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.”

  • http://www.scaredmonkeys.com Tom

    The day that Media Matters asks why Helen Thomas has the right to a front seat at the White House press briefings, is the day I will take their whining about Bray seriously.
    She wears her politics on her sleeve, good for her. But do not cast a blind eye at her if you are going to castigate a technology writer.

  • http://www.oliverwillis.com Oliver

    A Volley of Ollies. Can I trademark that? Personally, I believe objectivity died a long time ago, but so far only those perceived as “liberal” pay any sort of price.

  • http://amomentwith.typepad.com/ Easycure

    I think the difference is that many more conservative leaners embrace their leanings more than liberal leaners.
    If the local sports guy can be a “homer” and loves the Red Sox while covering them (like most local sports guys do), then why can’t the local political guy (or gal) love Democrats while covering them?
    Everyone should just admit their internal biases, then we can all more accurately interpret their writings.

  • http://journals.aol.com/xutag77/Whatever Tim Gannon

    If a web log is not an appropriate venue to express opinions, where (Boston Globe) is it appropriate?

  • http://dremic.typepad.com/drew Drew

    The Bray situation is a joke. I’m liberal, but this is a great example of going after the wrong target in the new world of head-hunting as media-activism.
    More on this here.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Oliver:
    After I posted that, I actually thought that “an Ollie Volley” would have been catchier, don’t you think. I’d register the domain if I were you!

  • AlanC

    This is really hillarious.
    Anyone want to bet that if Bray had supported Kerry the Globe would have said anything? In fact, didn’t a Globe reporter write Kerry campaign literature? I’ve lived in MA and read the Glob for over 30 years and it might as well be called the Boston Kennedy & Bulger. I will say, though, to Jeff’s point, the Glob IS transparent about the bias.
    This is more MediaMatters head-hunting as revenge for Danny and Jordie

  • Seppo

    How DARE Hiawatha Bray express his personal political opinions in a blog? The Boston Globe owns him, and here he is going to the so-called blogosphere, he might as well have said something kind to the servants. It’s just not done.
    Doesn’t he know the appropriate place to spead his opinions is at the dinner parties, conferences, hanging out with the local Boston pols, and anyplace he can knife someone in the back? He must be new to the major paper journalism business.

  • JRK

    In Boston one becomes quickly and firmly aware of the politics of most of the Globe reporters–there are hours and hours of television and radio shows daily with guests from that paper–and from the Boston Herald. Who listening or watching doesn’t know the politics of even the sports writers: Felger vociforously supported Kerry, as did Bob Lobel and most others; Gerry Callahan was one of the few supporting Bush. Charles Peirce is not only the primary writer for the Globe’s Sunday magazine, he’s a wacky conspiracy theorist of the hard left and frequent contributor to MSNBC blogs against Bush. What gives? Goose–gander? Pot–kettle?

  • Mavis Beacon

    Hold on just a darn minute here. I tend to agree that journalists should be able to express and publish opinions outside of work. That said, I don’t think the issue is so cut and dry.
    Quite a lot of folks support drug testing for regular office employees on freedom of contract grounds. The same may apply to the right to publish externally.
    And there is a good case to be made that the Globe is served by speaking with a multiplicity of voices under one name. And we all know the internet is packed with watchdog types who will use transparancy to attack a particular journalist and by extension the paper she works for.
    So the Globe isn’t stupid for gagging it’s off-duty writers, it’s protecting it’s name and interests. The only problem is in this situation the Globe’s interests are not aligned with those of it’s readers.

  • http://lonewacko.com The Lonewacko Blog

    Editors won’t have to comb through past writings of prospective employees; they can just play the odds.
    Also, I see no difference between a tech reporter expressing political opinions and Peter Arnett giving propaganda to the enemy during wartime.
    See also The George Soros/Media Matters/David Brock network discovered.

  • EverKarl

    So Oliver blieves that “objectivity died a long time ago, but so far only those perceived as ‘liberal’ pay any sort of price.”
    Objectivity is no more live or dead than it ever was; it’s just that bias is more easily publicized today. And it seems to me that Ollie & Co. went after Gannon/Guckert precisely because he was a partisan hack; at least, that was the stated reason. If it’s hard to find other examples of conservative journalists “paying the price,” it’s because the pool is tiny compared to the ocean of liberal journos.

  • http://www.oliverwillis.com Oliver

    You must have been asleep between 1991-2003 then.

  • http://mossback.org Richard Bennett

    Naw, they went after Gannon because he’s gay and therefore not allowed to support Repubs, and now they’re going after Bray because he’s black and therefore similarly rights-constrained.
    Media Matters is a racist homophobic organization.

  • http://vernondent.blogspot.com/ Callimachus

    I’m with Jeff on this one. If you want to own an employee’s public expression of opinions, in any context, you need to inform him of that before he decides to go to work for you.
    And you need to do it consistently. At the newspaper where I work, at least four reporters/editors are active in the local anti-war movement, and protest every Bush visit, sometimes getting company-approved time off from their shifts to do so.
    But an editor’s blog supportive of the liberation of Iraq was shut down by the bosses.
    Obviously, you don’t want your reporters showing up at American Nazi Party rallys — on the platform. But Internet posts supporting, or opposing, one political candidate or another during a heated election hardly rises to that level.
    Part of the problem, too, is that newspapers just don’t like, or understand, the Internet. They sense it as competition. It’s always been an axiom of newspaper work that you don’t do freelance work for a competing entity. And the Internet certainly is that. I think on some gut level it’s seen as a betrayal of the besieged Castle of Media when a journalist turns up as a presence on the Internet.
    As for “the appearance of impartiality,” if that, not herding of employees, was such a concern of newspapers, why do they every day publish unsigned editorials — the official opinions of the supposedly impartial newspaper? Editorials don’t necessarily color reporting. Those of us in the business know that. But people on the street don’t necessarily see it that way at all.

