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.