The announcement that NBC did not make about Brian Williams getting a second chance there.

They had an opportunity to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But no...

20 Jun 2015 12:54 pm 4 Comments

This from Jonathan Mahler is dead on:

NBC’s handling of Mr. Williams suggests that the network is still clinging to an increasingly anachronistic vision of the anchor’s chair as a sacred throne, and the anchor as the voice of moral authority. It’s a response that seems in many ways tone-deaf to the striking changes in the way we consume information — changes that are reshaping the relationship between newscasters and consumers. The news anchor is no longer the embodiment of reason and truth; his voice is now just one of many. And network TV is just another platform.

Likewise: this from Frank Rich in April. (“Like the cockroach, the anchorman has outlasted countless changes in the ecosystem around him.”) In recognition of these facts, I took the liberty of composing a news release that did not happen this week. It’s my way of commenting on an opportunity missed by NBC.

Brian_Williams_and_wife_Jane_WilliamsThe announcement that Brian Williams would return to the newsroom — but Lester Holt would take over his old job — was a gift to NBC executives because it allowed them to retire an overgrown and ill-fitting job description (lead anchor as face of the brand, “anchor’s chair as a sacred throne…”) that is not only outmoded and hard to believe but actively harmful to the news division— and to the person who is is installed in that creaking chair.

They had a chance to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But they couldn’t grasp it. They refused the gift.

Here, then, is the press release they never wrote, but should have.

Imaginary press release starts here: don’t quote it out of context. I made this up!

NBC News announced today the eventual return of its suspended broadcaster, Brian Williams, to active duty and his replacement as anchor of NBC Nightly News by Lester Holt, NBC veteran and Weekend Anchor, who had been filling in for Williams during an investigation of misstatements he made about his reporting work for NBC.

“Lester stepped into the anchor chair in a trying time and has really come through for us,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. ‘We are lucky to have him and I know he will continue to do great things at NBC News for years to come.”

Brian Williams, the network announced, will re-join MSNBC as anchor of breaking news and special reports. He will occasionally anchor “live special reports” on NBC when Holt is unable to or better used elsewhere. “Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

Previous anchors had been named managing editor of the NBC Nightly News and were considered responsible for the final program. In a note to staff, Lack announced that this tradition would end, and the anchor’s job would be right-sized for a different era in journalistic authority. “Brian himself has said that ego got in his way, with disastrous results,” Lack said. “We do not think that was just a personal failing.”

After its internal review of Williams past misstatements, NBC and Comcast executives engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of possible remedies. Leadership came to the conclusion that a management decision by its top executives, not one or two but a succession of them, had allowed the lead anchor position to evolve into a principality of its own, ruled by one voice: the anchor’s.

The review also found that NBC and Comcast had encouraged Williams to play up his celebrity status and devote more of his after-work hours to appearing on entertainment television. This was part of a plan to appeal to younger viewers by making the face of the NBC News brand a friendly and familiar one with obvious standing in cultural venues outside of news.

“Face of the brand, ambassador for the news division in other media spaces, managing editor of the flagship broadcast, hard working anchor for NBC Nightly News, symbolic leader of the news troops at NBC, globe-trotting reporter when a big story hits, charming and funny celebrity for the talk show set, trusted on-air guide when a crisis requires the network to go live— that is far too much for any person, any position,” said Andrew Lack in his note to staff. “We allowed it to get out of hand.”

NBC said that the lead anchor position would still exist, that its salary would stay the same or rise, and that Lester Holt, a popular figure inside and outside NBC, would not only anchor the NBC Nightly News but also preside over the network’s live coverage, such as elections, a president’s speech to the nation, or a major news event like Hurricane Katrina.

“Lester Holt is our lead anchor,” said Comcast CEO Steve Burke. “We want him to focus on the news and maintaining the trust of our viewers, not his own celebrity in a cultural space outside the news.”

Andrew Lack, in his note to NBC staff, said: “When we go live, Lester Holt will preside over the broadcast, introducing and connecting the work of NBC journalists while explaining to viewers what is going on. Anchoring ‘Nightly’ and sliding into the hot seat for live coverage: these will be the core duties of NBC’s lead anchor going forward. We are reducing a bloated job description to two key elements, and re-setting everyone’s expectations.”

