Posts about transparency

Goose, meet gander: Answering The Times’ questions

I’d like us all to answer a few questions.

The other day, I blogged about The New York Times requiring freelance writers to answer a questionnaire about their other activities and any conflicts of interest. I suggested that every journalist, especially staffers, should fill out the questionnaire and that they should be made public.

Well, a birdie just sent me the questionnaire and so I’ll start the ball rolling. On my disclosures page, I’ve answered each of the questions, which I’ll list below.

I’ll also keep that ball rolling and suggest that bloggers should answer the questions as well and post them online to pressure mainstream journalists into such open disclosure.

And let’s keep it rolling still by suggesting other questions you think that journalists and bloggers should answer for their audiences. First, The Times’ questions:

1. Please list your other current employers, whether full time or part time

2. For what other employers have you worked in the last three years?

3. What sort of volunteer work do you do regularly, if any, and for whom? (Please include any public relations, advocacy or advisory board involvement.)

4. Do you do any work paid or unpaid in politics or government? Have you done any lobbying of governmental bodies?

5. Do you have any financial investments or financial ties that may limit your ability to cover specific topics free of conflict, and if so, what are the topics?

6. Although we don’t regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members of our contributors, do any of their professional or personal involvements or any of their financial investments or ties make certain topics inappropriate for you, and if so, what are the topics?

7. Have you accepted any free trips, junkets or press trips in the last two years? Have you accepted any substantial free merchandise or discounts from people we might cover?

8. Has anything you’ve written later resulted in a published editor’s note or retraction for deliberate falsehood or plagiarism or become the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood? (If yes, please include details about the publication and your role in the article or story. If a lawsuit, please describe the disposition of the case.)

What else? This isn’t as simple as filling out a one-size-fits-all-beats list once. I believe that if journalists have something to disclose about their views or involvement in a story that a reader should properly know to judge that story, they should be updating on online disclosures page accordingly. We don’t need to litter stories in sparse print and airtime with every such disclosure; it could reach an absurd though amusing extreme (“The lawyer for the accused once bought me a beer”… “I own two shares of Microsoft stock”…). But we should not shy away from such disclosure when it is relevant.

Yesterday, I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Jeffrey Dvorkin, the network’s ombudsman, and Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, talking about just this. The host, Michelle Martin, wasn’t grasping the nuances of this discussion. For what came out is that Dvorkin, Cunningham, and I agree broadly (I hope I don’t mischaracterize their views) that objectivity, as upheld in j-schools of yore, is a false god; that honest, fair, and complete reporting in spite of any personal perspectives, prejudices, or assumptions is the right standard; and that relevant disclosure is good. Where we disagree about is how far that should go, and I wish we’d explored that more. So explore it here: How much disclosure is necessary and relevant?

Keep in mind that this does not mean that you’re disclosing deep, dark, family secrets about every story or laying your whole life bare. That’s not the point. This isn’t an exercise in Maoist self-criticism or columnist exhibitionism. This is about telling the people you’re talking with what they should know to understand your own perspective and what you bring to the story: “I’m writing about jazz but I prefer rock.” … or, “I’m covering a smoking ban and I used to smoke.” … or, yes, “I’m covering the Democrats and I am a Democrat.” It should not mean either that you should not cover a story because you have a relevant perspective or that you must because you do. This cuts both ways. The example I gave in yesterday’s discussion on NPR is that editors frequently assign African-American reporters to stories in the African-American community. That could be argued two ways: It’s stereotyping the reporters, or it’s assigning people who will understand those stories better. This doesn’t mean that they should or should not be assigned because of their background, but their background is relevant. The same goes for other stories where the background is not so transparent.

So if you join in and answer these disclosure questions, please tag it “disclosures.” And if you have any more questions you’d like to see journalists and bloggers answer, please add them to the comments.

: LATER: Vaughn Ververs answers the questions at Public Eye.

Good for goose….

The New York Times is now making freelancers fill out a questionnaire “about their affiliations, work history, financial and personal connections and any past instances when questions were raised about the accuracy or originality of their work.” Why shouldn’t every journalist fill out such questionnaires? And why shouldn’t they be made public?

