R-J investigative resources to “monitor” the performance of local judges who have been thorns in Adelson’s backside. The casino magnate is involved in a civil suit. Among the allegations in that suit: his company is doing business with the Macau gambling mob.

So far, no hard evidence has surfaced of Adelson or his people directing the R-J’s news staff, but the nature, timing and oddness of the coverage (the Times’ two-word take: “ominous coincidence“) ordered from on-high leads to an inescapable conclusion: Even before the legal transfer of the paper had been inked, Adelson, with Gatehouse management help, had trampled traditional journalistic lines and convention, believing he could use journalists as a hit squad.

It appears, then, that someone thought they could use GateHouse journalists as a hit squad. Whether it was the Adelson forces demanding such, or Gatehouse executives trying to impress them, or something else, we don’t know. That’s one of the unanswered questions. Here are ten more:

* Why did the Adelson family overpay for the Review-Journal by almost triple its market value, in Ken Doctor’s estimate? (Doctor studies the economics of the news industry at his site, Newsonomics.)

* Why, starting on Dec. 10, did GateHouse and the Adelson family try to keep the purchaser of the Review-Journal secret by using a newly-incorporated shell company, News + Media Capital Group LLC, which was to be “managed” by a man named Michael Schroeder, an obscure publisher of community newspapers in Connecticut? (Link 1, Link 2.)

* Why did Schroeder tell the journalists at the Review-Journal not to worry about who bought the newspaper and to focus on their jobs instead? (Link.)

* Why in September of 2015 did Schroeder, according to this report in the Huffington Post, offer a Connecticut reporter who used to work for him $5,000 to write a piece about Nevada judicial decisions, and mention Adelson in explaining the gig?

* Why two months later did GateHouse management try to get its investigative team in Sarasota, Florida to dig into “a potentially big story regarding the court system and potential ethics violations” among judges in Nevada? (Link.)

* Why in explaining that event did a GateHouse VP later tell a Review-Journal reporter that “we were engaged to tackle an investigative story in Las Vegas with no knowledge of the prospective new buyer?” Engaged… by whom? (Link.)

* Why after Sarasota begged off on that assignment did GateHouse management turn to the Review-Journal and, over the objections of top editors there, order its journalists to monitor the behavior of three Nevada judges? These included District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, the same judge “whose current caseload includes Jacobs v. Sands, a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., by Steven Jacobs, who ran Sands’ operations in Macau.” (Link.)

* What happened to the 15,000 words of notes and diaries that the reporters in Las Vegas compiled in completing the judges assignment, since according to the Review-Journal none of it was ever published? Where did it all go? (Link.)

* Why did Michael Schroeder publish in his tiny Connecticut newspapers a bizarre, rambling and apparently plagiarized article on business courts that criticized Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, and why did he put a fake name (Edward Clarkin) on it?

* And finally: what relationship to each other do these events bear? There are too many common elements and common players for the dots not to connect somehow. So how do they connect?

That is the question I turn to now. In this portion of my post, I am deliberately engaging in speculation (based on what’s already been published) and offering you my opinion about what went down— again, based on what has already been reported. Just to be crystal clear about it: I am not saying I know what transpired. Rather, in the absence of any decent explanation from GateHouse executives or Michael Schroeder I believe we are entitled to hypothesize and fill in the gaps with explanations that are at least plausible.

Working with limited knowledge — because the people who know won’t talk — I may well guess wrong on some points. My remedy for this: whenever possible link to what has been reported in the press or publicly stated by key players and let readers devise explanations alternative to the ones I have offered. Don’t buy my hypotheses? Come up with your own! That’s what comment sections are for.

Before I begin with my hypotheses I have to point out: there are five men who know. Together they can shed light on all the questions I have listed as open. These five are Michael Schroeder, publisher and editor of the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press in Connecticut; Jason Taylor, publisher of the Review-Journal in Las Vegas; David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content and Product Development, GateHouse Media; Kirk Davis, Chief Executive Officer, GateHouse Media; and Michael E. Reed, Chief Executive Officer, New Media Investment Group, holding company for GateHouse. These are the men who are trying to skate off the stage without telling us what happened. I don’t believe they should get away with that. Do you?