Lack made it clear that the executive producer of NBC Nightly News — not the anchor — would have the final word on all editorial decisions. “We are going to eliminate any ambiguity about that.”

NBC also announced that the “roving anchor” model, in which the entire broadcast shifts to a breaking news location so the anchor can be visible on scene, would be retired and the dollar savings used to put more reporting resources on the ground at major news events. “The anchorman as ‘voice of god,’ if it ever did exist, does not describe the media world of today,” Lack said. “By right-sizing the position we plan to give Lester Holt everything he needs to succeed for many years to come.”

— Imaginary press release ends here: don’t quote it out of context. I made it all up! —

Earlier from me on the Brian Williams mess:

* NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return (March 14, 2015.)

* Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for? (Feb. 6, 2015.)

Here is Brian Williams interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer about his return to the network.

 

Campaign reporters: you are granted no “role in the process.” It is your powers against theirs.

Forget it: there is no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years.

18 May 2015 9:34 pm 51 Comments

So Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — whose mission in life is to explain to us how things really work in politics — is rolling along in his “Hillary Clinton is shamefully avoiding the press” column when he cries out to us:

Do you not think it is of value to know how Hillary Clinton spent her time since leaving the State Department? And how the Clinton Foundation handled its business with various donors who would, undoubtedly, still be in the picture if she was elected president? Or what she thinks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the fight currently happening in Congress? Or Iran? Or the Middle East?

You get the idea. The role of the media in this process is to show voters who these people are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role — and one that is essential to a functioning democracy. (My italics.)

The role of the media in this process? What on earth are you talking about, Chris?

You’re supposed to be our super-savvy guide to the way things are in the power game that is national politics. You are the least sentimental creature to walk that system’s halls… remember? No one can out-realism you! You’re Mister “let me tell you how it really works.” That’s your whole franchise. And yet here you are, bawling about “the role of the media” as if it had some sort of guaranteed status within what reporters (mindlessly) call the process.

Who could possibly be the guarantor of this role? The Constitution? (Grow up.) The Federal Election Commission? (Get real.) The political parties? (They’re too busy communicating over the top.) The voters? (I don’t think so.) Role in the process… Says who? The political system evolves, man. You’re supposed to track that for us. (Link!)

Check this out, savvy class:


Yahoo PR has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write. Kara Swisher isn’t lecturing Yahoo executives, users of Yahoo, or readers of tech coverage about some imaginary “role in the process.” She knows that it’s up to Yahoo executives to decide whether they want to talk to her. And it’s up to her to find out what’s happening at Yahoo, regardless of whether the company decides to talk.

“Yahoo has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write…” is a true statement about power relationships. They have the power to shut me out. I have the power to keep reporting, regardless of their efforts to shut me out. They can refuse comment. But if my stories are good enough, people will talk about them and Yahoo will be voiceless in that conversation. Is that what you want, Marissa Mayer? Game on! Swisher’s “role in the process” doesn’t enter into it.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

I doubt it. I base my conclusion on columns like this from Ruth Marcus of the same Washington Post. She’s also complaining that the candidates won’t answer questions. (My italics.)

Question time, campaign officials soothe, will come. Meanwhile, why step on her message — criminal justice, immigration — by taking questions?

Um, because that’s part of the process. You can’t tweet your way to the presidency. Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters. Because there are growing areas of legitimate inquiry — Clinton’s position on trade, for one — that merit answers. (The New York Times’ Amy Chozick offered an excellent example on immigration: “How could you stretch the law further than the president . . . says it can go?”)

Because how you behave on the trail augurs what you’ll do in office, including how accessible you’ll be. I have forebodings of future columns lamenting President Clinton’s umpty-umpth day without a news conference.

“Because that’s part of the process.” Seriously, Ruth? Your “because” is only a cuz if candidates decide that to reach the people they want to reach, or persuade the people they need to persuade, or avoid some damage they wish to avoid they now need to engage with the journalists who cover the campaign.