Pay no nevermind

Bill Keller won’t read this.

The executive editor of The New York Times has stopped reading media blogs, says Rachel Smolkin’s story about transparency in American Journalism Review:

But Keller has become a little more choosy about transparency. On the advice of Managing Editor Jill Abramson, he’s mostly stopped reading the media blogs, including Romenesko’s influential one on the Poynter Institute Web site (he still finds Gawker hard to resist). “There’s nothing wrong with them, and I don’t object to their existence,” Keller says. “It’s just that they can lead to a tremendous and to a somewhat disorienting degree of self-absorption.”

Well, I’d say that Keller thus forfeits the right to complain about or mock people — starting with the President — who say they don’t read newspapers, especially his.

What a foolish thing for a journalist say. But I suppose it’s transparency of a sort, telling us what you don’t know, confessing your deafness and your prejudices. Or perhaps it’s just a game of snark-for-snark: The resident of what used to be seen as journalism’s throne looks out upon the masses, the bloggers, and sniffs, “I don’t object to their existence.” Let them blog cake. It’s all really quite unbecoming. We are not amused.

But he’s not dismissing rabid bloggers. He is dismissing rabid readers. He is not listening to the public he is sworn to serve. This, I’ll argue, is an attempt to turn journalism back into a one-way wire, AC to DC.

Smolkin continues:

He’s also gotten more selective about granting interviews and about the questions he feels compelled to answer. “It was time-consuming and distracting,” Keller says of his early transparency efforts. “Some of that time was well spent, but not all of it. Also, I think, there’s a danger that if you spend too much time explaining yourself that you become defensive rather than authoritative.”

So how should the Times decide when to respond to critics, and when to stand resolutely – and silently – behind its reporting? “I guess I’m in the process of learning that still,” Keller says. “I think we’re all trying to strike the right balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and defensiveness and self-absorption on the other. It’s a little harder at the Times because we are the Times. We attract a more intense curiosity.”

But it’s not mere curiosity. That implies that the reliablity of the product and the process of journalism are unchallenged and that we, the people, are merely nosey tourists wanting to have a look ’round the factory, just curious, not questioning. No, we’re asking more than that. We deserve more than that. And The Times, because of that special position it holds and the privilege and access and attention it receives as a result, owes us more. It continues:

Keller says he hasn’t “boiled this down to a set of rules or a formula about what you answer and what you don’t. I don’t feel readers are necessarily entitled to sit in on the editing process or to eavesdrop on our decision making. We’re not obliged to account for every step on the way to publication, or non-publication, for that matter. Some stories we don’t publish because we don’t know enough. They don’t meet our standards yet. They need to be thought through a little better.”

He’s right about not revealing speculation: An editor in a news meeting talks about a story they’re looking into that never pans out and that rumor or speculation should not be published via the open door. That is the complication with opening up the process.

But to say that readers are not “entitled” to view that process is, to me, a claim of ownership over the news. Journalists came to believe that they owned news because they owned distribution or were granted special access. But they don’t and never did. The public owns the news. It is ours. And the public has a perfect right to judge the stewardship journalists exercise over news.

When then-Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail to protect her source and then came out of jail after 85 days, Keller felt readers were entitled to know some of the back story. A team of Times reporters produced a tough, 5,805-word piece revealing that neither Keller nor Sulzberger asked Miller detailed questions about her interviews with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., who was then the vice president’s chief of staff. Keller says assigning his own reporters to the story was “the right thing to do,” but “I’m not sure we should have spent as much time as we did talking to everyone else who wanted to compose the back story…. The Judy Miller episode writ large consumed a lot more energy than it needed to and probably made us look unduly defensive.”

I will leave that straight line to others. Over to you, Arianna.

But Keller acknowledges that a more transparent era is upon us. “We’re clearly past the day when, even if we wanted to, we could do all of our work behind a kind of cloak of mystique,” he says. “I know there are a lot of people in our business who feel nostalgic for the days when you weren’t called upon to justify your reporting methods or defend a line of reporting, but we are past that. I do think it’s important for us, and it’s good for us, more than that. It’s not just an obligation; it’s a healthy thing to let readers know how much work we put into things to get them right and to get them fair.”