Hypotheses: My best guess at what happened.

1.) Strategic overpayment

My hypothesis: The Adelson family overpaid for the Review-Journal by a substantial amount because there was more to the deal than just the purchase of a publishing asset. GateHouse would be expected to keep the Adelson family’s ownership stake a secret, and cooperate in the judges project. The sellers got a fantastic price for the newspaper and what is probably a lucrative agreement to operate the property, which GateHouse identified as a promising new business model.

Fact: Citing sources close to the transaction, the Review-Journal reported Dec. 15 that Adelson had been one of several bidders for the newspaper when Stephens Media was selling it and other holdings. He did not succeed in that round.

Fact: When Michael Schroeder was introduced to the Review-Journal newsroom in early December, he said the new owners had been looking to buy the Review-Journal from GateHouse “for six to eight months.” (Link.)

GateHouse closed on its purchase of the paper in March 2015. By April-May-June it was already in talks to sell it to the Adelson family. That’s fast. My guess: after losing out in the bidding with Stephens, the Adelson forces developed an understanding of some kind with GateHouse officials that would later come into play via the shell company, the secrecy surrounding the sale, and the investigation of Nevada judges.

Fact: Stephens Media LLC, which sold the R-J to GateHouse, is a private company. It can sell to whomever it wants, and reject an offer if it doesn’t like the buyer, or the terms. GateHouse is part of a public company, New Media Investment Group. It cannot easily dismiss an offer for one of its properties that is far above the going rate. (This may help explain why the Adelson family didn’t purchase the property directly from Stephens. Certainly it could have outbid GateHouse.)

Fact: Using circulation figures as a proxy for asset value, Ken Doctor estimated that at the time of the March 2015 sale to GateHouse, the Review-Journal and smaller publications in Nevada that were part of the deal were worth about $52 million. He comments:

Nine months later, though, the R-J, and its associated holdings, have been bought for $140 million, or almost triple the likely March value. It is worth noting that in 2015, daily newspaper financial performance only worsened across the board, down in mid- to higher-single digits for many mid-sized or larger dailies, such as the R-J. Financially, then, its value may have declined.

In announcing the sale that was completed on Dec. 10, New Media said its gain on the transaction would be “an estimated 69%.” That’s not the number that would astound the ever-struggling newspaper industry: “New Media completed the sale of the Review-Journal and related publications to News + Media Capital Group LLC for $140 million, or 7.0x LTM pro-forma As Adjusted EBITDA.”

We haven’t seen 7X multiples (a price based on annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) among midsize and larger dailies since before the recession. Today’s average multiple – and the one paid by newly acquisitive companies like New Media Investments – runs 3-4X. That’s what financial buyers have paid in recent years. Strategic buyers may pay a little more, as Jeff Bezos did for the Washington Post, but few have paid the kind of money just disbursed for the financially struggling Review-Journal.

Seven times earnings (EBITDA) when industry standard is 3-4? Must be a reason for that. My guess: GateHouse was expected to do things newspaper companies normally do not do.

2.) Bias anyone can see.

My hypothesis: I believe the Adelson forces had convinced themselves that the judge in the wrongful termination suit filed against Las Vegas Sands Corporation and Sheldon Adelson was biased against them in the extreme. They thought the evidence for this was so clear, so obvious that most fair-minded people would come to that conclusion once the facts were properly set forth. They further believed that skeptical news coverage asking the right questions about the troublesome judge (right from their point-of-view) and digging into the pertinent facts (pertinent from their point of view) would simultaneously help in getting Elizabeth Gonzalez disqualified and meet professional standards for fair and objective news coverage, an appealing two-fer.