Reporters ask better questions than voters? Well, part the waters, here comes the press.7403734608_7c3291e44a_z

I have a better idea, journalists. Figure out what the voters want the candidates to talk about. (And when they’re ready to listen.) Persuade the voters that in your coverage you’re on their side— so many of them that the campaigns have to take notice. Then leverage your superior connection to the people the candidates want to reach. (That’s what Univision and Jorge Ramos plan to do, I’d bet.) It’s a power game, not a frozen process in which you are granted some role by the mighty hand of James Carville or Ed Rollins.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer played it that way. They determined what the voters in North Carolina wanted statewide candidates to talk about. Then they asked about that. The opposite of “reporters have better and more pointed questions than voters.” I wrote about the Observer’s approach in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? Here’s the former editor of the Observer, Richard Oppel:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment… So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

Compare: “We’ll just leave a big block of white space next to your name, okay?” vs. “Answer our questions because that’s part of the process.” Or Swisher’s “somehow I write” vs. “Hey, the role of the media in this process is…”

Look: I think candidates should engage with the press and answer tough questions, reducing the importance of any single encounter with journalists by having lots of them. The fact that they increasingly don’t is partly a sign of the news media’s diminished hold on the audience and partly a sign of weak and overly cautious candidates intimidated by a staff that preserves its own power by controlling access and message. A more freewheeling style might serve some candidates equally well, but the handlers would become less important that way so they argue against it. Shutting off almost all access has become the accepted way to win. It is not necessarily a better way to win, but it is far better for a risk-averse staff, and consultants who make money off advertising. It also persuades weak candidates that they’re fine as they are. Of course none of that matters, because timid candidates, controlling staff and an over-the-top messaging system is what we have.

Nothing about the political press makes it an inherent “part of the process.” The sooner that fiction is abandoned the better off producers of campaign coverage will be. You have to compete. Or as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed: “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

This has been edited from the original. I toned it down a little. —JR

On the deep grammar of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner

"The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real."

25 Apr 2015 6:40 pm 59 Comments

Have you ever come to know members of a family who collaborate in staying silent about something bad that happened in the past, something no one wants to talk about because to talk about it would probably tear the family apart?

The innocent would have to accuse the guilty. The guilty to defend themselves would find a way to spread responsibility around— or just lie about what happened. Which would then enrage people who were there because it rewrites history and erases their experience. If you have ever come to know such a family — or been part of one, as I have — then you know how participants in the conspiracy share a signaling system that can instantly warn an incautious member: you are three, four hops away from violating the pact of silence… if you don’t want to bring the whole structure down, then I suggest you change the subject… or switch to one of the harmless work-arounds we have provided for the purpose of never getting too close to the source of our dread.

None of that has to be said, of course. It’s all done by antennae. The result is that serious talk about certain subjects is off limits. Key routes into that subject are closed off, because the signaling system activates itself three or four rings out from dread center. To an outsider this manifests itself as an inexplicable weirdness or empty quality, difficult to name. To insiders it becomes: this is who we are… the people who route around—

I mention this because I think it helps in interpreting a bizarre event that unfolds tonight in Washington and on many a media platform: the White House Correspondents Association dinner. How bizarre? Well, look at the evidence of compulsion:


It’s not like they don’t realize it. This is from Politico, house organ for the insider class in DC.

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway— now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America)

“Everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway.” True! And yet they keep doing it. Why?

I’m sure you have your ideas. Here is mine. I know it will sound crazy (and provide a few chuckles) to those in the room tonight at the Washington Hilton, but I don’t care because the event is itself one gigantic neurotic symptom that begs for some interpretation.

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.

Now add to that very specific failure a larger lesson that is also too painful to face: in Washington access journalism has been a bust. It doesn’t work. Its practices made possible the spectacular fall down in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Under Obama it’s been so thin that Politico is this week asking: is the White House press corps becoming obsolete?) After a maximal failure like 2002-04 there needed to be a critical reckoning with the whole idea of “access to inside sources as reliable route to scoops.” You can’t maintain that idea and think of yourself as a watchdog, an adversarial force. Not with what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But what if you still want both? Your scoop system, and your self-image as a watchdog. Your insider status, and the critical distance that with the right story could make you a hero of the republic. What if you want your parties with the powerful, and your check on power. What if you have to choose between these alternatives, but you can’t choose because the family has no history of making difficult choices like that. In circumstances like this, you are going to pick denial. And here we find a subterranean route into the Washington Hilton tonight.

3518728500_8159e78919_zThe Washington press corps needed the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through these glaringly obvious conflicts. Instead they just moved on. No one made that decision consciously. But it happened. Access journalism did not have to answer for its sins. Judith Miller did. That’s the simplest way I can put it. And because that event — which was a massive, wrenching and psychological event — did happen the access orgy that is called the White House Correspondents Association dinner can today go on.

