Speculation and cynicism and journalism

Speculation and cynicism and journalism

: In the story of Eason Jordan’s shocking allegation at Davos that the military targeted journalists in Iraq, I see a few disturbing trends in my profession about the spread of cynicism and speculation.

First, the background — since this has not gotten no press coverage (apart from a WSJ newsletter) or much note in my fellow media or liberal blogs: Jordan, CNN’s news boss, appeared in a panel at Davos and the official blog reported:

…Jordan asserted that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by US troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted. He repeated the assertion a few times, which seemed to win favor in parts of the audience (the anti-US crowd) and cause great strain on others.

The blogger, Rony Abovitz, said a crapstorm ensued with some troubled by what Eason alleged and others — antiAmericans and Arabs are singled out — grabbing onto it as if it were truth and Jordan finally pulling back:

To be fair (and balanced), Eason did backpedal and make a number of statements claiming that he really did not know if what he said was true, and that he did not himself believe it.

I didn’t post on this yet because I was (a) busy and (b) thinking about the larger issues and unfortunate trends we see in this.

First, on the issue of speculation: Bloggers are accused — sometimes justifiably — of not exercising the standards of reporting and accuracy that professional journalists are supposed to follow.

But in just a month, I can name three appalling episodes of journalists speculating about something — with no apparent basis in reporting or fact — and starting what we like to call a meme (what used to call a story) based on nothing. They seem unaware of their power and unconcerned about their standards and either unaware of or unconcerned about the consequences of of saying such things as journalists, speaking from the pulpit of their profession.

Of course, we have the incident of New York Times writer Sarah Boxer glibly speculating — with no reporting whatsoever to back up her speculation — about the American government affiliations of Iraqi bloggers in the lede of an Arts story and putting them in danger. (More on that shortly.) And it spreads. Next we have Eric Alterman spreading the figments of their poisoned imaginations on MSNBC. And we see it spread further via wire services and blogs. Hey, I read it in the New York Times, there must be something to it. That, after all, is the value of The New York Times — right?

It’s not that they said things as if they were fact — it’s that we have led the public to believe that when we say things they are fact. To use the megaphone of journalism in print or on TV to spread mere speculation is to abuse the trust of the public and devalue what we do.

And now we have Eason speculating about U.S. troops murderering — what else can you call it? — journalists. I have no facts to know whether this could be true and if Eason does, he certainly should say so — otherwise, it’s not journalism, it’s not reporting, it’s not truth, it’s merely speculation. Yes, if it is true then, damnit, report it with the facts; that’s your job. But until you do that, all you’ve accomplished is to spread speculation. As Abovitz wrote:

Many in the crowd, especially those from Arab nations, applauded what he said and called him a “very brave man” for speaking up against the U.S. in a public way amongst a crowd ready to hear anti-US sentiments. I am quite sure that somewhere in the Middle East, right now, his remarks are being printed up in Arab language newspapers as proof that the U.S. is an evil and corrupt nation. That is a real nightmare, because the Arab world is taking something said by a credible leader of the media (CNN!) as the gospel, or koranic truth…. To me, what was said can not be put back into the genie’s bottle.

: Next, to the matter of cynicism: I was always taught that it is the journalist’s job to be skeptical, to ask questions, to push for the truth. I still believe that. That is why I get disappointed in reporters who do not question conventional wisdom (for example, that America is suddenly at war, red v. blue).

But what we see here is not about skepticism. It is about cynicism, about starting with the assumption of dark motives and missing morals from the people who run our government and then trying to prove that … or not.

I fear this is the real product of Watergate and Vietnam. I came into this business in the middle of the war and before Watergate. Of course, these were to be proud moments in journalism — and I believe they indeed were: My professional elders reported what was happening in the war and not what the government said was happening; they held a President accountable. This supposedly led to an explosion of interest in joining the trade.

But I now fear it also led to a cynical assumption that everybody’s bad and it’s our job to expose them. No, some people are good and some are bad (or turn down a bad road) and it’s our job to keep them honest on behalf of the public they serve.

