Posts from March 8, 2005

The Week Opinion Awards

The Week Opinion Awards

: I’m at The Week‘s second annual opinion awards and a couple of forums cosponsored by the Aspen Institute. Will live-blog as deserved….

: Walter Isaacson says that in the old days, Washington pundits were not independent; post-Watergate, they were “feisty and independent,” and now he asks whether being independent works.

Ana Marie Cox says it’s not necessarily about staking out a position but about being shrill. Her case in point: Coulter. If you’re tall and blonde and shout, you get attention, she says. You also get attention from sodomy jokes, she adds — but that’s about being clever.

She says bloggers pride themselves on their ideological independence.

Arianna Huffington says she goes after both conservatives and liberals — after liberals mainly for being “spineless.”

Peter Beinert of The New Republic: “I actually want to be pigeonholed. The problem is that people on my side don’t want me in their pigeonhole.”

I know the feeling with my pigeons.

He argues that we should not throw out the terms “left” and “right” for that is “to discard history.”

Isaacson says the new media forces this and he issues his mea culpa doing that at CNN, pigeonholing people on the left and right to put out Crossfire.

David Brooks: A straight reporter, he says, is always curious. An opinion journalist wakes up in the morning with an assumption and goes to bed with a conclusions.

Simon Jenkins of The Times of London says that 10 years ago, opinion journalism was almost dead but the audience shows “they want opinion, they want to know what you think.”

Ana Marie says the strength of American journalism is that it is noncredentialed. For years, a J-school degree was a proxy for a credential. But now blogging brings back uncredentialed journalism.

Huffington says the blogosphere takes on a story — like Dan Rather — and sticks to it. Isaacson says that it’s like cable news taking on O.J.

AMC says that bloggers stick on only partisan stories.

Brooks says British journalism is influenced by the tradition of Johnson: conversational. American journalism is influenced by the spirit of Walter Lippman: heavy, earnest, and self-important.

Beinert said the problem with Fox is not that it is a conservative network but that it is a Republican network.

Brooks: “I have never met an elected official who reads a blog… They’re not in the conversation.” He says he reads blogs. But he says that blogs are at a war among themselves and there is a different conversation — the one that matters, is the implication — among elected officials.

I think that’s looking at it the wrong way: Do the people in power care to listen to what the people say?

Beinert argues that the value for speed means that bloggers don’t say things to remember.

AMC says the reason she has a blog is because no one would print her.

Jenkins argues that blogs are just opinion but the “process of editing and mediation” at papers is why people turn to them. Insert standard argument here.

Huffington says big media is about not rocking the boat and the blogosphere is about rocking the boat.

Beinert says there is a real value in people writing about people without having to meet them.

Jenkins says that if the future of our journalism is going to be the web — unmediated and often not truthful, he says — we will miss newspapers.

Beinert says that many of the liberal blogs “are mainly interested in enforcing discipine.” Uh, yeah. “There is a great desire to have people in lockstep.” But he says there has not been a conversation about what it means to be liberal while on the right, that conversation on for years before the lockstep discipline began on that side.

Jenkins says we are “at the virtual collapse of the American newspaper industry.” He says the current debate on the web is very much like the growth of newspapers around 1900 when they were all affiliated with parties and ideologies and over 50 years a standard of professionalism emerged. He predicts the same will happen with the web. He is reminded of the founding of the Guardian when it was said that opinions are free but facts cost money. He says that people will be drawn to sites that offer facts.

Brooks says he is tired of generalizations about the blogosphere and mainstream media. When Arianna champions the blogosphere, he says “that battle is over, the blogosphere is around.”

Brooks says that you have to choose how to use your time and if you have a choice between blogs and books, he’ll take books.

: Then there’s a panel about Iraqi coverage. I’m getting blog fatigue. But I love this line from Salameh Nematt, D.C. bureau chief of Al-Hayat: “Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction.”

Then there’s this: Geraldo Rivera is asked whether he was convinced there were WMDs and he replies, “Kind of.” Close enough for Geraldo.

Asked whether he bears some responsibility for the euphoria right after the invasion of Iraq, Geraldo says yes. He says that he and his colleagues were cheerleaders and were patriots. Richard Perle tells him, “there was every reason to cheer.”

Geraldo says that the people in Iraq were all shouting, “Boooosh Boooosh.”

Interesting to see bitchslapping between the D.C. outposts of Al-Hayat and Al Jazeera. Now there’s bitchslapping between Geraldo and Al-Jazeera.

A sheep in Wolfie’s clothing

A sheep in Wolfie’s clothing

: For his column today, David Brooks may lose his title as the conservatives liberals like to like for his column today — and by agreeing with him, I will only solidify my title as the liberal liberals like to dislike:

Let us now praise Paul Wolfowitz. Let us now take another look at the man who has pursued – longer and more forcefully than almost anyone else – the supposedly utopian notion that people across the Muslim world might actually hunger for freedom.

