Posts about journalism

The Times’ Rather

Judy Miller is The Times’ Dan Rather and she will — or should — force an era of reexamination and reinvention on the paper just as Rather brought it on his network.

She should be the slap that comes before the slapped says, ‘Thanks, I needed that.’

Jayson Blair wasn’t The Times’ Rather, only a coincidental scandal that led to just more silly rules about datelines and such that won’t stop liars from lying.

But Miller, like Rather, had the support of her editors and her institution — and no small proportion of her profession — and it is that blind, deaf, and dumb stubborn support that now must cause them to change their worldview, their relationship with the public, their pressthink. Listen to CBS’ Andrew Heyward, who now recognizes, post-Rather, that the age of omniscience is over, that there is no single truth from the mountaintop, that we must reveal the perspectives we already have, that journalism must change its voice (read: its relationship with its public). That is step one: reexamination. Now Heyward must embark on the harder work: reinvention.

How should The Times undertake this? I made a few suggestions below (and keep in mind that I do not consult to the paper or the newsroom; this is free advice and will be taken as such) but let me add:

If the paper is having trouble reporting on itself — and it is — then invite others in to report on it: even competitors, even bloggers, those you most dread if you think you own the pedestal. So let Howard Kurtz and Jay Rosen and, yes, Arianna Huffington in the door or welcome them in when they come knocking (whom else do you nominate?). Don’t create a selected, stuffed-shirt, spineless commission, as CBS did. Don’t just dissect the past but the present and the future and why we think like we think and how we can and should change that. Tell everyone on the paper that they may not hide behind anonymity and are expected to speak to these people because they represent the public and you must not hide from them. Make it clear that no one will suffer for this. Breed openness. Value honesty.

Next, recognize the Gillmorism that your public knows more than you do and demonstrate that. In fact, that would be good business. The public served by The Times is, indeed, a smart and powerful bunch. So make it a goal to gather and share that wisdom. This was a start. But do more: Make your staff continue that dialogue with the few proxies invited in; open it up to the world. When those darned bloggers question your WMD stories, get into a conversation about it. Don’t sit and wait and stonewall as if you can. We journalists, of all people, should remember that it’s the coverup that gets you and silence in the face of questions is a coverup. So, yes, you can guess what I’ll suggest: Have reporters blog so they can enter that conversation. Find a new voice that is authentic by talking with the people you serve. Take the questions and facts and words of the public and find more ways to put that in the paper. Don’t just be a pile of dead words on paper; try to put yourself back into the town square, into the center of the community, into the conversation that’s happening around you, if you can.

Next, above all, recognize that you are not perfect (how could you be?) and you are not the record (for the record is never done recording). This is not about admitting mistakes when forced to. It goes so far as to admit mistakes before you make them so you think to ask for help from your wise public to get stories right: What should we ask the mayor because we get the chance? What are the politicians and pundits missing in their nonefforts to fix health care? What did we miss in that story we just wrote.

We forgot that journalism is about learning, not teaching. We go out to try to learn what’s happening and why. We are supposed to listen, not lecture. We should be part of the community, not apart from it. So don’t look upon this as prosecution but as a lesson. Learn it in public. Make this your Dan Rather moment. Make this your opportunity to learn and change.

Dowd v. Miller

Maureen Dowd fires at Judy Miller — and at her paper — in today’s Times, under the snarly and snarky headline Woman of Mass Destruction. If this is a catfight, it’s one between Siberian tigers:

She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet “Miss Run Amok.”

Dowd ends with this kicker-on-the-way-out-the-door:

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.

This is also the first time since Miller’s release from prison — and her most unsatisfying chronicle of the tale that put her there — that we have heard from the editorial and op-ed pages of The Times, which defended Miller and the principle they wrapped her in so vigorously.

One can’t help think that this is a message from those pages and those who run them. But you would need Oracle to analyze all the agendas at work here.

Dowd, of course, is liberal queen of the anti-Bush and anti-his-war camp and so she does not waste this nya-nya opportunity: ” Judy’s stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House’s case for war.”