In the incidents above — and in some much other reporting recently (read: Dan Rather), we see journalism from the wrong starting gate, from speculation and assumption, and not from facts and questions. And we see some at the wrong finish line, when they spread speculation without fact.

: FOLLOWUP: A commenter quite rightly asked whether we’d seen any reports on Jordan’s comments elsewhere to verify what was reported on the blog. Rebecca MacKinnon, who was at Davos, posts this today:

The official WEF summary does not mention Eason’s remarks, and there is no transcript or webcast. But I was in the room and Rony’s account is consistent with what I heard.

: LATER… I just got email from the mysterious address public.information@cnn.com labeled “official statement” saying:

Many blogs have taken Mr. Jordan’s remarks out of context. Eason Jordan does not believe the U.S. military is trying to kill journalists. Mr. Jordan simply pointed out the facts: While the majority of journalists killed in Iraq have been slain at the hands of insurgents, the Pentagon has also noted that the U.S. military on occasion has killed people who turned out to be journalists. The Pentagon has apologized for those actions.

Mr. Jordan was responding to an assertion by Cong. Frank that all 63 journalist victims had been the result of “collateral damage.”

First, I emailed whoever that is back asking, “Who are you?” My name is Jeff Jarvis. What’s yours? Essential lesson of citizens’ media: In this world, we speak citizen-to-citizen.

Second, I say this is a perfect case for getting to the source material: Let’s all get the transcript and the video and judge for ourselves. If Jordan is misquoted, then that will be clear. If he’s correctly quoted but didn’t mean to say that, he can say so now.

Third, I would say that killing “people who turned out to be journalists” would fall under the definiton of “collateral damage.” So I’m not sure exactly the point is here.

I tried to find a video at Always-On, which was webcasting some sessions at Davos, but it’s impossible to find anything there without forking over money (which I’m not doing). Rebecca says there isn’t a transcript up. But it appears the event was videotaped. So I suggest that Davos and CNN get a transcript out to clear this up.

: YET LATER: Jordan emailed Rebecca. I’m not sure what to make of it and still would like to see a transcript or video.

…when Congressman Franks said the 63 journalists killed in Iraq were the unfortunate victims of “collateral damage,” I felt compelled to dispute that by pointing out journalists in Iraq are being targeted — I did not say all journalists killed were targeted, but that some were shot at on purpose and were not collateral damage victims. In response to a question about whether I believed the U.S. military meant to kill journalists in Iraq, I said, no, I did not believe the U.S. military was trying to kill journalists in Iraq. Yet, unfortunately, U.S. forces have killed several people who turned out to be journalists. In several cases, the U.S. troops who killed those people aimed and fired at them, not knowing they were shooting at journalists. However tragic and, in hindsight, by Pentagon admission, a mistake, such a killing does not fall into the “collateral damage” category….

I am frankly still confused. Has it been proven or admitted that journalists were “targeted” and “shot at on purpose” by our government? That would seem to be just as serious a charge. The one case I recall was the shot at a hotel where journalists were and as I recall the soliders believed they had seen a gun. Are there other cases I don’t recall?

: Here’s another rendition of Jordan’s statement on another blog and I still don’t get his exact meaning. Go read it. I think he’s trying to say that journalists were killed in cases of mistaken identity; because soldiers shot at them because they thought the victims were someone else, they were “targeted,” but they weren’t not targeted as journalists and that’s not “collateral damage.” I think that’s what he’s trying to say but I’m frankly not sure.

  • Tom

    But I now fear it also led to a cynical assumption that everybody’s bad and it’s our job to expose them.
    Unfortunately, the majority of the press does not think that everyone is bad, they feel that Republicans and Conservatives are bad. The standards applied to Bush are not the same standards applied to Clinton. This is why conservatives seem to whine. Everytime we look up, we are being denegrated unjustly in those publications that are the tone setters for the rest of the media, and where those that are not news junkies get their impressions of what is happenning.

  • No, some people are good and some are bad (or turn down a bad road) and it’s our job to keep them honest on behalf of the public they serve.
    I think what’s missed is that most people are both good and bad, depending on the day and/or the issue at hand.