I can’t argue with that. Too bad that Keller is arguing with himself, though.

By contrast, hear Steven Smith, editor of the Spokesman Review and a deacon of the temple of transparency:

Smith says community newspapers such as his operate in a different sort of environment than national papers like the Times, a reality that makes their efforts to be transparent more manageable and more civil. “I think when people have to sit down across the table from you face to face, it creates a different kind of dynamic. In an ironic twist, the visitors to our newsroom are less confrontational than if they were communicating by phone or e-mail,” Smith says, adding, “We still have a couple of wackaloons, don’t get me wrong.”

I think he’s wrong that The Times is different. It’s still a newspaper serving a community and it must find ways to both meet and converse with that community. Giving blogs to staffers is, I suppose, a start, though it’s really just using another publishing tool to publish. Revealing the links to your stories is a good move; the The Times has started doing that via The Annotated Times (The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Comment is Free are using Technorati to do this with fewer filters). I will say, though, that this still communicates the message, ‘But enough about you, what you do think of what we said?’ But I don’t want to minimize the importance of this reverse flow: AC on the wire.

When I met Keller online, I had the hubris to write an open letter to him urging that he and his journalists meet bloggers face-to-face, so that both tribes would realize that they share goals and motives; they both work hard in the service of a better-informed society. A long and public email discussion ensued, which you can read here, but I never convinced Keller to have that get-together.

Based on what I read in AJR and on the bad advice he is following, I will renew my suggestion that Keller and company make it a point to get out and meet the bloggers. He and his colleagues are operating now under a fear of unknown. And if you stop even reading bloggers, then they become only more unknown, more fearsome.

The other day, I met with a reporter who wanted to talk about the blog backwash regarding a story he wrote. It was a good conversation about the impact and issues of all this change on the news. He asked me not to blog it and I’ll respect that. But I told him at the end that we should find a way to have that conversation in public. Both sides will be better off for it and the sides will come closer. In fact, there shouldn’t be sides at all. It’s not about the journalists v. the bloggers. It’s about both against secrecy. It is, indeed, all about transaparency.

[Full disclosures: I consult for The New York Times Company at About.com and have given NYTimes.com occasional advice on blogs. I have had one meeting with Keller and have spoken at an event for Times management. I know a few Times reporters, not through the course of my consulting but as a result of blogging. I buy The Times — yes, the paper Times — to read on the train every day.]

: I should add that Rachel’s article is good. She uses provocative rhetorical questions to try to cover the sides. I make a brief appearance at the end as the radical transparcy advocate (I wish I could turn that into the name of a religion: I am a Transparist?). I only wish that she had gotten to more of the people who demand and practice transparency — that is, bloggers — rather than staying inside the echo chamber that is big, old media. Nevertheless, I recommend the piece.

l’affarianna Huffington update

Arianna Huffington called me from her Carribbean vacation to say that Huffingtonpost is now changing its policy on mashup blog posts of the rich and famous. She listened to the complaints of her readers, who were not shy on her own blog.

She said that from now on, she would make clear the source of quotes she stitched together. I suggested that wasn’t transparent enough. I still think the link is the best means of doing this but I advised that if she wanted to air opinions that weren’t on her service from a contributor, she needed to create a new grammar, some new kind of blog post that made it completely clear the quotes were remixed and the post was not written by the person quoted: ‘Here is the blog post this person should have written, if only he blogged.’

Arianna said she would call it Boswell blogging. Well, if that’s the case, I said, then you could reach back and have Edward R. Murrow blogging… or Samuel Johnson… What Would Jesus Blog? Oh, Lord, as if there weren’t enough blogs — 30.8 at latest count — now the dead can blog.

: Arianna’s mea culpa here.

Is it Clooney or is it Memorex?

