Posts about journalism

Thin skins

Two surprising truths about journalists:

First, they give bad interview. You’d think all those years on the other end of the pencil would teach them how to give clear, concise answers to questions … and how to beware of reporters’ tricks. But, no. Reporters being interviewed tend to ramble and enjoy the attention a bit too much and, like a drunken criminal, say too much. That’s why media companies give reporters media training, which should be too ironic to bear. And I suspect that is also why media companies fear giving reporters blogs.

Second, reporters have thin skins. You’d think that all those years of probing, criticizing, attacking, and lampooning others would give them Teflon skin. But, no, like a schoolyard bad boy, if you confront them and criticize them back, they turn either weepy or prickly. Can give, can’t take.

That is not so surprising, after all, when you realize that this is really an issue of control. In the closed worlds of the newsroom, the page, the show, and the media conference, journalists are in control. In the wide-open world of the web, they’re not. And that’s a tough adjustment for some.

See Public Eye. They’re nice people; I’ve met them. But they’re publicly struggling with finding not just their voice and reason for being but also their attitude and their place in this new media world. They’re being at once thin-skinned and prickly. The Anchoress says they need to take a chill pill.

The problem is, PE, while trying hard to be a “blog” is a weird hybrid just now – it hasn’t quite figured out that there is a loosey-goosey quality, a free-wheelingness to blogging that is very distinctive, but that needn’t preclude serious writing or -as evidenced by Michelle Malkin and Brian Maloney’s dogged work on Air America’s misuse of public funds (a story the mainstream media simply does not want to look at) real investigative journalism.

One can’t help feeling that on some level – subconsciously, perhaps – PE feels like it is slumming it a bit, and is looking down its nose at the company it finds itself forced to keep. As much as I like Public Eye – and I do like it – their “journalists stand here and bloggers stand there” vibe is detectable, and nothing demonstrates that better than these two battles the blog has now engaged in, with Jarvis and Hewitt…

The Jarvis kerfluffle was minor. It was just odd that CBSNews.com’s Dick Meyer said I made his blood boil. I said he misunderstood or I misstated and in either case, he should cool his jets.

The Hugh Hewitt hissy-fit-fest is far hotter. It started with this effort at Public Eye to list top journlist bloggers (that’s why I don’t like lists, man, they’re meaningless and just get you in trouble). Hewitt had a proper fit, saying it was a bad list that left off conservatives and him, too. He had the hapless Brian Montopoli, author of the list, onto his show. Then Meyer put up his email exchange with Hewitt. Then Public Eye chief blogger Vaughn Ververs wrung his hands over all this and tried to figure out them darned bloggers:

As in the Hewitt example, there is a dual dynamic here. While it’s not entirely fair to make broad characterizations of all bloggers (just as it’s unfair for bloggers to do the same to the MSM), it’s a pattern I’ve noticed on both the left and right.

Bloggers love to ridicule the MSM for being unresponsive, slow, bumbling, unable to innovate, unwilling to change and arrogant. Yet somehow, they want to be part of it. They dismiss mass media even as they compete to mass communicate, shutting off their televisions (when they’re not on them) and closing their newspapers (when they’re not in them) to check their Technorati hits. Bloggers are fond of the gate-keeper metaphor. Seems like they just want a key to come and go as they please.

Bloggers are also fond of holding MSM orgs to the highest of standards (as they should) while eschewing those same standards for themselves. “Facts” and “accuracy” are something for the MSM, not them. They’re just bloggers, after all.

The irony is, the bigger blogger empires become, the more they need the MSM for a foil. Hewitt needs to rail against Public Eye as a tool of corporate media to help his own Web, radio and publishing empire grow larger. The MSM will never do right in their eyes, otherwise they’d be out of business. I’ve always thought of bloggers as the ultimate outsiders of media – independent, brash and unafraid. Increasingly they want to be insiders. What will happen to the revolution once they arrive?