There is access to the dinner itself. There is access to the parties that surround the dinner. There is access to the celebrities and power players who show up at the dinner. But access is the god that failed, with terrible consequences that no one in Washington journalism can reckon with. Instead, they party the pain away. And that is one thing tonight is “about.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 12.38.00 PM
That tweet was deleted.

(Photo: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at the WHCA dinner, 2009. Creative Commons license.)

“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this.

Of course Facebook doesn't "edit" 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!

21 Apr 2015 12:17 pm 19 Comments

I’ve met some of the people at Facebook whose job it is to work with journalists and media companies. They’re good people, smart people. They seem to care about the future of news. Some of my students, now graduated, work with them. I like that.

What I have to say in this post isn’t personal. It’s professional. Please stop doing this. Here’s what I mean:

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell, director of news and media partnerships, was asked how the company sees its role as a new kind of editorial filter or influence on the news— an important question, now that Facebook has become such an important part of the news ecosystem. He was also asked what kind of accountability Facebook felt it had as a player in that system. Mitchell had three answers to these questions.

1. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” You send us signals. We respond.

2. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or experience. It should be a supplement to seeking out news yourself with direct suppliers. “Complementary” was the word he used several times. Meaning: complement to, not substitute for.

3. Facebook is accountable to its users for creating a great experience. That describes the kind of accountability it has. End of story.

To find these answers go to 45:50 in the video clip and watch to the end.

George Brock, journalism professor in the UK, was the one who asked about accountability. He comments:

Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has ‘community standards’ that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private company which has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities which distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.

Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.

I would put it differently: 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. You want not to be making those decisions. You want user interest to drive those decisions. We’re capable of understanding the basics of machine learning, collaborative filtering and algorithmic authority. We know that to reveal all would encourage gaming of the system. We’re capable of accepting: this is what the users are choosing to use now. We’re not platform idiots. Stop treating us like children at a Passover seder who don’t know enough to ask a good question.

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?

These are not outrageous or ignorant questions. They do not misstate how Facebook works. They are not attempts to turn the clock back to a time when editors chose and readers read. We don’t need your answers to babysit us. We’re awake and alive in the algorithmic age and exercising our critical faculties just fine. If you can’t answer, then say that: We are not here to answer your questions because we can’t.

Andy Mitchell’s three replies are not adequate— for us or for Facebook.

Q. What are you optimizing for, along with user interest? A. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.” No, sorry. As I wrote before: It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. The assertion melts on contact.

Q. How do you see your role in the news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? A. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or news experience. No, sorry. On mobile, especially, “primary” is exactly what’s happening. And everyone who pays attention knows how strenuously Facebook tries to keep users engaged with Facebook. So “we don’t want to be primary” is… I’m trying to be nice here… a little insulting.

Q. In news you have a lot of power now. How do you intend to use that power? A. We just want to create a great experience for users. No, sorry, that’s not an answer because you just said the users have the power, not Facebook, so what you’re really saying is: power? us? whatever do you mean?

Facebook’s smart, capable and caring-about-news people should be disappointed that this is as far as the company has gotten in being real with itself and with us.

(This started as a Facebook post. If you want to see it spread on that platform, I’m confident you know what to do.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Now here’s a good example of what I mean. In an update at a company blog, Facebook tells us:

Facebook is constantly evaluating what’s the right mix of content in News Feed and we want to let you know about a change that may affect referral traffic for publishers…

Stop the tape! Notice how Facebook is the one evaluating. Facebook is the one changing things up. This is not a scandal or a surprise. But it’s also not: “you control NewsFeed, we don’t control NewsFeed.” They control NewsFeed too. User choice is real. But code is destiny.

Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine writes about the same announcement. Facebook, he says, “wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to tweak the news-feed in order to promote content that serves its purposes—whether that’s news content or baby pictures—but it also wants to pretend that it isn’t a gatekeeper, because then media companies might not play ball. So it tries to portray the algorithm as just a harmless extension of its users’ interests, when in fact it is anything but.”

David Holmes at Pando.com comments, as well:

I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.

But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Users don’t even pay to use Facebook — so how could they be its core constituency?

Good question.