A couple of reporters asked for reaction to l’affairianna Huffington, in which the Huffingtonpost pasted together George Clooney quotes and posted them as if he’d blogged it himself, reputedly with his flack’s OK. I’m embarrasased that I’m behind posting something here. So here’s what I said to one of them:

I find it amusing and tragic. It’s amusing that anyone would think of having ghost writers for blogs — which are, by their essence and definition, personal. How Hollywood can this go: ‘I’ll have my person link to your person’? And it’s tragic that we’re so addicted to celebrity that anyone would go so far as to manufacture the voice and views of a star just because he is a star. Surely we have learned that people’s opinions don’t get smarter when they get famous — quite to the contrary. Huffington was wrong to try to create a faked-up post under Clooney’s name — and wrong to want to. This now affects the credibility of all the stars who post there. They need to guarantee now that all the views of the famous there, no matter how amazing, are written by them: No bionic opinions allowed. If you don’t care enough to write a simple blog post, then you don’t care enough.

I’m not sure what Huffington’s motivation was. It could be business: The site hung its hat and drew its traffic on the idea of getting the famous to blog. Perhaps this is the blog equivalent of trumping up a story just to get a star’s face on a magazine cover to sell copies. I’ll confess I saw that happen when I worked at People magazine. Or it could be ideology: They were so desperate to pile on to Bush on the war that they decided to fabricate a post. In either case, it was a mistake.

Contrast this with what was heralded as the British HuffingtonPost: The Guardian’s Comment is Free (where, full disclosure, I’ve been commenting… for free). They went out and recruited 200 people to post because they’re smart and not necessarily famous. I don’t see Kate Moss writing about Iraq policy there.

: I see that Arianna has more comment on the Clooney comment and she is the unrepentent Dr. Frankenstein of celebrity blog posts. I think that’s a mistake.

First, amusingly, she argues that the attention Clooney’s opinions got is testament to the power of the blogosphere. I’m a blog triumphalist with the most obnoxious of them, but I won’t buy that. It was the scandal of the artificial post that got attention, not the opinions therein. Arianna writes:

First of all, is the blogosphere powerful or what? As has been endlessly noted, the Clooney blog was drawn from answers he had given in interviews with the Guardian and on Larry King.
Neither of which garnered much, if any, reaction.

But when the same words and ideas were repackaged in the form of a blog, they were suddenly exposed to a new audience, infused with a new currency — and exploded into the public eye, drawing an overwhelmingly positive response and provoking a great deal of valuable discussion.

It was a testament to the power of blogging, and it’s why I remain, despite the dustup, an unrepentant evangelist for the value of bringing to the blogosphere some of the most interesting voices of our time that are not already there.

Sorry but it’s a testament to the power of the gotcha: This is Bloggate.

She continues to justify the practice of stitching together stars’ posts.

So while this is definitely the last time I’ll rely on an okay-to-publish from a publicist, it most assuredly won’t be the last time I’ll recruit for the blogosphere and try to get the uninitiated to blog. Even folks who don’t know a hyperlink from a permalink or who need a Blogging 101 tutorial and a lot of hand-holding in the process.

But, some have asked, is a blog still a blog if it contains repurposed material? My answer is: absolutely. Who cares if the ideas were first expressed in a book, a speech, a play, or an interview? The medium isn’t the message; the message is the message. With the right medium providing the needed amplification.

I couldn’t disagree more. I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the medium: Blogs are people and the blogosphere is a conversation. If you’re not really writing your blog, if you’re having or allowing someone to do it for you, then you’re gaming me, lying to me, insulting me. In this little drama, we are Roxannes, Clooney is the dashing Christian de Neuvileette, and Arianna is Cyrano de Bergerac … or perhaps Pinocchio. The highest virtue of citizens’ media and the open age is transparency and this was not an act of transparency. I urge you, Arianna, to recant and set a new policy: Tell me who wrote what I read.

This also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the tools and grammar of the medium. Arianna says that it’s Clooney’s opinions that matter and she quotes, again what he said in The Guardian. Well, Arianna, if you think what he said was worth recommending, the world wide web created a very simple and elegant means to do that: the link.

: I posted this on Comment is Free.