There’s so much irony in that, I don’t need a knife to cut it, I need a samurai sword. Even as Vaughn says it’s unfair to make gross generalizations, he proceeds to do just that as he says that bloggers are driven only by ego — as if TV people are not! — and not by standards (so we have MSM people complaining about the standards of the people who complain about MSM’s standards). Further, we have a media guy acting as a blogger saying that bloggers just want to act as media guys. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

This is no way to win friends and influence bloggers. And then maybe that’s the point of Public Eye or maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure that PE knows what its point is yet. Or its identity. On the one hand, it’s trying to be a blog: They call it a blog; they use blog tools; they swim with the bloggers. On the other hand, it’s trying not to be a blog but an extension of the big media place reaching out to the public: a window into the palace, a spot of transparency. And, you know, either is a fine goal.

Here is advice from the Anchoress to Public Eye:

I think Public Eye will really begin to succeed when it can lighten up a little, when the crew can be proud of their “mothership” which is the venerable Columbia Broadcasting System, but also be able to mock it, and themselves, from time to time…

Perhaps Public Eye would lose some of its formality and stiffness if it were to fill out the blogcrew – currently thick with “journalists” – with a few “non-journalist” blogging types who are able to let fly. It needs a voice or two who are less “Buttondown-J-school-with-suspenders” and more “I’m posting this from my pub…”

Dick Meyer has the balls to enter into the conversation there, as he does with Hewitt; read the comments, too. You have to respect them for that; they’re trying hard; they’re struggling to figure this out. Says Meyer: “PE is neither fish nor fowl; it is a work in progress, and our intention is to communicate — not to be a great blog by blog standards or a great sanitized blogproduct by msm standards.”

What’s my advice? I might tell them to decide which way to go: One choice is to become the blogger inside the castle and really think and speak with the independence — and personal viewpoint — of a blogger; that’s a positioning they decided against when they said their blog would not be opinionated (except about bloggers, apparently). The other choice is to make this instead a window into the palace and its process, the start of a culture of transparency.

But is it a choice? At the other days MT&R Media Center get-together, Terry Heaton disagreed with me that there is an intersection between what he calls mass and personal media. He says they are on parallel tracks. That would say there is nothing to bring them together. That would argue that, indeed, it is a choice.

But then there are Steve Baker and Heather Green at Business Week. They are very much of big media and its standards and processes. But they blog openly and honestly and personally. They are either an intersection or a bridge. I’m not sure they know, for Steve said at the event that “one of the best things a mainstream journalist can do is blog… If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d be happy that at least I had a blog going, as a little bit of a rowboat…. More of us are going to be on our own with our own little brands.” In any case, they’re doing something right. I’d say they are making a model for any big media joint that wants to start blogging.

And here’s the essence of what they do: They try to cut away at the separation that journalists put between themselves and the public they want to serve (a rallying cry of Jay Rosen‘s). Note that Steve doesn’t talk about bloggers in the third person plural or the second person. They think of bloggers in the first person. And shouldn’t that be the real goal of mainstream media blogs: to end that separation, to get back to eye-level (no irony intended) with their public, to be human and honest and open again? It’s not us-vs-them. It’s all us.

And then there’s me. Which choice did I make? I used to say I was mediaman by day, blogboy by night. But now I’m blogboy. In the eyes of some in my old camp, I’m a damned radical, for I believe that journalism needs saving and must change.

Change. That is the real issue here. It is a mistake to think that either MSM or blogging is an established, finished institution against which to measure the world. Blogging knows it is changing, growing, experimenting, learning; that’s obvious. MSM has to learn to do all that again or — as the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Steiger said at the MT&R event — it will die. That’s the way big media should look at the blogs it writes (after it reads a few): not as an opportunity to tell the world more about itself, not as another outlet of publication, broadcasting, and ego — but as a means of conversation and learning and change.