  • Dishman

    Hiawatha Bray’s blog is here. Form your own opinion.
    He has changed his tagline from The mental meanderings of Hiawatha Bray, technology reporter for the Boston Globe.
    I would say it might be inappropriate to identify his employer, and they may have grounds based on that. Other than that, I think the Globe has shown its true colors.

  • Brian H

    Objectivity is many things: an illusion, an ideal, a goal, a standard, a pretense, etc. What it is not is provably achievable.
    It is far better to promote reportage which says, “Here is my bias, and I’ll try to compensate for that and be as fair as possible. But I don’t promise perfect success.” Given that approach, I’m pretty well ready to read anyone. What I’ll judge them on is the sincerity of their effort to rein in their own bias.
    Science formalizes various experimental models and reporting regimens to try to stay objective, but it is pretty widely acknowledged that the new paradigms and breakthroughs come from the young, who aren’t programmed and conditioned with the previous generations’ orthodox theories. In other words, it tries hard for perfect objectivity but knows it is just out of reach. BTW, the reason for the effort is not to achieve good PR, mind control of the world, or in service of some greater good; it just works better. Would that journalism could realize the same thing.

  • http://www.tedkarol.com/blog Ted

    Well said.

  • JRK

    Hold on just a darn minute, Mavis. Can’t you read? Everyone else–writers, reporters, columnists and op ed page writers at the Globe and Herald in Boston–let’s their politics hang out. (Can’t you read? Already noted the fact–and I live and teach, as does Bray, in the area and watch TV and listen to the radio daily and can confirm the fact. In fact, I did confirm it in post above your’s!)

  • M in Boston

    Here’s a question for the Globe. When reporter Michael Kranish wrote a glowing biography of John Kerry, and later was commissioned to write a glowing foreword for the Kerry/Edwards official campaign book – and then wrote a much-questioned story assailing the Swift Boat Vets – was that considered a violation of the holy “separation of journalism and politics”? And if so, how was it dealt with?
    I remember reading this on Drudge and then elsewhere in the blogosphere, but then it dropped from view.

  • http://brian.carnell.com/ Brian Carnell

    Okay, we’ve established that as an employee of the Boston Globe, Hiawatha Bray is not allowed to post his political opinions as comments on other people’s weblogs as everyone knows that the tech columnist represents the views of the paper as a whole.
    Can he get in a raucous political debate at the local pub? Or does he have to bow out, citing his Boston Globe status?
    Has the Globe given him a detailed explanation of the circumstanced under which he may discuss his political opinions?
    Does this cover other areas? For example, is Bray allowed to post about the Red Sox on blogs, or does he have to refrain lest people think that Bray also represents the paper on all things sports as well?
    Oddly enough, the Globe doesn’t seem to mind him blogging about the one area which is likely to cause confusion — namely, technology. When Bray says Live365 is his favorite Internet radio service, I am wondering if he’s writing just for himself or if this is also the view of the Globe.

  • http://brian.carnell.com/ Brian Carnell

    “nd later was commissioned to write a glowing foreword for the Kerry/Edwards official campaign book”
    Kranish was never commissioned to write anything for the Kerry/Edwards campaign.
    Kranish was commissioned to write the introduction to an independent book examining Kerry and Edwards’ policy statements. That book was cancelled and never published.
    The publisher then struck a deal to do the official campaign book for Kerry/Edwards. But the publisher *recycled* the ISBN from the book Kranish had worked on. So the campaign book shows up in Amazon, but pulls the cover graphic from the original book which includes a blurb about Kranish writing the forward, and it suddenly looks like Kranish is writing the forward to a campaign book.

  • M. in Boston

    I stand corrected on his being commissioned to write the foreword. Apologies for the error. Thank you for clarifying, Brian.
    However, on the question of where Kranish stands in relation to his feelings about Kerry, and how they may have informed Globe coverage of the campaign, I’ll let the man’s words stand for themselves. Here’s a link to an online chat with Kranish about his biography:
    http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/kerry/book/chat/
    “John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best.” The book was published yesterday (April 27) and was excerpted in Sunday’s Globe. You can read all of Chapter One at the following link:
    http://www.boston.com/kerrybook
    Here’s an interesting quote from the chat by Kranish:
    “We write about the complex person, the full character, and try to write about Senator Kerry as fairly as possible. Our hope is that by telling Kerry’s life story, readers and voters will go beyond the sound bites and bumper stickers and 60-second stories and learn the full story of a man who, whatever your political interests, has led a rich and fascinating life.”
    I would argue that a reporter working for an objective newspaper writing a lengthy, friendly biography of a candidate during a campaign – and promoting said friendly book during the campaign – has far more impact than what Bray did.
    What if Bray had written a hagiography of Bush, instead of a couple of blog posts? What would the Globe’s reaction have been? I think this is a fair question.

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com mumon

    Not to be offensive, but your analysis here leaves out the most important functions of media: news editing, as I note on my blog today…

  • FC

    I dunno. Let’s ask what they would have done if reporter Bob Woodward wrote a hagiography of Bush.

  • http://www.musingsofafatkid.blogspot.com fat kid

    BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRN THE WITCHES!