Also on the “phenomenally disingenuous” beat. Andy Mitchell’s “we’re just a supplement, not the main source” line is reality-denying in the extreme. From the Pew Research center: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook alone, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” (My italics.) So don’t tell us you’re just a supplement. It insults our intelligence. [Correction: Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Center says via Twitter: “1) Didn’t intend to imply that half of web adults get news from FB & no other source. 2) Rather, FB alone gets nearly half of web adults going there for news abt gov’t/politics.” That’s different. The Pew report has now been re-written to say: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” Hat tip, Constantin Basturea.]

A distinction I have tried to import into this debate is between “thick” and “thin” legitimacy. From my piece in the Washington Post about Facebook’s mood manipulation study.

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

For purposes of establishing at least some legitimacy Facebook relies on its “terms of service,” which is 9,000 words of legalese that users have no choice but to accept. That’s thin.

Facebook thinks “thin” legitimacy will work just fine. That is why it can give journalists and academics the royal run around at conferences. But what if that assessment is wrong, not from some moral perspective but as a business case? The question turns on this: To what degree does Facebook’s success depend on trust — user trust, social trust, partner trust — vs. power: market power, monopoly power, the power of an overwhelming mind share. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t trust anyone who says the answer is obvious. It’s not obvious. The more the company’s fortunes turn on trust, the greater the business case for “thick” legitimacy.

I wrote about the same issue last year. This is the description I recommended if Facebook ever decided to (I know it sounds crazy) optimize for truth.

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

Ben Thompson at his invaluable site, Stratechery. “It is increasingly clear that it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform.”

Andy Mitchell’s answers at Perugia insulted a lot of people. Here’s an account in Italian by a student, Enrico Bergamini, who asked Mitchell about the NewsFeed alogorithm. It includes an interview with George Brock. On my Facebook page he writes: “I was at the conference, I’m the student asking the question at 45:42, and I was obviously disappointed with the empty answer Mr Mitchell gave me.” Other comments at my Facebook page from people who were there:

Mindy McAdams: “The answers Andy Mitchell gave to questions asked after his talk in Perugia were pure spin and obfuscation… The mood was sullen as he continued answering questions with non-answers.”

Eric Sherer: “I attended this conference, Jay. It was a shame. And yes, he treated [us] like children!”

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting

It's the one god an American journalist can officially pray to.

16 Apr 2015 6:14 pm 14 Comments

(This post began as an email to Megan Garber of the Atlantic, who was writing about “hot takes.” She published some of what I told her.)

I can’t speak for British, Canadian, European or Latin American systems but in the U.S. press there is thought to be a single source of virtue. The mythical term for it is “shoe leather reporting.” There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting is the one god an American journalist can officially pray to. Fine writing, great storytelling, aggressive questioning, toughness in the face of attacks: these are universally admired. Amusing and inventive word play, quick and biting sarcasm, superior crap detection: these will win you points in any newsroom or press bus. But godliness is reserved for shoe leather reporting, which is often preceded by terms like “basic” (because everything else is based on it) or “traditional” (because the importance of it never changes) or “original” (because it is the origin of all things good in journalism.) 2330323726_61b725b577_z

Here’s William Bastone, co-founder of the Smoking Gun website and a reporter by trade, describing what the staff does: “The reporting for the site hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will. It’s basic shoe leather reporting, hunting down sources and documents and confirming authenticity. That’s always been our thing.”

It’s called “shoe leather” reporting because in its classic form, the journalist is literally on foot, walking from office to office, source to source, conducting interviews, pulling documents, hunting down facts no one else has confirmed yet. So much walking is required to break a big story that the soles of the shoes grind down. Want respect, young journalist? Break some big stories. How is it done? Same way it’s always been done: Shoe leather reporting.

Here’s Tom Friedman of the New York Times talking about one of his mentors in journalism and giving us that old time religion:

Leon taught me that whether you’re writing news, opinion or analysis, if it isn’t based on shoe-leather reporting, it isn’t worth a bucket of beans.

To this day, whenever I hear a reporter say, “I don’t do reporting — I just do opinion and analysis,” I always think of the reporting basics that Leon pounded into me and want to say, “I doubt that your analysis is very good, because the best analysis always comes from spotting trends that can usually only be spotted by reporting a story day in and day out.” I like blogs, but the only bloggers who appeal to me are those who do reporting and aren’t just sitting at home in their pajamas firing off digital mortars.