What the hell does that mean? Well, for example: Instead of publishing your list of journlist bloggers, ask for a list. Find out what blogs your readers read. Find out what blogs they think your writers should read. Go to your writers and ask them what blogs they read and then make them read some of the ones your readers recommend and then have your writers write about that. Turn the prism around and look through the other end. That’s the opportunity blogging gives you.

Judith Litella?

I’ll admit it: I can’t figure out Judith Miller. Is she just Emily Litella: Oh, nevermind. Dan Froomkin asks the question better than I can:

So what was Miller doing in jail? Was it all just a misunderstanding? The most charitable explanation for Miller is that she somehow concluded that Libby wanted her to keep quiet, even while he was publicly — and privately — saying otherwise. The least charitable explanation is that going to jail was Miller’s way of transforming herself from a journalistic outcast (based on her gullible pre-war reporting) into a much-celebrated hero of press freedom.

Note to reporters: There is nothing intrinsically noble about keeping your sources’ secrets. Your job, in fact, is to expose them. And if a very senior government official, after telling you something in confidence, then tells you that you don’t have to keep it secret anymore, the proper response is “Hooray, now I can tell the world” — not “Sorry, that’s not good enough for me, I need that in triplicate.” And if you’re going to go to jail invoking important, time-honored journalistic principles, make sure those principles really apply.

Transparency, please. Reporting, please. Honesty, please. If you dragged all journalism through the briar patch and didn’t have to, you owe an explanation.

Arianna Huffington also asks:

After she answers Patrick Fitzgerald’s questions today, Judy Miller needs to start answering some of the obvious questions raised by her head-scratching stance:

What made her refuse Libby’s waiver when it was first offered but accept it now? (Especially since Judge Hogan had told Miller that “she was mistaken in her belief that she was defending a free press, stressing that the government source she ‘alleges she is protecting’ had already released her from her promise of confidentiality.”)

Was Miller’s sudden eagerness to find a get-out-of-jail excuse prompted by Fitzgerald’s planning to ask for an extension of the grand jury?

Or was it prompted by Fitzgerald’s gearing up to charge her with criminal contempt?

If all it took for Miller to feel properly released was a phone call, why did she wait 85 days to make it?

And I’ll ask: When she reenters the newsroom, will it be to triumph, shame, or questions?

Professor of overwriting

That’s him.

And when will there be a museum of blogging?

I suppose it’s appropriate that we had a meeting about the future of media with old media and new, big media and small, mass media and personal at the Museum of Television & Radio’s Media Center. The big guys aren’t history yet. But I suppose they could be.

The good folks at MT&R wanted a session on the intersection of blogging and mainstream news and I got to be a co-convener, helping bring more good folks from the blogging world together with the center’s list of big-media people, all of whom are working at the intersection: Debbie Galant of Baristanet, Jay Rosen of Pressthink, Steve Baker of Business Week, Terry Heaton of Donata and Nashville is Talking fame, Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com, Dan Gillmor of Bayosphere, David Weinberger of Joho and more, Susan Crawford of the amazing mind, Bill Gannon of Yahoo, Jon Klein of pajama fame and CNN, Rick Kaplan of MSNBC, Martin Nisenholtz of the NY Times, Alisa Miller of Public Radio International, Tim Porter of First Draft, Steve Shepard of CUNY, Kinsey Wilson of USAToday.com, Vaugn Ververs of CBS’ Public Eye, Andrew Heyward of CBS News, Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal, Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com, Steve Shepard of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Merrill Brown as moderator. A fun and fascinating bunch. Some random notes, first from others, then from me:

: Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, summarized the event. Excerpts of my transcription:

The world has really, really changed and will keep changing and we in mainstream media may not like it but it’s a fact and we have to embrace it or we will die.

People, readers, viewers are no longer satisfied with a small number of omniscient narrators. The toothpaste is out of hte tube. They want to be hears as well as be talked to and they want to hear each other as well as talk to us…

[On the blogosphere:] I think I’ve heard that the magic of this revolution is that it allows people to reach each other and it allows people to learn from and teach each other. It also allows people to mobilize together….

