Getting granular with NPR’s culture of timidity

NPR would not call it plagiarism when Melania Trump's speech to the Republican convention took passages from Michelle Obama. But there was a revealing moment when its people defended this policy online.

24 Jul 2016 8:03 pm 36 Comments


Hey, readers! This will take some explanation but if you bear with me, I promise: by the time you get to point 9 it will be worth it.

1. On the morning after Melania Trump’s speech, Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott published this note about NPR’s policy. The message: we can’t call it plagiarism unless it’s intentional.

On The Definition Of Plagiarism

Because it’s in the news today, here’s a reminder about how we have defined the word “plagiarism”:

“Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.”

Note the word “intentionally.”

We can talk about phrases that are “word-for-word” or that “mirror each other.” It’s fine to say there’s a “plagiarism issue” or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don’t know at this time whether anything was done “intentionally.” So don’t declare that there’s been some plagiarism.

2. You can see the NPR policy at work in the many reports it prepared about the Melania Trump speech. They all avoided the word “plagiarized.”

“Melania Trump’s Monday Speech Mirrors Michelle Obama’s…” (Link.) “…language in Melania Trump’s Monday night convention speech that was near-identical to a similar speech Michelle Obama delivered in 2008.” (Link.) “Melania Trump Echoes Michelle Obama.” (Link.)

Even after Trump staffer Meredith McIver took responsibility for using Michelle Obama’s words without credit, NPR would not call it plagiarism. (Link) Why? Because she didn’t mean it.

3. I came across Memmott’s note because I was mentioned on Twitter by an NPR reporter, Sarah McCammon, as she was being taken to task by a user named Shoq, who often comments on media issues. Here is some of that exchange:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 4.23.48 PM

4. This brought into the discussion my NYU colleague Clay Shirky. He had the following exchange with Sarah McCammon. (Link.)

Shirky: “Sarah, that’s wrong. When professors look for plagiarism, we look for copying without attribution, period.”

McCammon: “I’m aware. My husband is a professor. Different standards for different situations/fields.”

Shirky: “Are you are walking back your ‘technical’ excuse? And saying NPR’s standard is just not to use the word?”

McCammon: “Uh, not an excuse. Not walking anything back. Again, I refer you to our policy. NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold.”

Remember those words: “lower threshhold.”

5. Shirky’s point can be seen in this passage from NYU’s ethics handbook for journalism students:

Cardinal Sins

Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing.

Nothing about intent. This is from the Harvard College Writing Program:

In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

My italics. This one is from Oxford University’s guide for students: (My italics.)

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence.

6. These were Sarah McCammon’s main points as she responded to the many people on Twitter who were puzzled by NPR’s refusal to call what Melania Trump did “plagiarism.”

* Our guidelines say it has to be intentional. I have to follow them. (Link.)
* I can’t see into Melania’s mind. I have no way to judge intent. (Link.)
* I present facts and trust listeners to make up their own minds. (Link.)
* What academics say isn’t relevant. My reference point is other journalists. (Link.)

7. Other journalists? Well, the Washington Post had no trouble calling it plagiarism: Why it became almost impossible for the Trumps to insist Melania’s plagiarism was coincidence. Do they have lower standards than NPR? (Another example.) And it wasn’t just headlines: (All bolding by me.)

Memo to all remaining 2016 convention speakers, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat: You are officially on notice. The words you say will be researched by reporters to determine whether they have ever been said before, in the same order in which you are saying them now.

This is the consequence of Melania Trump using plagiarized sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech in an address to the Republican National Convention on Monday. Journalists now have a new game to play when speakers take the stage: “Spot the Source.”

Would the New York Times be one of the news organizations from which Sarah McCammon takes her cues? Nope.

“My name is Meredith McIver and I’m an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization,” began an extraordinary statement she released Wednesday morning in which she took the blame for the disastrous plagiarism of Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s prime-time speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.

CNN, maybe? Alas, no: “Donald Trump’s campaign finally moved Wednesday to shut down the distracting controversy over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech by identifying the writer who worked on the speech.” Los Angles Times: same deal. “The Trump campaign released a statement Wednesday – ‘to whom it may concern’ – ascribing the plagiarized passages in Melania Trump’s convention speech to a scribe working for Donald Trump’s corporate operation.”

8. The point is: if NPR wanted to call a spade a spade it had a clear warrant for doing so— from academic sources, from journalism peers, or via a simple dictionary definition. But NPR doesn’t want to call a plagiarized convention speech a plagiarized convention speech. Why? Because there could be a controversy about it! As indeed there immediately was after Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. Trump defender Chris Christie rejected that description. So did campaign chair Paul Manafort, who even blamed Hillary Clinton for the controversy.