And so the understanding they came to with GateHouse officials was, in their minds, really nothing more than tipping off a professional news organization to a great story. However, they were aware that some people wouldn’t see it that way, so steps had to be taken to conceal the Adelson stake in the Review-Journal and its self-interest in critical news coverage of the judge. I think Michael Schroeder and GateHouse both cooperated in this as part of some understanding they had with the Adelson forces, which could have been tacit or explicit. Maybe it wasn’t “you do this, we’ll do that” but just an agreement to check out a promising story… and if there’s something there you can be sure our journalists will want to run with it.

Fact: The New York Times reported this on Jan. 2:

On Nov. 4, with Mr. Adelson already in talks to buy The Review-Journal, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected a request from Sands China to have Judge Gonzalez removed from overseeing the lawsuit. The company said that rulings and comments made by Judge Gonzalez in court reflected a bias against Mr. Adelson and Sands.

My italics. They tried to get her tossed from the case for being biased against them. But their initial attempt did not succeed.

Fact: Two days after that ruling, GateHouse management ordered the Review-Journal newsroom to begin “monitoring” three Nevada judges, one of which was Elizabeth Gonzalez. “The monitoring effort began in Las Vegas on Nov. 6 with a call from a top GateHouse Media executive to Review-Journal Publisher Jason Taylor,” the newspaper reported.

Fact: On Jan. 12 of this year, the Review-Journal reported this about the attorney for Adelson’s son-in-law skirmishing with the judge in the wrongful termination suit:

At Tuesday’s hearing, Kozlov argued that Gonzalez should recuse herself from ruling on matters related to news articles about her. The judge told Kozlov to file a motion if he thinks she should refrain from ruling on an issue.

Fact: On Jan. 19 of this year, the Review-Journal reported:

Las Vegas Sands Corp. is making a new attempt to remove District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez from a wrongful termination case that has received widespread publicity.

The company cited “recent intensified media coverage of the lawsuit” as one of the “new grounds” for requesting the judge’s disqualification.

Notice how Sands Corp. is trying to disqualify Gonzalez by pointing to news coverage that turns her into a figure of controversy, then questioning whether she can remain impartial.

3.) Schroeder screws up.

My hypothesis: Michael Schroeder tried to fulfill his part of the deal but slipped up three times, and therefore was ousted. Schroeder, I believe, was supposed to serve as front man for the purchase of the Review-Journal, allowing the Adelson forces to conceal their interest in the property indefinitely. He was also supposed to help arrange for critical coverage of Judge Gonzalez in a way that could not be traced back to Las Vegas Sands Corp. or the Adelson family. At all these tasks he failed.

Fact: In September, according to investigative journalist Peter H. Stone, Schroeder offered $5,000 to freelance reporter Scott Whipple, who used to work for his Connecticut papers. It was an unusual assignment:

Schroeder called it a “project” looking at Nevada judges who were handling business cases and mentioned Adelson’s name. To get him up to speed, Whipple recalled, Schroeder gave him a 40-page dossier comprising court documents and some newspaper clips.

After mulling the idea for a few days, Whipple decided to pass since the assignment didn’t mesh with his reporting experience and sounded unorthodox.

Schroeder’s first mistake: by outlining the Nevada judges assignment to a freelancer, by mentioning Adelson’s name in connection with it but failing to persuade Whipple to take the job, he created a source who had critical information and suspicions that not everything was kosher with the project.

Fact: On Dec. 10 the Review-Journal reported this:

Schroeder said News + Media does not own his newspapers or any other publications. When asked, he would not disclose the company’s investors.

“They want you to focus on your jobs … don’t worry about who they are,” Schroeder said.

This was Schroeder’s second mistake: Telling journalists who are trained to be curious and aggressive “don’t worry about who they are.” This practically invites them to dig into it, which is exactly what the Review-Journal reporters did. Within a week they were revealing the Adelson family hand. That was not supposed to happen. (After journalists revealed who the real buyers were, the Adelson family said it had always intended to disclose its stake but didn’t want to distract from a Republican presidential debate to be held in Las Vegas Dec. 15. But if that was really the case all they had to do was delay the announcement until Dec. 16. They had kept the deal secret for 6-8 months; what’s one more week?)