At the same time… many people will do this because it’s fun, because it feels empowering…. Some of those folks will decide they really want to do this and will find ways to get paid… They will develop business models…

How can we [mainstream media] respond and embrace and take advantage of this? First of all, the way to do it is to approach with what we do well: [Taking Susan Crawford’s illustrations] which is to aggregate, which is to illustrate or to order…

And then there are still two skill sets that are in the mainstream media and not in the general blogosphere, which is the general notion of reporting; the ordinary citizen is not a qualified reporter… and then mechanisms for verifying — those annoying habits of editors, w hich get in the way of reporters blooming free…

I had to send a note to my colleagues the other day to remind them that blogs in specific industries have become every bit as important as trade publications … and if you fail to credit one of them it’s just as bad as failing to credit another print publication. [At this moment, the bloggers looked at each other and mouthed the word “Rafat”.]

Whatever the business model, in order to keep getting paid, people in the blogosphere or traditional media would need to do at least one of two things very well… either provide uniquely broad credibility, which will still have value even in this revolutionary world, or uniquely exciting argument… You have to at least do one of them or you’re not going to get paid.

: Go read Susan Crawford’s post to get the perspective of a nonmedia person who was amazed at the bubble we media people live in:

The print guys are very proud of their priesthood, and the culture of journalism is just about the strongest professional bond I’ve ever seen. The emotional energy that filled the room when the print guys started decrying the “potentially deadly” inaccuracy of bloggers was remarkable. We Are The Truth, they seemed to think — We Have Standards. Those bloggers, they’re just typing. We do so much more.

That’s the part — the pride — that made me worry about beloved print journalism. It seemed like a hallmark of descent. We were the best, we were the truest, and even though the blood is running thin and our chins are weaker and our shoulders are rounder, we come from the finest stock. (Speaking of stock: not a diverse group.) I’m familiar with this kind of thinking — I myself am a lawyer and a WASP, two groups that have priesthoods and enormous pride. And are no longer what they used to be….

Under its surface, this well-dressed roundtable discussion (complete with waiters) was really about a future that none of us can hope to control.

: More from the participants: Weinberger thinks the were usual suspects were there. I’ll plead guilty but I’ll argue that Galant, Porter, Heaton, Crawford, and Baker are not. (Later: David agrees.) They’re doing real things so they soon will be. David also says: “The bloggers didn’t have to spend half the morning explaining that most bloggers aren’t journalists, that bloggers are in conversation, etc. Progress. There were still elements of hostility and misunderstanding, especially around the question of accuracy. But there is definitely progress…” Here’s Heaton’s take. Here’s Baker’s Here are Porter’s prep. And here’s Nora Ephron on another blogging blatherfest across town; Garrick Utley went to both and said MT&R’s was better. Both events, as all the posts above note, were too male and too white.

: Jay Rosen’s cogent notes include:

* Still, it was agreed: Big Media does not know how to innovate. What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never. Do these firms attract designers and geeks who are gifted with technology? They don’t, because they don’t do anything challenging enough. They don’t innovate, or pay well. So they can’t compete.

* In competing on the Web, the bloggers do not alarm big media. It’s people like Bill Gannon. Yahoo worries them, with its surging revenues, huge traffic flow, and recent moves in news and editorial that involve original content. The portals attract talent, and with their billions they can fund innovation, and roll out new products. This capacity dwarfs what the old line media companies can do, even if everyone on the editorial staff became a Webbie overnight.

: Now my disjointed notes….

: The tone has changed. There is no dismissive huffing from the big guys about blogs. There is still that argument about who’s trustworthy (see the note here). Old hat. But there is an acknowledgment that the change is gigantic and has only begun.

: Heyward surprised and impressed me when he talked about the weaknesses of mainstream media today:
* “The breakdown of our formulas.” He said the presentation must become more authentic, more natural.
* “The illusion of omniscience. A lot of television news is based around the notion that there is one truth the reporter gets to. The public has to accept the notion of ambiguity… and we have to be bold enough to acknowledge that there is more than one answer.”
* “The introduction of a point of view… The notion of objectivity in mainstream news needs to be reexamined.”