Let us look again at the man who’s been vilified by Michael Moore and the rest of the infantile left, who’s been condescended to by the people who consider themselves foreign policy grown-ups, and who has become the focus of much anti-Semitism in the world today – the center of a zillion Zionist conspiracy theories, and a hundred zillion clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes calumnies.

It’s not necessary to absolve Wolfowitz of all sin or to neglect the postwar screw-ups in Iraq. Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame. But with political earthquakes now shaking the Arab world, it’s time to step back and observe that over the course of his long career – in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Central and Eastern Europe, and now in the Middle East – Wolfowitz has always been an ardent champion of freedom….

His faith in people probably led to some of the mistakes in Iraq. But with change burbling in Beirut, with many young people proudly hoisting the Lebanese flag (in a country that was once a symbol of tribal factionalism), it’s time to take a look at this guy again.

If we liberals were smart, we’d be coopting the issue of freedom and human rights — the way that conservatives coopted it from us… and the way the Bill Clinton coopted fiscal responsibility from conservatives.

Agree or disagree about how we got here. Agree or disagree about what comes next (read Brooks’ column: even Wolfowitz says that Iraq must be the military exception). I don’t even care if you don’t want to give credit to Wolfowitz and Bush; I just don’t want to see the fruits of their strategy rejected just because it is their strategy.

There’s a hole in the dam of tyranny in the Middle East and freedom is flowing. Damnit. We should be holding the United Nations accountable for spreading freedom and not standing in the way. We should be figuring out how we can support movements of freedom — without invasion — in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain…..

One small way to do that is to give voice to the freedom-loving people of those nations. That’s the small thing we can do.

As I’ve mentioned before, Wolfowitz himself is an aggressive reader of weblogs. He reads them in Iraq and Iran because they sometimes give him better intelligence about what’s really happening than his own intelligence forces. And he clearly reads them because he likes to hear the voice of freedom.

So there: That’s something about which every one of you can agree with Paul Wolfowitz. Don’t let that scare you.

We should be doing a better job reading these voices and spreading their word. Halley Suitt, Rebecca MacKinnon and others at the last Harvard confab want to get lots of people to vow to find 10 fresh new voices and blog and blogroll them. I think 10 is light; it’s a discipline we need to follow all the time.

And we need to find better ways to support those who are being oppressed because of their speech. I despair to find better ways to bring attention to the bloggers arrested in Iran and threatened in Bahrain and Maylasia (and God knows where else).

If you don’t like the way Wolfowitz is trying to spread freedom in the world, then try to find new ways. But standing back and not trying is not acceptable. Freedom is the best cause of all.

Bassackwards

Bassackwards

: The Boston Globe ombudsperson — and the critics who complained to her — get it exactly wrong when they go after Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray for expressing his political opinions in comments on blogs.

I say we should be celebrating his openness, his transparency, his honesty — for now his critics are free to disagree with what he says and thinks — not just what they think he thinks.

Oh, I know that’s a minority opinion — even sometimes a reviled one — in the halls of journlaism. But I have come to believe that journalists’ refusal to acknowledge that they are human and are citizens and have opinions is a sort of lie by omission and we have to find better ways to deal with it than gagging them. Journalists are in the business of uncovering truths, not covering them; journalists demand to know what everyone else in the world thinks, yet they hide their own thoughts. Isn’t that a disservice to the public? For it does not allow the public to judge the messenger, as is their right.

Now, of course, this leads to many sticky questions: Do you take someone who hates Bush and have her cover Bush? Do you take someone who admires Bush and have him cover Bush? Well, but doesn’t that happen already? It’s not that we’re putting the opinionless on these beats; we’re merely hiding their opinions.

I’m not saying that a White House reporter should turn his or her reports into screeds or hosannas. It is still the job of a reporter to report the facts, to be fair, to be complete, to be accurate, to leave those opinions at the door and tell the story to the best of his or her ability. What I’m really suggesting is that it’s fair to know that that reporter voted for Reagan one year and Clinton the next.

I also know this is very difficult water to navigate in a business that has believed the opposite for so long. But things have changed (and I won’t rechart that sea again; we know all the shoals: FoxNews, blogs, the Guardian, yadayadayada). And we need to have an open discussion about this and find new rules that serve the public and serve our credibility.

But the case of Bray isn’t even that complicated. He’s a technology reporter who expressed political opinions against Kerry (opinions I disagree with, by the way). But that’s what set MediaMatters and the paper and the ombudsman after him. MediaMatters argues that he still covered politics as it related to the convention. I’d say that’s a stretch. Bray says he doesn’t cover politics.