Fact: On Dec. 1, Schroeder had published in one of his Connecticut newspapers a bizarre and badly botched article on business courts, part of which attempted to raise doubts about Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez of Nevada.

Schroeder’s third mistake: he had loaded this article with red flags for curious journalists, from the phony name, ‘Edward Clarkin,’ to the illogic of reporting on Nevada judges for readers in Connecticut, to passages lifted from elsewhere and people quoted who could not recall being interviewed. As Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith wrote, “To call the story ham-handed does a disservice to ham.”

When scrutinized, this article greatly increased interest in the story among journalists around the country. Eventually, Schroeder had to apologize for it. And he became such an embarrassment to everyone involved that he was dropped from his role as “manager” of the Review-Journal, a kind of owner’s rep.

But none of that explains why he published the ‘Edward Clarkin’ article and took such risks. My guess: as part of the deal that made him “manager,” he had promised the Adelson forces that he would help produce news coverage critical of Judge Gonzalez. He struck out with freelancer Scott Whipple. Then GateHouse struck out with its Sarasota team. The Review-Journal journalists ordered to “monitor” the judges pushed back with such ferocity that nothing was published there, either. The ‘Edward Clarkin’ article was an act of desperation and bore the signs of that.

4. GateHouse strains to cooperate.

My hypothesis: Top GateHouse officials agreed to things they could not explain to their own people, which prevented them from executing on their end. Like Michael Schroeder they tried to arrange for critical coverage of Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez in a way that could not be traced back to the Adelson empire. But it didn’t work because they couldn’t get the journalists in their employ excited about the investigation, or even to see what the point of it was. Like Schroeder they grew increasingly desperate. After the sale to the Adelson family was revealed, reporters from the Review-Journal and the rest of the press started asking difficult questions. GateHouse executives froze. Because they had no answers that would pass scrutiny, they started to say bizarre things.

Fact: As the Review-Journal reported in its blockbuster story Dec. 18, in early November, David Arkin, GateHouse Media’s Senior Vice President of Content and Product Development, tried to interest Bill Church, executive editor of the GateHouse-owned Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in what was described as a “big story regarding the court system and potential ethics violations.” The potential story was said to involve “campaign finances and how judges were ruling on certain cases.”

After talking to his staff, Church told Arkin they could not immediately help.

“Given what I knew at the time, I said no, we just didn’t have the resources, and there were too many questions that still needed to get resolved,” Church said.

One major concern, Church said, was why the Sarasota newspaper would be asked to help when GateHouse also owned the Review-Journal, a larger newspaper in Las Vegas.

Note that neither GateHouse nor Bill Church in Sarasota told the Review-Journal newsroom about this event.

Fact: Shortly after the failed attempt to entice Sarasota, GateHouse officials turned to the Review Journal newsroom: (Link.)

…three reporters at the newspaper received an unusual assignment passed down from the newspaper’s corporate management: Drop everything and spend two weeks monitoring all activity of three Clark County judges.

The reason for the assignment and its unprecedented nature was never explained.

One of the three judges observed was District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose current caseload includes Jacobs v. Sands, a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Adelson and his company…

Fact: Journalists at the Review-Journal had the assignment forced on them: (Link.)

An internal memo outlining the court initiative notes that each reporter was to “observe how engaged the judge is in the case, whether they’re prepared or not, if they favor one lawyer over another, whether they’re over- or under-worked — even whether they show up for work on time, or not.”

The memo, authored by Review-Journal Deputy Editor James G. Wright, notes the initiative was undertaken without explanation from GateHouse and over the objection of the newspaper’s management, and there was no expectation that anything would be published.

Fact: When Review-Journal reporter Eric Hartley tried to ask Senior VP David Arkin about the Sarasota contact and any connection between the judges assignment and the Adelson empire, Arkin refused to be interviewed and instead sent a prepared statement, saying the company had been:

engaged to tackle an investigative story in Las Vegas with no knowledge of the prospective new buyer. Because Las Vegas was relatively new to the company, we decided to approach our newsroom in Sarasota, Florida, a team that is known for tackling big investigative journalism… On the face of the situation, we had what appeared to be a great story we were capable of investigating, and I wanted our team to show its talent. From my point of view, it was nothing more. (Link.)