  • Gunther

    Two points. First, if the blogged version of what occurred at this forum is accurate, then Eason is an idiot. How can he assert that he

  • Jeff – It stands to reason that if citizens’ journalism is about empowering everyday words and thoughts, attaching credibility to them, that big-media journalism can often be about weakening the credibility of everyday words and thoughts.
    I’ve heard too many journalists to number say outrightly shocking things (as regards their beats) that I know they’d never be willing to subject to their editorial process. They just don’t think that the words are as valuable, as important, as heard, if they’re not in their traditional modules.
    This is one of the biggest lessons of blogging, because people are being judged on what they say, not on how their words seem when vetted by three senior editors and a copy editor. For this reason, I think, bloggers are coming to understand just how necessary it is to speak wisely and truthfully in more casual conversation, because these ideas, these words, will get out there, will become part of the larger conversation.
    There are various examples of this happening; the example that most often comes to mind is of Meryl Yourish on the Gregg Easterbrook affair.

  • stevek

    No, some people are good and some are bad (or turn down a bad road) and it’s our job to keep them honest on behalf of the public they serve.
    I think what’s missed is that most people are both good and bad, depending on the day and/or the issue at hand.

    Hubris, I couldn’t agree more, and this is not heard enough. We are all, I think, both good and bad, and should strive for the good – but I fear that we have come to think ourselves beyond good and bad. We have sabotaged our consciences, and exert a great deal of thinking (thinking fixes everything!) in obscuring that fact from ourselves.
    Also, I recently checked out your blog. It brought tears of laughter to my eyes – thank you.

  • On the button, JJ! I like your distinction between skepticism and cynicism, and, of course, as a right winger, I have to agree with Tom up there that the cynicism tends to be applied more readily towards conservatives… that’s why, for instance, we get stories about Republican “cuts” which are not cuts but only Slobovian losses (Patterico has caught the LA Times doing this more than once, recently).
    That may also explain why the left is so skeptical about the reality of the politics of reporters who are admittedly mostly liberals and Democrats. Reporters must still remain at least skeptical about Democrats, and so if a Democrat or a Republican is caught in a scandal, it must be reported. Leftists seem to think that reporters not letting Democrats off the hook for things they actually do is proof of the non-existence of bias.
    However, it is the sort of charge Eason makes that Republicans more often get hit with: accusations and tales that are exaggerated for effect, trumped up, twisted, etc. When Gingrich worked to bring spending down, he was slammed by the press as “The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas”, while the same press credited Clinton with cutting the cost of government. The press must report, however, Clinton’s shenanigans, which were his, and he actually did. Oh, the left says. What liberal bias?

  • Thanks stevek!

  • Richard Heddleson

    I have seen no second source for this story. Nor has anyone outside the blogosphere picked it up. Barney Frank is cited as standing up for the U. S. military while Chris Dodd appears to sit silently. Either this is a hoax post or there is a big story here. Does anyone know for a fact that this post is true?

  • DBL

    Another blogger (I forget which one) has noted that CNN’s market share in the US is now miniscule; its markets and profits are all overseas where anti-American lies and agitprop sell like beer at a Giants game. In this light, CNN isn’t competing with FoxNews or even CBS; its competition is Al Jazeera. So why should we be surprised to see Eason spreading anti-American lies that feed into the prejudices of his worldwide audience? – that’s just good marketing, folks.

  • Jeff:
    I’m afraid that the problem is worse than how you define it: What has emerged over the last few years is that, for journalists with an agenda, truth matters less than ideology. When a guy like Robert Fisk can continue to be published, even lauded, what’s to stop others from indulging in agenda journalism?
    The irony is that, contrary to the MSM’s criticisms of bloggers, it is the journalists who have become a bunch of reactionaries and agent provocateurs. The only thing we can hope is that the role of bloggers as media watchdogs will, over time, mitigate the harm done by these people.

  • Rob

    His claim seems demostrably untrue. Here is a page at Al Jazeera commemorating all of the journalists who have died in Iraq (at least as of March 2004) and there’s just no way that twelve of them were deliberately killed by US troops:
    As of that date, there were only 13 killed by violence at all (several died of illness, accidents, etc).