So let’s take this out of the realm of politics — loaded as it is — and ask instead: Is it OK for a reporter to have an opinion? Well, guess what, they all do and short of hypnosis or a lobotomy there’s not much you can do about it. So is it OK for a reporter to express that opinion in other areas?

I don’t know Bray’s opinions on technology, so these are hypothetical. But let’s say that he doesn’t like Microsoft and Bill Gates and says so. Yes, that colors his coverage of technology. But it also allows us to judge that coverage. And when he says something good about Microsoft, it makes even that all the more meaningful. And you know what? Dan Gillmor — one of the most respected journalists alive — has done just that. And it only enhances his credibility; we know Dan and what he thinks but we also know he is fair and accurate and professional.

And there are dangers to pushing the precedent of this complaint and reprimand: Does this now mean that if you’ve ever had a political opinion publicly expressed, you can’t be a journalist? Does this mean that a news editor is going to have to plumb the depths of every freelancer’s blog and comments to see whether to assign a story? In a world of citizens’ media and distributed reporting, this becomes a bigger issue: Are opinions cooties in journalism? I sure hope not.

The other danger is that if you go after Bray for his anti-Kerry opinions, do you have to go after other journalists for their anti-Bush opinions? By this logic, shouldn’t MediaMatters also be going after Frank Rich because, after all, he’s letting political opinions seep — no, flood — into the arts section? Of course, not.

In the case of Bray, there’s a lot of kneejerking going on: MediaMatters wants another head and I disagree with them about this. (And, yes, I know this will sure another volley of Ollies but I don’t care.) And the paper is going with old assumptions that don’t take into account new media and the conversation it enables.

MediaMatters does point out the industry hypocrisy of firing others for having the opposite opinion to Bray. I agree, that’s inconsistent. But I disagree with their conclusion: None should be fired for having opinions per se. Anybody can be fired for being a dolt or incompetent or unprofessional. But having an opinion is not, in itself, a capital offense and should not be. I hope we get to the point where not revealing that opinion is seen as a misdemeanor.

Of course, David Weinberger says all this better — and with greater brevity — than I do:

I think it’s safe to say that Chinlund meant to say that Bray’s political writings were at odds with the appearance of impartiality, which raises the question: Just how stupid does the Globe think its readers are? Do we really believe that tech writers and sports writers and style writers don’t have political views? Do we think that out of the office they go slack-jawed when asked who they’re voting for? No, we understand that because they’re professional journalists, they do a reasonable job of keeping their personal political views out of their writing.

Transparency works better than reprimands. I’d rather know a reporter’s views so I can understand where the journalist is coming from and can compensate for those views if they affect the journalist’s writing.

Today, the ombudsman reports Bray as saying: “I make no apology . . . for my opinions. But I do apologize for expressing them in a venue that might lead some to suppose that my employers share them.”

Hiawatha, you have nothing to apologize for. No one thinks that just because you support Bush, so must The Boston Globe. Hah! And if there’s ever any doubt who a reporter is talking for on her blog, all she has to do is put up an explanation: “This is my personal blog. I’m not speaking for The Boston Globe.” Transparency is as good as sunlight.

I truly hope we’re seeing the last of this foolish idea that journalists are such pure priests of information that they must remain celibate. It is a fiction, and it demeans journalists and readers alike.

And for the record, David is no Bushie. No way.

Here’s what Globe ombud Christine Chinlund says:

Last November the Globe learned that technology reporter Hiawatha Bray was posting his political views on a web log. The editors warned him not to continue. Even with no explicit Globe rules at that point governing what’s OK in the largely uncharted, semi-public/semi-private world of blogging, Bray’s anti-Kerry and pro-Bush rhetoric was at odds with the impartiality expected of journalists. Bray agreed to stop.

End of story — until last week, when a liberal online media watchdog group reported what Bray had written. That brought dozens of angry e-mails to this office; some said fire Bray.

Responds Baron: ”Mr. Bray is a technology reporter and did not cover the presidential campaign, other than a minor technology-related story on very rare occasions. That said, his blog postings were inappropriate and in violation of our standards.” Thus, the November warning.

Said Bray: ”I don’t cover politics for the Globe and figured that gave me a fair amount of leeway. I’m a lowly tech writer; who’d care what I thought about the election? Turns out, a lot of people did.”

”I make no apology . . . for my opinions. But I do apologize for expressing them in a venue that might lead some to suppose that my employers share them.”

A rare treat

A rare treat

: Be sure to sign up for the Media Center’s webcast: The Vanishing Newspaper. It’s on Wednesday at 2p ET. Details here.

The folks talking are great. The list of people “attending” is also amazing; the pity of the form is that we can’t hear from all of them, but they’ll be the ones asking questions.

The added bonus: I’m only moderating so I’ll talk less than usual.