Fact: As questions mounted over GateHouse’s behavior, David Arkin refused to explain to his own company’s reporter what this “great story” was all about. Eric Hartley, who now works for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk (not a GateHouse property), told me via email:

I emailed David Arkin seven times between Dec. 19 and 25 asking him to call me to address all the questions not answered in his emailed statement, including who “engaged” him to “tackle” the Las Vegas story and what that story was supposed to be. I also repeatedly texted and called him asking for those answers. Aside from that Dec. 18 emailed statement, he never responded.

Fact: David Arkin’s bosses were even less helpful. From the Review-Journal’s Dec. 18 story:

Whether there was a link between the GateHouse-ordered court monitoring assignment, the critical article in New Britain and the sale of the R-J to the Adelson family remains unclear.

Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Corp., the parent company of GateHouse Media, declined to comment when asked whether Adelson was involved in the court monitoring directive. He said the effort was part of a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigative effort initiated by GateHouse, but said he did not know who started it or how it was approved.

“I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one,” Reed told an RJ reporter on Wednesday. “I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.”

(My italics.) Notice how the company’s top guy did know about a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigation, but did not know where it came from, or who authorized it. And he declined all comment on whether Adelson was involved. Mark Fabiani, the fixer hired by the Adelsons to handle the national press attention that has come to this story, has twice declined to answer that question when the New York Times put it to him. (Like, Arkin he wouldn’t even call the reporter back.) What does that tell you?

It tells me that truthful answers are too toxic, and deceptive ones stand a risk of being exposed by other parties. But again, that’s my opinion, not something I know for certain. One more thing: Arkin claimed GateHouse had “no knowledge of the prospective new buyer” in November of 2015. But Michael Schroeder told the Review-Journal newsroom the deal had been in the works since the spring of 2015! Arkin’s statement would be appear to be dead on arrival. To me these are signs of desperation.

What happens if we put all my hypotheses together? We get an educated guess — which is only my opinion — of what went down here.

The Adelson family overpaid by double or triple because there was more to the deal than the transfer of publishing assets. The shell company and Michael Schroeder were supposed to provide an extra layer of insulation.

Properly steered, skeptical journalists asking the right questions about the troublesome judge would simultaneously help in getting Elizabeth Gonzalez disqualified and meet professional standards for honest, hard-hitting news coverage. This made the arrangement seem almost… innocent.

In their minds the Adelson forces were simply alerting a newspaper company to a great story. But they also knew that some people, biased against billionaires, would not see it that way. So steps had to be taken to obscure the Adelson empire’s stake in the Review-Journal and its keen interest in critical news coverage of the judge.

Michael Schroeder and GateHouse agreed to take those steps. The understanding they had with the purchasers could have been tacit, explicit or some winking combination of both. Or maybe they all deceived each other. But Schroeder bungled his assignments, and GateHouse couldn’t deliver on critical coverage of Judge Gonzalez without provoking an open revolt from its journalists. The infamous ‘Edward Clarkin’ article was an act of desperation. Schroeder’s clownish appearance in the R-J newsroom became an invitation to skeptical journalists: start digging!

The sale to the Adelson family was not supposed to become public when it did. Journalists in Vegas weren’t supposed to connect the dots between the dubious story tip in Sarasota, the monitor-these-judges assignment forced on the Review-Journal mysterymanand some bizarre article on business courts published in a tiny Connecticut newspaper. But that connection was made — journalism! — and reporters started asking uncomfortable questions. “Who is Edward Clarkin?” added an element of mystery, a pop culture (parking garage) trope that greatly increased interest in the story.

At the top of the company panic set in. Because they had no answers that would pass scrutiny, participants began to say things that made no sense. Or they stopped talking altogether.