  • Richard: Right question. I went looking for more and saw that Rebecca MacKinnon, who was in the room, verifies the acount.

  • While Eason was wrong to speculate that the military targeted journalists, there were reporters killed who shouldn’t have been because the military knew where they were.
    There hasn’t been enough coverage of the deaths or investigation into what happened (whch helps lead to speculation). The Control Room covers one of the deaths.
    Reporters Without Borders lists 31 journalists killed, 2 missing, and 15 media assistants killed.

  • Just a note with regards to murder and US troops in the field. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is a little more permissive of killing in the field than civilian law tends to be, mostly because killing people is expected behavior for military personnel on operations. While I appreciate the sentiment, military troops killing people in the field who are not armed opponents in the act of fighting is not always murder, and occasionally is not a crime.
    Nevertheless, it appears that the US military is willing to allow the independent media to have all the rope they need to hang themselves. One of the few successful tactics the US military has for dealing with media that is openly sycophantic to the enemy is to allow them to discredit themselves. This may not show on a day to day basis, but the senior officers are definitionally strategic thinkers. The crucial failure of modern western journalism is that deadline culture makes them incompetent at understanding strategic thought.

  • Deborah Bates

    Isn’t this the same Mr. Jordan who admitted to remaining silent in the face of torture and other atrocities in order to maintain access in Iraq? He gave a myriad of excuses at the time, most of which were, well, I’ll be kind and say they were unconvincing. What is this man doing running CNN? He isn’t fit to operate a high-school rag. He is what my dear grandmother would have called “a perfect disgrace.”
    Is the MSM being silent in order to protect him? If so, they are complicit. If so, they are a lot more than that.
    I’ve been a news junkie for most of my adult life, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that 99% of what passes for news is little more than opinion and/or sheer speculation all tricked up as fact. The most insulting aspect is that they must believe that we are all knuckle-dragging morons who will never notice. The most disturbing thought, however, is that they genuinely don’t know the difference between fact and their opinions and speculations.
    A sadder, but wiser, little old lady am I.

  • Moira

    I find it amusing that you think the press was ever reporting the ‘truth’, especially about Vietnam. I was just a kid, but my Dad was there for two years. He never got over the lies the press was spreading about the war. I’ve never trusted the media and if most people are getting their heads out of the sand, then great. There might have been a golden age of press war reporting, but it was definitely not in Vietnam.

  • Richard Heddleson

    Thanks for the second source.
    Now that it is corroborated it seems to me the real story is that the head of a major network has accussed in public the U. S. military of murdering journalists and the rest of the Main Stream Media is sitting on the story! Every moment of every session there is video taped, so the record is avaialble. What is this, professional courtesy? Either the head of a major network is wacko or the U. S. Army is a bunch of assassins. I think we all know which alternative is more likely. So why is the media covering this up? Because it’s one of their own? Shame.

  • Californio

    Well, persons who make repeat unfounded allegations should beware. In my line of work, as an attorney specializing in investigating financial fraud, forensic bookkeeping, et al – we have a saying – if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. No one’s books (financial records) are perfect. To CNN pres and others who would preach perfection for others, watch out – you will only call scrutiny down upon yourselves and you will be found lacking.

  • TedN

    Fox mentioned it on Brit Hume’s show last night, but only in the “Grapevine” segment. Hume said CNN had denied that Jordan thinks the US military targets reporters.

  • qetzal

    I emailed a complaint to CNN on this topic & got a response in less than 2 hours. The respondent said that Jordan’s comments were being taken out of context. Jordan was just responding to Barney Frank’s claim that all cases of journalists being killed in Iraq were due to “collateral damage.”
    According to the CNN respondent, Jordan was not claiming any intentional targeting of journalists by the US military, merely pointing out that the military had actually caused some journalistic deaths. (Apparently that’s already been acknowledged.)
    I’m not quite sure why Jordan felt such deaths were different than “collateral damage.” Also, the CNN respondent didn’t address whether Jordan actually mentioned “targeting” journalists. I wrote back, and pointed out the words like “targeted” generally imply intent (unless they are further qualified somehow). I did not receive a second reply.
    In any case, as the CNN respondent pointed out, it’s difficult to judge the true context based only on what’s been reported.