Dowd is also trying to defend her institutions — The Times and The Times’ editorial pages — from the cooties Miller has given them. The newsroom cannot stand Miller and how she printed her own paper, so she criticizes the management of her:

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he barred Judy from covering Iraq and W.M.D. issues. But he acknowledged in The Times’s Sunday story about Judy’s role in the Plame leak case that she had kept “drifting” back. Why did nobody stop this drift?

Dowd is defending journalism against the latest attack on its credibility from within.

Judy admitted in the story that she “got it totally wrong” about W.M.D. “If your sources are wrong,” she said, “you are wrong.” But investigative reporting is not stenography.

Then she recounts the ways in which Miller has been an unreliable narrator, which a journalist should never be.

Dowd is defending the principle of journalists protecting confidential sources:

Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury. I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy’s case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.

And, finally, Dowd is defending Miller in the way only one Timesman can defend another: while protesting too much. She says she enjoys “operatic” (read: obnoxious) behavior.

: So what should happen now?

I’ll repeat: The honorable thing Judy Miller should do for journalism and The Times was not going to jail; it is resigning.

I would not be surprised to see the newsroom rise up to ask her to do just that.

And we still must hear more from The Times. But I don’t just want to hear the facts and this unfacts that unravel in Miller’s tale.

We should hear the lessons learned. We should hear the editors and publisher of The Times tell us what lessons they have learned and it would not hurt for them to ask us, their readers, what we think this should teach them. We also also hear from the reporters who have, like Dowd, dissed Miller and what she has done but behind cloaks of confidentiality. Spare us the irony. The last thing anyone needs in this sad tale is more secrets. Why not invite readers and reporters to say what they think in public, in print, and then let the bosses join in.

One Dowd column does not a catharsis make.

(Sorry that the link above is behind the pay wall. On that, considering my own conflict of interest, should I say no comment? No, I’ll just apologize.)

: MORE: Howard Kurtz reports the first public rifts between Miller and The Times:

New York Times executives “fully encouraged” reporter Judith Miller in her refusal to testify in the CIA leak investigation, a stance that led to her jailing, and later told Miller she could not continue at the paper unless she wrote a first-person account, her attorney said yesterday.

The comments by Robert Bennett came as Executive Editor Bill Keller accused Miller of apparently misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Vice President Cheney’s top aide, signaling the first public split between Miller and the management of a newspaper that had fully embraced her in the contentious legal battle.

: See also Bill Keller’s memo to his staff on Romenesko. I found and read this after I wrote my suggestion above. Note that Keller is sharing his lessons with his staff; I hope he shares them with his public as well. Among those lessons:

These are instances, when viewed with the clarity of hindsight, where the mistakes carry lessons beyond the peculiar circumstances of this case.

I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors. I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal, and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.

So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy….

By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers.

I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own….

Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: “I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally — but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we’re fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line.”…

: Judy Miller should blog.

Consider that so much of what big-media accuse blogs of doing, she did. She went off on her own, without supervision and proper editing, and published speculation and innaccuracy. But note that if a blogger does that, she’ll get hounded into making a correction a helluva lot faster than Judy’s paper or she did. She operated in an echo chamber. She was a self-promoter. Yup, she should blog. She’ll need something to keep her busy and I suspect it’s not going to be The Times.

So, Judy, a gift for you: MissRunAmok.com is available.

: LATER: Arianna Huffington on the Keller memo:

I’m assuming that his memo “slipped out” on Friday because he knows that on Sunday the paper’s public editor, Barney Calame, is going to write a devastating critique of the Times and he wanted to do some pre-emptive self-flagellation.

I’m assuming that Keller has not yet accepted that Judy Miller is only one part of the Times’ problem — that he must also confront an institutional arrogance that extends beyond one rogue reporter.

I’m assuming that Judy Miller has written her last story for the New York Times.

Dog, meet bone

Jay Rosen is staying on the story of Judith Miller like, well, a reporter.