How did the judges assignment get started? Who authorized it? Mike Reed, the company’s top executive, claimed not to know. In this he sounds radically incurious. When asked whether Adelson was involved at all, Reed flatly refused to answer. That’s damning. Mark Fabiani, the fixer hired by the Adelsons to handle national press attention, twice declined to answer the same question. That’ll fix it!

My guess: truthful replies were too damaging, further deception too risky. This is why nothing has happened since Ken Doctor wrote on Jan. 4 that “the company owes its readers, its own journalists and the wider public a series of explanations.”

Five men know. One of them, the hapless Michael Schroeder, has already apologized to his readers without really explaining anything. I doubt we will get much more out of him. Sheldon Adelson won’t even admit that he owns the Review-Journal, which is comical because his fixer puts him in the same category as Jeff Bezos and John Henry, two billionaires who do admit that they own newspapers. So I don’t think we’re going to get much from Adelson, either.

It is the reputation of GateHouse Media and the people who run New Media Investment Group that is truly on the line here. In my view Jason Taylor, David Arkin, Kirk Davis, and Michael Reed have reached a moment of truth in their careers. It is time for them to do what Ken Doctor said they must do: “publish a public accounting of the December mess.” And if they want to correct my informed guesswork — for that is what I have offered in this post — all the better.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

My thanks to Joseph M. Finnerty of Barclay Damon for his assistance in the preparation of this post and to John Robinson of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

UPDATE, Jan. 28. The noose tightens. News from Las Vegas. Jason Taylor, publisher of the Review-Journal, is out. (He’s one of the five men who know, as I put it.) Taylor was replaced today by Craig Moon, former publisher of USA Today, who left that job 2009. At the R-J Thursday morning there was an all-hands meeting where Moon was introduced. According to what I learned from GateHouse employees and this AP report, Jason Taylor will stay with GateHouse in an executive capacity overseeing Western properties. New publisher Craig Moon will not be a GateHouse person, as Jason Taylor was, but an employee in the House of Adelson.

“It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the change in leadership,” the New York Times wrote.

This development changes the executive picture, and indicates tightening control over the Review-Journal by the Adelson forces. Meanwhile, at the centralized print production center in Austin, GateHouse employees were told by Senior VP David Arkin that as of March 1 they will no longer be composing the pages of the Review-Journal. So the “divorce” between GateHouse and the Adelsons is being finalized. Also, from sources in the Review-Journal newsroom: the disclosure statement that used to run on page 3 of the print edition and the home page of the digital edition is no more, on orders of the new publisher:

disclosure
It seems like the noose is tightening in the Review-Journal newsroom. Another indication of that: I’m told that at the all-hands meeting in Las Vegas to introduce the new publisher, no one even asked about the events of December and whether lingering questions around the judges investigation would ever be addressed. On the surface all is sunny however: This passage ran in the Review-Journal:

Moon said Sheldon Adelson asks insightful questions about newspapers. Adelson owns Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper.

“Sheldon is pretty articulate about things about newspapers, like: ‘So do you think the presses are being optimized?'” Moon said.

Moon said the owner puts the newspaper in a solid position for the future.

“I really do want to make this a world-class media business — the best it can possibly be,” he said. “We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got the commitment of a great owner. We’re not a public company having to sit and talk about how our earnings were the for the last quarter, and I think we’re going to be able to do some really big things here.”

UPDATE: Jan. 29: Things are coming into focus now. The Review-Journal reports that Sheldon Adelson is trying to lure the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas by proposing to build an expensive new stadium, which is what it takes:

Casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp. will lead a consortium of investors planning to build a $1 billion domed stadium on 42 acres near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that would house the school’s football team — and possibly a National Football League franchise.

There are all kinds of ways that owning the largest newspaper in Nevada could be useful in trying to get a project like that done. For example, this from a Las Vegas Sands Corp spokesman: “Abboud said Las Vegas Sands may seek legislative approval for diversion of hotel room tax revenues that now support the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to the project.” Adelson needs lots of people and public bodies to go along with his scheme if the stadium plan is to work. When you factor that in, owning the Review-Journal makes more sense.