  • Richard Heddleson

    qetzai, That is corporate obfuscation. I sent a polite inquiry 5 hours ago and have heard nothing, but they may have an avalanche. In any event go to Captain’s Quarters and follow the links to the Rebecca MacKinnon blog and you will see that she deems the original report accurate against her interest.
    Scroll down CQ’s posts and you will see that this targeting issue has been an obsession of Eason’s for years. Being a war correspondent is a dangerous business. That’s part of the glamour. And the death of every journalist is a tragedy for the individuals directly involved, obviously, and for all of us who depend on them for news. The problem here is that between this and the reporting for Saddam episode, the credibility and objectivity of a major news organization are in question. This issue should be resolved immediately and I think the best way to do it is Congressional Hearings.

  • R C Dean

    While Eason was wrong to speculate that the military targeted journalists, there were reporters killed who shouldn’t have been because the military knew where they were.
    I’m not sure what this means. “Shouldn’t have been” implies that there is some obligation on US forces to alter their behavior, to do something (rescue the journalists?) or refrain from doing something (call off an action?) because it knows journalists are in the area.
    I’m not sure this implication/assumption stands up to scrutiny as a general proposition, much less that it might apply in any of the specific instances that Steve Rhodes has in mind.

  • lexy

    I have to agree with Moira: the reporting on the Vietnam war must be looked at with at least some skepticism. It is often inappropriately romanticized.
    Unfortunately, that era of journalism made people want to become journalists for the wrong reason: to change the world. Instead of, you know, just reporting the facts. Hence, a lot of the problems we have with the media now.

  • Eric Anondson

    Hat tip to Captain’s Quarters for posting the link to this, who hattipped Peter Cook for finding it.
    But it looks like Eason Jordon said something nearly the same back in November of 2004.
    Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN, said there had been only a “limited amount of progress”, despite repeated meetings between news organisations and the US authorities.
    “Actions speak louder than words. The reality is that at least 10 journalists have been killed by the US military, and according to reports I believe to be true journalists have been arrested and tortured by US forces,” Mr Jordan told an audience of news executives at the News Xchange conference in Portugal.

  • CNN is also hitting blog comments with their line, see here at WoC. Props for being more on the ball than CBS, but they aren’t providing more than denial. Transcripts or video! Or how about some of you journalists trying to get the other panel participants on the record?

  • Dishman

    Jeff, the e-mail you received is apparently CNN’s party line, sent to everyone who is talking about this.

  • The death rate is markedly higher than in other conflicts of similar scale, and the Pentagon is on the record that it considers this a “media war.” There are reports of specific incidents that suggests quite clearly that journalists were intentionally targeted, though whether U.S. troops knew they were journalists–“that video camera looked like an RPG” is often heard–can’t be determined. Does it matter. The military’s investigation of the al-Rasheed incident found neither deliberate homicide OR error of judgment. If you kill a civilian, that’s an error of judgment. And everybody in the freaking world knew that the al-Rasheed was a press hotel.
    If were an assignment editor, that pitch package would sell me on the notion that this topic deserves investigating, not because I’m cynical, but because there are enough facts here to build on. I’m beginning to worry about you, Jeff. It’s like Andrew Sullivan took over your body. Well I remember his prolonged rant on Wyclef’s “Jaspora” based on a misreading of a mistranslation of the lyrics. Don’t go there, Buzzman!

  • Richard Heddleson

    I agree. Let’s start with the 12 names. Then let’s get Eason up to Capitol Hill to testify about how our soldiers murder journalists. I want that investigation now. Eason has CNN. He should be able to make it happen.

  • Robin Roberts

    Colin, your comment makes no sense. You make several allegations without evidence. Your claim “If you kill a civilian, that’s an error of judgment” is especially egregious. In war zones, soldiers can make decisions based on limited information that are not errors of judgement but still result in civilian defense. You seem to not understand the realities of armed conflict at all.
    If your point is to illustrate such ignorance as a defense of Eason Jordan, I would expect more competence from Jordan.