Secrets about secrets about secrets

NYTimes Public Editor Byron Calame said he had a list of questions for Times editors they wouldn’t answer. I wanted to see him list the questions; so did other readers. But Calame won’t list them. What kind of transparency is that? Cough ‘em up, Calame.

More secrets about secrets

Times public editor Byran Calame writes his first almost-tough column taking The Times to task, properly, for not revealing why they did not reveal what they know about warrantless NSA spying — and why they did reveal it when they did. He called the paper’s explanation “woefully inadequate” and said he had “unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.” He accused the editor and publisher of The times of “stonewalling,” a word that carries all too much irony in those halls.

For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making.\…

I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future….

But the explanation of the timing and editing of the front-page article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau caused major concern for scores of Times readers. The terse one-paragraph explanation noted that the White House had asked for the article to be killed. “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting,” it said. “Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”

If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the omitted sensitive information would assure readers that great caution had been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated. The mention of a one-year delay, almost in passing, cried out for a fuller explanation. And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the paper’s recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions are made.

At the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it could not address specific issues….

Calame said the nearest he got to an explanation was one sentence from Keller:

“There is really no way to have a full discussion of the back story without talking about when and how we knew what we knew, and we can’t do that.”

Calame speculates that this is about sourcing:

Taken at face value, Mr. Keller seems to be contending that the sourcing for the eavesdropping article is so intertwined with the decisions about when and what to publish that a full explanation could risk revealing the sources. I have no trouble accepting the importance of confidential sourcing concerns here. The reporters’ nearly one dozen confidential sources enabled them to produce a powerful article that I think served the public interest.

With confidential sourcing under attack and the reporters digging in the backyards of both intelligence and politics, The Times needs to guard the sources for the eavesdropping article with extra special care.

Well, but with The Times also under attack for its sourcing, it should take extra special care with its own transparency and credibility.

That’s all the more the case because of the timing of the story in relation to the election:

The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having “delayed publication for a year.” To me, this language means the article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago – after perhaps weeks of reporting on the initial tip – and then was delayed….

For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn’t the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper’s silence leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.

What Calame does not address is the timing of the eventual release of the story just as Congress debated the extension of the Patriot Act.

He also trips over himself praising the story itself and does not raise questions about it. I raised some questions here.

See also Jay Rosen on the news The Times isn’t reporting.

: Glenn Reynolds adds:

The Times’ behavior on this story, and the Plame story, has undermined the unwritten “National Security Constitution” regarding leaks and classified information. Since the Pentagon Papers, at least, the rule has been that papers could publish classified information in a whistleblowing mode, but that they would be sensitive to national security concerns. In return, the federal government would tread lightly in investigating where the leaks came from. But the politicization of the coverage, and the outright partisanship of the Times, has put paid to that arrangement. It’s not clear to me that the country is better served by the new arrangement, but unwritten constitutions require a lot of self-discipline on the part of the various players, and that sort of discipline is no longer to be found in America’s leadership circles.

If the Times decided that its job was to tell its readers everything it knew, when it knew it, then it would have a good argument for publishing this sort of thing. But since the Times has made clear that it’s happy to keep its readers in the dark when doing so serves its institutional interests, it doesn’t have that defense for publishing stuff that’s bad for national security.

: Not unrelated: Bill Maher in a yearending post at Huffingtonpost:

Not to feed the idea that Arianna and I engage in logrolling, but it should be noted that this blog thing of hers was a very big event in 2005. And how perfect that the big story that she was way, way, way out in front of everyone on — and for months — the Judy Miller fiasco — was a story about how the media, even the media we most respect, is off its pedestal and there is a vital need for alternative news narrative.

: See a fresh report from Jay Rosen here.

CBS behind the curtains

Kudos to CBS’ Public Eye for taking a camera and mike into the CBS Evening News editorial meeting. Having sat through all too many editorial meetings in my day, I can warn you that you will not necessarily see a great show. But, of course, that’s not the point. You now get to see the show behind the show. You see sausage being made. And that is great. That is what more news organizations should do. It’s not as if everyone is going to watch this. But the point is that now you can and now they are willing to let you in. That’s progress.