That is exactly the theme of this column by Jon Ralston, the most prominent journalist in the state: Adelson begins to play with his new toy. It’s about aiding Adelson’s campaign for a new stadium through orchestrated coverage in the Review-Journal.

Columbia Journalism Review: Review-Journal backtracks on ownership disclosure.

John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC, reflects on the form that I used for this post, and says journalists should do this kind of thing more often. State what is known, what remains unknown, “show your work,” and try to connect the dots.

In the deep background to this story: Daily Beast, July 6, 2015: Why Did ‘Frontline’ Kill Lowell Bergman’s Gambling Documentary? “Recriminations and accusations are flying after the PBS series shelved veteran reporter Lowell Bergman’s documentary about the gambling industry in Macau.”

From a successful writer of thrillers, formerly with the CIA:


Coda: Events since I published this post show the path that participants in the fiasco are taking to avoid responsibility for everything I wrote about. Soon the Adelson empire and GateHouse Media will be divorced from each other. No more operating agreements, no more entanglement. The Adelsons can say, “The investigation of the judges? That was Schroeder, that was GateHouse. We had nothing to do with it.” GateHouse can say: “We have nothing to do with the Las Vegas newspaper any longer. We’re moving on.” By going their separate ways, they allow culpability and unanswered questions to drop into the abyss between them. The journalists in Las Vegas are now wholly under the control of Adelson and the new publisher who was announced Jan 28. The journalists at GateHouse will feel no duty to expose the goings-on at a former property. Most likely, we will never find out what happened, unless the national press makes a continuing and big deal out of it. But with no new information to report, the chances of that happening are thin. So in all probability, the attempted misuse of journalists as a ‘hit squad’ will go unexplained and unexposed. That’s frustrating. If David Carr were still alive, I would be sending this note to him. Instead, I am publishing it. But I do not have much hope that it will make a difference. Chances are no one will pay. It appears they got away with it.

UPDATE, May 22, 2016. I’m taking my show to Vegas! This week I will be speaking in Las Vegas about Sheldon Adelson’s stealth takeover of the major newspaper in the state, the Review Journal, and the journalistic and civic issues that are raised by that event.

I tracked the story closely in November, December and January at my site, PressThink, and on social media. mysterymanI wrote almost 15,000 words about it because amazing things kept happening (like when the editor of the Review-Journal, Mike Hengel, found out that he took a buyout when it was reported without his knowledge in his own newspaper.)

Despite my own efforts and the national attention the story received, many of the most basic questions about the episode remained unanswered. And, of course, the national press has moved on. More disturbing, most of the journalists at the Review-Journal who had done the courageous work of uncovering the Adelson scheme have left the newsroom. This was frustrating. So I decided to bring the unanswered questions directly to Vegas, to see if I can interest the community that is most directly affected.

My talk is Thursday, May 26 at 6 pm in the Greenspun Hall Auditorium at University of Nevada Las Vegas. It is sponsored by the Las Vegas Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV. The title is: Twenty Unanswered Questions about Adelson’s Purchase of the Review-Journal: Reflections on a civic disaster by a outsider to Las Vegas.

In addition to that talk I will be doing a radio interview on Nevada Public Radio that will air during morning drive time May 27. That evening I will taping Ralson Live, Jon Ralston’s public affairs show on Nevada PBS that airs live in Reno at 5 pm and on tape in Las Vegas at 7 pm. And there are a couple of other interviews on the schedule, as well.

If you live in Las Vegas or know someone who does, please share this link with people who might be interested: http://goo.gl/gWwV8t

Here’s the news release about my talk May 26:

My January 27th post. Journalists as ‘hit squad:’ Connecting the dots on Sheldon Adelson, the Review-Journal of Las Vegas and Edward Clarkin in Connecticut.

My earlier post, which is like a timeline or diary of events as they unfolded: The Adelson forces buy a newspaper, journalists fight back: a journal of my updates on this story.