Notice how there are different forms worth mastering — news, opinion, “analysis,” even blogging — but a single virtue creates value.

In this text I found, which is actually called Good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, editors at the AP are giving an award to one of their reporters. “Denver’s Ivan Moreno started pursuing the issue of voter fraud in Colorado after nearly 4,000 voters received letters from the secretary of state challenging their citizenship and, therefore, their right to cast ballots.”

He pressed state government for the names. The more he asked, the smaller the number of fraud cases got, shrinking “from 4,000 to 1,400 to just 141 – and Moreno was the first to report that the authenticity of only 141 voters was being challenged.” He finally got the state to cough up 35 names of people it accused of trying to vote fraudulently. “Moreno called every one he could find, confirming independently that they were citizens.” Then he broke the story:

All of Moreno’s reporting came together in a comprehensive piece that looked at the efforts of Republican officials to purge voter rolls in Colorado and other states. In each case, officials found almost no voter fraud, despite heavily publicized investigations and the use of a federal immigration database. It was the first national look at GOP efforts to attribute voter fraud to non-citizens in key election states.

The lesson: “Investigative stories often stem from Freedom of Information requests. But, just as often, it’s from good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.”

The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot or ringing doorbells at night: they are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy. (Get out of the office!) Reporting on the internet is okay, but one step removed from making calls. (Pick up the phone, damnit!) Aggregating stuff is lame. Reading and thinking about what you read, then writing about it: highly suspect. But it is virtuous to show contempt for that.

Some common terms for this contempt: navel gazing, thumb sucker. (Infantalism, narcissism.) The term “hot takes” participates in this. Hot takes are a joke, the lowest possible form, a professional embarrassment, because “these swift, provocative, and socially shareable reaction posts” are at the furthest remove from shoe leather reporting and often parasitic upon it, as bloggers were said to be parasitic back when it was important to say they weren’t journalists.

As a source of virtue in journalism shoe leather has such high status that it’s hard to generate respect for other skills and disciplines, even when they deserve it. We see this especially with news anchors in broadcast journalism. They’re always emphasizing that, though they have an important-sounding title — “anchor” of the program — they are really just reporters at heart. (Dan Rather after he retired. “I’m just a reporter who got lucky.”) Being an anchor can make you rich, famous and vital to the company’s bottom line, but it cannot make you virtuous as a journalist. Thus:

“He was always a wire service reporter in his heart,” said Sanford Socolow, a former executive producer for Mr. Cronkite. “He always lived by the wire service adage,” which he described as “Get it first, but get it right.”

Last week John Dickerson was named the new anchor for CBS’s Sunday talk show, Face the Nation. Here’s how CBS News announced it:

“John is first and foremost a reporter–and that’s what he’ll be as anchor of Face the Nation,” said CBS News President David Rhodes. “His work in the studio will always be informed by what he’s learned in Iowa, in New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill–anywhere there’s news. He has earned the respect of newsmakers across the political spectrum. With all our correspondents John will present comprehensive coverage on all our platforms.”

See what I mean? You don’t say of your new anchor, “He will be a great anchor!” You don’t even refer to any skills he will need in that role. You describe him as a great reporter, because that’s what a good anchor really is, anyway. It was the potency of this myth that got Brian Williams into such trouble earlier this year. He tried to jack up his boots-on-the-ground reporting cred to win the admiration he craved. But he got caught.

It’s true that reading news off the teleprompter is not much of a talent. But that’s not true of anchoring live coverage when big news breaks. And it’s not true of interviewing powerful people on live TV. These are demanding disciplines. They are deeply journalistic. As Tina Brown once wrote in the Washington Post: “When Peter Jennings is anchoring a breaking news story for ABC, he’s a human hyperlink to the world, seemingly able to absorb and process information through the cheeks of his behind.”

Of all things journalists do, on-the-ground reporting is, I think, the most important. I would not quarrel with that. It fully deserves the esteem in which it is held. “Want respect? Break some big stories” is very sound advice. However, it is not true that a single virtue creates value in journalism. Efficiency creates value too. Contributions from elsewhere — synthesizing known facts, explaining complex issues, putting dots together, reviewing, fact checking, writing about the public world beautifully, anchoring a live broadcast, asking questions that are of moment — are just as basic to good journalism as good old fashioned shoe leather reporting.