The dawn of News 2.0

At the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center’s confab among mogulmen and bloggers, CBS News President Andrew Heyward stunned the listening when he said that news has to change in fundamental, once-heretical ways. I called it then “a big moment, reflecting a cultural change in meanstream news.” Jay Rosen was wise enough to go get Andrew to repeat himself and expand on it and he got others to react. Heyward’s three new laws of news:

One: Truth is a Plural

We have to abandon any claim to omniscience….

This means not just recognizing that on most matters there are multiple points of view out there as opposed to a single, discoverable “truth,” but also — and this is just as important — acknowledging that the world is a complicated place, and the stories and issues we cover are not always reducible to simple, television-friendly explanations.

However, that cannot be an excuse for us to shrug our shoulders and abdicate our core responsibility to strive for the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness. …

Two: Yes to Point-of-View Journalism

We have to figure out a way to incorporate point of view, even while protecting the notion of fair-minded journalism dedicated to accurate reporting without fear or favor. …

Three: News Has an Authenticity Problem

We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking, and interacting with the people and subjects we report on.

Here’s hoping that the management and culture of CBS allow Heyward to start enforcing his laws.

The Judy feed

NYTimes.com is now aggregating blogs on the Judy Miller affair. Among the bloggers linked: Jay Rosen, Arianna Huffington, Powerline, Josh Marshall, Romenesko (oops, he’s not a blogger, is he?), Wizbang, Talk Left, David Weinberger, Dan Gillmor, Tim Porter, Mickey Kaus, Sisyphean Musings, Kos, Instapundit….

Len Apcar, editor of NYTimes.com, says they’ll do more of this now that they’ve brought on Philippe Lourier of The Annotated Times to help aggregate blogs and other content.

This is a good step. The Times is now linking out to those linking in; the Washington Post has been doing likewise with Technorati help. That finally starts to get papers into the conversation, including conversations critical of them.

But like a blogger, I’ll see an envelope and push it.

First, it would be good to hear more voices we don’t often hear. All those blogs listed above are good. But as I put together my Judy Chronicles, I was hitting Technorati and PubSub and finding comment all over. (Though, egotist that I am, I’m happy to be in there, too.)

Second, the next step in this trend in linking should be to link to the stories a paper is not covering. That is the real value of the connected world.

At any rate, this couldn’t happen with a better story. Bravo.

(Insert full disclosure here. Oh, and I went to college with Len.)

: Oh, and, why not run quotes from these bloggers in the paper? As news or as op-ed.

: Which reminds me: The link I’m really waiting for is to a New York Times editorial on Judy.

: LATER: Romenesko points to lots of tough talk on Judy and The Times today, including former Timesman Alex Jones:

…I worked at the New York Times for nine years. I love the institution. I think it’s absolutely essential to our democracy…. I feel like any reporter owes it to their editor to level with them, especially when the credibility of the newspaper itself is at stake. And the idea that you would have a news organization that could not pull in a reporter and say not only who the source was but what are the circumstances of your relationship; what are the terms; what is your relationship with the administration — especially now that these questions are being raised — how can you operate a news organization?…

I think this is an extremely important moment for the New York Times. I think it’s a moral crossroads. I think that the New York Times, if I were the editors of the New York Times, I would appoint an internal group that I had complete confidence in to review Judy Miller’s reporting, her journalism.

And I would expect her and ask her and insist upon her cooperating and engaging that. And if she refused to engage it, if she refused to be frank, then that would essentially be a firing offense as far as I’m concerned. I think Judy Miller needs this just as much as the New York Times does. I mean, her credibility is at stake. And I think that she needs either a clean bill or she needs not to be representing the New York Times anymore.

I think that now she has taken on the sort of symbolic credibility that is going to be something that’s visited on all the editors and reporters and on the institution itself. And this may not really matter to the public at large. But within the world of journalism for the New York Times to lose its stature as the moral leader, as the standard bearer, that would be tragic.

Who are Miller’s defenders? Know any?

If Miller is going to do the noble thing for journalism, it’s not going to jail. It’s resigning.

: LATER: Arianna is, of course, even blunter, calling Miller a cancer on The Times.