That, I believe, was a big moment, reflecting a cultural change in meanstream news.

Jay says: “This was probably the most significant surprise of the meeting: an actual shift in press think. At the top, no less.”

: One of the editors said that one roole for big media is to be a smart aggregator: if people are already in a community, he said, then they’ll find each other. But for those who have not found each other yet, we can help.

: Jay Rosen: “There is not a law of God that there needs to be a business modl for everything. There may not be a business model for the internet. The internet may just be part of life.”

He says that big media saw the internet come along and used it to repurpose their content. Bloggers came along and instead asked what the web can do. So they have taught jouranalists about links, the blogosphere, nonduplication of effort (an important and underappreciated lesson). The bloggers did this “because they were of the web, not on the web.”

: More Jay on how journalism got that way: “Journalists do a lot of thins simply because they have to for their production routines, not because it’s a good idea, not because it’s necessarily sound but because they have to meet deadlines… Your production routines you begin to mistake as the nature of journalism.”

This is the prison of the medium. This is why it is vital that journalism has to break free of his media.

Jay continues: “Journalists do certain things because they know they are going to be criticized and they anticipate criticism and they need ways to deflect criticism…. The production miracle, which is what daily newspapers are called, worked and still works but is an intellectual disaster…

“Journalists believe in a certain heirarchy of goods: … information is a higher good than opinion; commentary is a derivative good. On the web, people don’t necessarily think that way.” Journalism prides itself on starting with the facts; sometimes people on the web start with opinion and get to the facts. They can end up at the same place.

: Various BMEs (big media execs) said that their greatest problem is not the will to change but the ability to force change through the alimentary canals of their giant companies. They complained about the lack of product development. And they complained about the difficulty of hiring technology talent.

: Terry Heaton wows the group with his accomplishments working with Young Broadcasting stations in Nashville and San Francisco: Inviting bloggers into the stations to listen and talk; training bloggers how to shoot better video, using “dumb” (automated) and “smart” (edited) aggregation of bloggers (see NashvilleIsTalking.com; and starting an ad network with the bloggers. These are all the steps I hoped I’d see Young take when I had lunch with Terry and their execs a year ago. I can’t believe that they’ve accomplished so much. If you want to see who’s leading in this space, go to Nashville.

: Terry said he asked vloggers whether they would pay a subscription fee to have access to stations’ video for remixing and they all said yes.

: Terry also says that media is the biggest issue in the country today but media is not covering media as an issue.

: Dan Gillmor says he fears that media execs will think it’s over already: We have a blog, we have citizen journalists, we’re done. Dan says we’re just at the beginning. He asks big media to surface the best we’re seeing from the community and do some projects with citizen journalists. He suggests that big media team up with the citizens on covering the reconstruction after Katrina because there is a lot of reporting to do.

: David Weinberger: “I think the revolution has happened… The big change has already happened… It turns out that we the audience are much more interesting to us than the news media are… I don’t mean disrespect. There’s good and bad in that because we’re not very good journalists.” (Don’t shoot at David. He was saying that the proportion of bloggers who want to do journalism is small.)

: Steve Baker of Businessweek says that “one of the best things a mainstream journalist can do is blog” because they get more information and change relationships. “If Ilost my job tomorrow, I’d be happy that at least I had a blog going, as a little bit of a rowboat.” He says that “more of us are going to be on our own with our own little brands.”

Dan Gillmor later urged the BMEs: “If there’s someone in your organization — a Steve Baker — let him try stuff.”

Correcting the facts and missing the truth

Three weeks ago, I linked to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s outburst on Meet the Press about the mother of a colleague who died, abandoned, in a flooded nursing home. Two weeks later, I said it was my responsibility to link to a correction about details of that story. And now I’ll link to Tim Russert’s ambush (David Weinberger’s quite appropriate word) on Broussard and Brian Oberkirch’s wise and blunt perspective about all this.