  • There seems to be a pretty big storm brewing over this one. Eason Jordan is not going to be able to put a lid on this. Letting such allegations hang out there will only lead to the endangerment of our soldiers. Frankly, I don’t understand what the hell he was thinking. Either he has proof (which seems unlikely given he backtracking), or he is just another conspiratorial nutjob.

  • LT

    You say that the Al-Rasheed is a press hotel? And? Have you got anthing further? Big deal. Terrorists use Mosques to stage attacks on our troops all the time. They also store weapons and ammo there. Are you saying that they are above using a hotel for the press to launch an attack on our forces? Why would you think they care if the hotel is for the press or not? Oh, and surely they could NEVER gain entrance there huh? Being a soldier is a tough job and our guys do it well. Don’t insult them with cheap accusations please
    LT Green, Iraq

  • LT

    My point is that it entirely possible for a soldier to believe that he was under attack, or imminent threat of attack from that building.

  • Richard Heddleson

    The links in Yet Later and the e-mail sent by CNN to many bloggers make clear that they understand the problem they have and are trying new tactics in damage control. But you are correct that the only real solution is to release the video and let each person make a judgement about what Jordan was saying. This will keepp brewing until the tape is released, and the real story will become the cover up by the media for one of its own.

  • ralph phelan

    “In several cases, the U.S. troops who killed those people aimed and fired at them, not knowing they were shooting at journalists. However tragic and, in hindsight, by Pentagon admission, a mistake, such a killing does not fall into the “collateral damage” category….”
    Sounds to me like he doesn’t understand the meaning of “collateral damage.” It’s not just bomb fragments, it’s anything you didn’t mean to do and made a reasonable attempt to avoid, but that happened anyway.
    When you’re fighting people who don’t wear uniforms, accidentally shooting someone who isn’t a terrorist but is just standing near them is gonna happen now and then, and it’s definitely collateral damage. Especially if the guy standing near the terrorists was there by invitation to observe an operation.
    Would that be any different than a reporter embedded with the US military getting killed by an IED along with a bunch of soldiers? I hope Jordan would consider that equally bad, but I have a sneakinng suspicion that he’d find a way to excuse it if it’s the other side that did it….

  • What is amazing in this discussion is the president of a major news organization is admitting that he was unclear as to what he has saying at Davos.
    If he, or his network, cannot present news in a clear fashion that can be understood, who can?

  • Ebb Tide

    Anne Garrels wrote a book called “Naked in Baghdad” (I listened to the book ontape version), and I remember she was at that hotel that took a round from a USA tank (I think it was a tank)… the tank was on a bridge … and I think I remember that forgeign reporters were killed in that incident. Sorry I can’t remember all the details… but maybe she could also be a source of info about reporters being under fire from coalition forces.

  • keithus

    How many con pundits own their own shows? Twenty four. Progressive hosts? Zero.
    Denial in action on here. Im laughin as I type.

  • Beau

    Tim – He was not presenting “news.” He was speaking at a conference.
    Really no different than presidential press conferences, where you have to watch “The Daily Show” if you want to see someone stumbling over his words. The MSM are far kinder.
    I think it’s amusing that so many people are taking Jordan to the woodshed when it’s clear that what he said is unclear. That’s the “blogosphere” for you. Will we ever have intelligent discussion on the Internet, or will it be a never-ending game of “gotcha”?

  • Deborah Bates

    Moira: I am a Vietnam vet. I spent two tours in country as a Navy nurse. I lost my first husband over there. I know exactly what the media did to us in that war, believe me. That doesn’t mean that everything the media did since then was bad. My point here is that since this war began, the media has come down with Vietnam Syndrome; i.e., they all seem to think that they are back in the days — even the young ones who weren’t even alive at the time of that war.
    Thankfully, there are counter measures being taken against the Vietnam Syndrome, and not just in the media. Those responsible for today’s journalists, as well as what happened stateside during Vietnam, the professors in academia, are also under the spotlight. We are finally seeing the death of Marxist ideology as a major force in this country. The effects of the so-called Progressive movement begun in the early 20th century will linger for some time, but as an ideology, it is dead. And it’s about time.
    The more I read about Mr. Jordan, the more I hope that his career is similarly in its death-throes.