NPR’s intention in these charged moments is not to describe the world vividly and accurately for listeners, but to escape from acts of judgment that could be criticized in the heat of a campaign. And even though it’s a fairly simple matter to assess what happened here and decide that, yep, the speech was plagiarized — and then report on whodunit — for NPR the relevant factor isn’t the ease of applying a standard definition of plagiarism but how simple it is to avoid getting dragged into a messy fight. And so the guidance went out: “It’s fine to say there’s a ‘plagiarism issue’ or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized…”

Alongside the production of news, NPR is worried about reproducing its own innocence in matters of controversy. The code for this is: people can make up their own minds. Which is really saying: NPR can’t think, but we invite you to!

9. Now we come to the most revealing moment in the exchanges I reproduced for you: when Sarah McCammon tells Clay Shirky: NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold. Fascinating! For it’s really the opposite. NYU, Harvard, Oxford all have a tougher standard than NPR. If you borrow someone’s words without attribution, that’s plagiarism and you have to face the consequences. Under the more relaxed standard that NPR favors, you not only have to borrow someone else’s words without attribution to be committing plagiarism, you also have to show malicious intent. And NPR has to have some reliable way of knowing your intent. This is a lower threshold. Because of it many more people will be able to commit plagiarism without being called out for it by NPR.

And yet reporter Sarah McCammon says NPR has a higher threshold. What does she mean? Well, she’s not an idiot. Her claim makes sense, but only if you understand the culture of timidity at NPR. What her bosses are worried about is making a judgment that could be contested. Before they’re willing to do that, they need a lot of evidence. What they have in mind is not “what’s the right thing to call this?” or “what’s the best descriptor for our listeners?” but “how can we make fewer calls that can be criticized by powerful actors?” and “how can we report on controversies without becoming part of them?”

When those are the starting points, a “lower” threshold means you are willing to make more calls that could be criticized. And academics can tell you: almost every student who plagiarizes says “it was not my intent!” If you’re going to be real about plagiarism, you are going to be criticized, not only by students but by their parents. If you have high standards, you take the heat. If you have low standards, you worry about how much heat you will get. Sarah McCammon had flipped this in her mind, and she was unaware of it. But she was right about one thing: it’s unproductive to rage at her, for she has no choice but to follow NPR guidelines.

10. If “academic institutions have a lower threshold” was the most telling thing she said, this was to me the most interesting:

In a way she’s right. If she calls it plagiarism on air that doesn’t change anything. But that’s because calling things by their right names should not be an issue we have to fight with journalists about. The fact that it is an issue, not only with plagiarism but with more serious descriptors like torture, is a sign of weakness in the culture of journalism, and this is especially so at NPR.

This makes a lot of its listeners sad.

UPDATE, July 26: Steve Buttry wrote about this issue at his blog. He also got Mark Memmott, NPR’s editor for standards and practices, to comment. Here is what Memmott said by way of explanation:

When we wrote our Ethics Handbook in 2012 we included this definition of plagiarism: ‘Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.’ We realized that wasn’t a strict ‘dictionary definition.’ But we included the word ‘intentionally’ for a very specific reason: to allow us to apply some judgment.

We were thinking about how we would react if a journalist who had never stolen from someone else’s work inadvertently left a line or phrase from another file in his or her copy. Did that person make a serious mistake? Yes. Does that person deserve to be labeled a ‘plagiarist’ and be disciplined or even fired? We wanted some flexibility to make an intelligent decision.

On the morning when I reminded the staff about our definition, the story about Melania Trump’s speech was developing. I was thinking that we should not rush to hold her to a different standard than we would hold ourselves.

You and others have said that no one will ever admit they intended to plagiarize. You may be right. But I would say that a confession isn’t necessary to determine intent. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a slip by someone who’s never been accused or convicted of plagiarism and a story that’s got several “lifts” from different sources. And if someone slips and is later caught again, I think intent has been proven by his actions.

You wrote that we’re guilty of ‘comical gymnastics.’ That’s a good line. I would hope, though, that you would give us some credit for trying to think things through. Have we overthought it? Perhaps. But I would say our intentions are good.

One more thing. Sarah McCammon is a good journalist who was applying the guidance she was given by her editors. If there’s a problem, it’s because of her editors (most notably me), not her.


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


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, 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.


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’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 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
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”

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)