This turned into a game of factual gotcha and in the process some lost sight of the real story and the real tragedy and that is by far the greater failure.

On this week’s Meet the Press, Russert replays Broussard’s emotional appearance for him and then goes after him on the facts. The woman who died was in a nursing home where the owners have been indicted for neglecting and not evacuating their residents. So, Russert says, that’s not the feds’ fault, huh? Russert gets up on a factual high-horse but Broussard puts him right back in his place, explaining that he learned what he said from his staff and that he certainly did not cross-examine his colleague about the mother he could not rescue, who had just died. That does not make the story of neglect of the entire city of New Orleans by government at all — all — levels any less vital. And Broussard says so:

Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued….

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man’s tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man’s mother’s death? They just buried Eva last week… It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother’s died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can’t get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff’s office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? … Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we’re living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you’re in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything’s a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Russert keeps riding his horse. He wants Broussard to somehow say that by getting facts of this story wrong, his criticism of the feds was thus invalidated, was not “fair” (and what a schoolyard word that is in this context). Broussard won’t bite.

Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That’s for history to document. That’s what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn’t come. The Red Cross didn’t come. I’ll give you a list of people that didn’t come here, sir, and I was here….

Did inefficiencies, did bureaucracy commit murder here? Absolutely, it did. And Congress and the media will flush it out and find it out and those people will be held accountable. You’ve already given an example. These people in the nursing home in St. Bernard, they’re getting indicted. Good. They ought to be indicted. They ought to get good old-fashioned Western justice. They ought to be taken out and administered to like they did in the old West.

Yes, there’s a lot of people that they’re going to find that are going to be villains in this situation, but they’re also going to find for the most part that the Peter Principle was squared. The Peter Principle is you promote somebody to the level of incompetency, but when you promote somebody to the level of incompetency in a life or death department, then those people should be ousted. Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I’m sure Congress and the press is going to do that.

Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody….

David Weinberger sums up the journalistic sin of losing the forest for the trees, the story for the facts:

It was an attempt to discredit the story’s teller in order to deny the story’s meaning. It was contemptible.

Too much of journalism is turning this way today: If we nitpick the facts and follow some rules some committee wrote up, we’ll be safe; we’re doing our jobs. No, sir, our job is to get more than the facts. Anybody can get facts. Facts are the commodity. The truth is harder to find. Justice is harder to fight for. Lessons are what we’re after.

Tim Russert lost sight of the story because he was embarrassed that bloggers caught a guest on his show with facts that were wrong. Russert’s proper response should have been to fix those facts quickly and clear but still pursue the real story. Instead, he chose to shoot the messenger who embarrassed him with the bloggers. He lost sight of his real mission.

Says Brian Oberkirch:

I was offended by how quickly the whole discussion went meta. Bodies yet to be retrieved & buried, folks hanging from their own rafters holding onto life, literally, by their fingertips — and pundits, bloggers and media types were already well on their way to converting the storm into a object lesson for their own rhetorical strategies. Hijacked our suffering for their own stories….

Here’s a new way to think about blogging and all forms of consumer generated media: forget fact checking [your] ass. That’s a parlor game for grad students and professional cynics. Yes, you caught some high-profile folks screwing up. Good on you. We’re frying bigger fish now, and you can’t play with us if you haven’t got the emotional heft. I’ve seen do-it-yourself media help us reconnect as human beings. Help one another as individuals in need. Answer a calling to the better parts of ourselves. That’s where I’m putting my energy.

You see, the reason jouranlists were getting praise for their coverage of Katrina and New Orleans was not because they got blown over by winds or soaked in sludge or spewed and fixed facts (many of which go unfixed). The reason people sat up and listened again was that they heard human beings stripped of their dispassionate institutionalism who tried to tell the real story again.

How soon we forget.

: UPDATES: Video and more at Crooks & Liars. Gandelman weighs in.