What these forms lack in mystique they make up for in simple utility.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Steve Buttry responds to this post with some detailed testimony from his career as a reporter and editor. He shows that shoe leather reporting was sometimes crucial to getting the story and sometimes other methods succeeded where “shoe leather” would not have. He writes:

Nearly all the best stories of my career came in whole or part because I was out of the office, interviewing people face-to-face, digging through courthouse records, seeing disaster damage myself, showing empathy in a way that persuaded people to trust me with their intimate stories, seeing important details in the setting where the story took place.

I believe in the importance of shoe leather.

But I also know that shoe leather is just one of many paths to a good story.

Read the rest. It’s valuable.

Journalism scholar Chris Anderson:

That screen works dominates in practice could be the reason why shoe leather dominates in mythology.

From the Pulitzer Prize nominations:

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 4.28.01 PM

Photo credit: Roger H. Goun. Creative Commons license.

Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation.

The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative — indifference to campus rape — and then go off in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.

6 Apr 2015 3:00 am 81 Comments

First, some essential links:

Here is the text itself: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure.

The author’s apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.

CJR: Interview with Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, lead authors of the Columbia report.

New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says

Huffington Post’s summary. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Was A ‘Journalistic Failure’ That Could’ve Been Avoided, Columbia Finds

Listen to many of the players talk about this story in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR.

Poynter.org, The journalism community reacts to the review of ‘A Rape On Campus’

Second, a few disclaimers:

The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!

I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.

Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It’s a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.

My notes and commentary:

1. Asking “how could this happen?” is not the same as asking, “what could have prevented it?” The authors chose to focus their study on prevention — steps not taken that would have avoided disaster — rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It’s a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.

2. This is an amazing passage:

Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

It’s amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don’t make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don’t buy this one bit.

3. “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source,” say the authors of the report. I think they’re right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they’re wrong:

Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.

The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I’d want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn’t you?

4. “In hindsight,” the report says, “the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.” What the authors mean is not “most consequential decision.” They mean “easiest route to preventing disaster.” You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That’s what they mean.

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

9. This is from Erik Wemple’s Dec. 5 column for the Post:

Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.”

I don’t want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn’t know anything about them “as individuals” and never located them — a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.

10. It is therefore striking that Erdely’s public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.

11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor’s story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine’s Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It’s true that “you always try to contact the accused” is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around— this is also very basic. Yet it doesn’t get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.

12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was “Jackie’s story.” It was told from Jackie’s point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It’s about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post’s nagging questions in December:

“I could address many of [the questions] individually… but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

This was Jackie’s story. No, it’s about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she’s the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?

13. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone’s Maginot Line. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently… Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.

Indeed. None was.

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hanna Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don’t take her word for it, listen to Jackie’s friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn’t like charisma, which you have or don’t. It’s a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader’s trust. “A Rape on Campus” did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn’t realize what they were doing. Why not?

I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. “How could this happen?” is harder to answer than “what would have prevented it?” This was our best chance to find out.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

A lot has been written about the Columbia report. (Naturally I hope you’ve read my post.) For those seeking further understanding, the five best things I found are:

Richard Bradley at his site: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof. Bradley is a a former George magazine editor who was duped by Stephen Glass, a famous fabricator of stories at the New Republic. He was the first journalist to raise serious doubts about the Rolling Stone story. (See Is the Rolling Stone Story True?, Nov. 24, 2014.) He should be listened to on the report.

Leah Finnegan at Gawker. Jann Wenner Is a Big Dumb Idiot. “Here’s what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist’s name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim’s friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation.”

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, Rolling Stone Can’t Even Apologize Right. “The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.”

Clay Shirky in the New Republic, Skeptical review isn’t a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. My NYU colleague Clay Shirky says the report could have been three sentences long: “We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.” The rest could have gone into a appendix.

Rosin interviews Erdely. Anyone who wishes truly to understand this episode should, after absorbing Columbia report, go back and listen to the podcast interview Hanna Rosin of Slate did with Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely, Nov. 27, 2014. It’s all “in” there, if you listen closely enough. Rosin’s rising incredulity, Erdely’s lack of confidence in her own story are both palpable— and deeply telling.