October 06, 2004

He Said, She Said, We Said

Mark Glaser's interview with billionaire blogger Mark Cuban in the Online Journalism Review contains revelations about the mindset of traditional journalists, the power shift personal publishing technology has brought to media, and a common frustration shared equally by reporters and their subjects.

Here's the background: Cuban and Kevin Blackistone, a Dallas Morning News sports columnist, exchanged emails in March about Cuban's basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. Part of Cuban's response made it way into a column Blackistone wrote (sorry, it's in the DMN archives). Cuban felt Blackistone quoted him out of context, so Cuban published Blackistone's original email to him and his full response on his blog.

Let's see what Blackistone thought of Cuban's tactic. When contacted by Glaser, Blackstone said:

"I didn't think much of being surprised by having what I thought was a private exchange with Mark Cuban posted on a public Web site. That is a reason I stopped responding to readers years ago, because I discovered they started posting my personal responses to them on message boards." (Emphasis added.)

There are a couple of things wrong-headed about this response: First, Blackistone and Cuban's email conversation was not, as Blackistone characterizes it, a "private exchange" because he published Cuban's answer, which is a very public action. Second, even though Blackistone has a very non-traditional background for a sports columnist he still exhibits the classic old media flinch to interaction with readers (even though each of his columns contains his email address). Third, and most important in these days of morphing media, Blackistone clings to the notion that his answer to a reader's email is a "personal response," not understanding that the reader is writing to him as a public persona and, as such, everything he says to a reader is on-the-record. To demand transparency and accountability from our sources when they speak to us and not to apply those same standards to ourselves when we speak to the public is disingenuous.

Whether or not Blackistone used Cuban's comments out of context is not the issue (that's a separate debate), the point is that Cuban thought that was the case and blogging technology offered him a corrective recourse that up until recently was not available to news sources who, rightly or wrongly, thought they had been victimized by the press. He published the exchange and Blackistone's column under the heading: "The best thing about a blog is that I get to respond to the media."

The arise of "we media" puts a publishing tool into the hands of anyone who wants to wield it. Gone forever is the one-way street on which journalism traveled for years. It has been replaced with a technology-enabled round-about in which credibility is given to those who can navigate the traffic without crashing.

Cuban refers to blogging as providing a system of "checks and balances" that will make media stronger." I agree with that, although I substitute the word "journalism" for "media" [ Read: News Media vs. Journalism ] and I prefer the concept of "counterbalances" to that of "checks and balances" since the latter implies the righting of some error while the former, to me, suggests a series of shifting forces that exert pressure on each other. Or course, journalism has always been influenced these forces. Politicians, PR people, peers and public opinion have shaped the nature of journalism. Blogs expand the concept of "peers" by allowing many more people to behave journalistically and give much more weight to "public opinion" because it can travel further, faster and garner more force through the Internet. They also, thankfully, uncloak this nexus of influence and enable anyone to contribute to the social and political debate that good journalism catalyzes.

Finally, Cuban puts his finger on a common frustration shared by sources and reporters alike - interview shrink. This happens when a lengthy interview is condensed into a few paragraphs in a story, causing the subject to feel, as Cuban did in this case, that his or her real point didn't survive the writing process and causing the reporter to feel he or she had to compromise the story for space or time constraints. Says Cuban to Glaser:

"Not that they weren't being fair. Fair isn't part of media's charter. Selling media is their charter. It was more that it wasn't unusual to find a two-hour visit abridged into a 500-word article. There is no way to convey two hours' worth of discussion in 500 words. As a result, more often than not, what was written wasn't what I thought was important." (Emphasis added.)

The key phrase here is "that is wasn't unusual." All reporters have notebooks or computer files full of unused pieces of interviews that may have been fascinating, may have said something deeper about the subject of a story, may have provided more insight into person being interviewed, or may have just made the story more human.

For example, my recent story for American Journalism Review on endorsements doesn't contain long sections of interviews I did with Gail Collins of the New York Times or Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal. One interview, with Rod Dreher, of the Dallas Morning News, was cut entirely. Don't misunderstand, these trims, suggested by AJRs editors, vastly improved the story, but I still wanted to publish what those folks had said because I found their comments interesting and I thought you might, too, so I put the out-takes on First Draft. [ Read: Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls ]

Why can't newspapers do the same thing? Why shouldn't we share the breadth and depth of our interviews and our source materials with our readers online if we think we've got good stuff but couldn't cram it into the newspaper? Yes, doing so opens journalists to second-guessing by readers who will question why we chose this quote over another, but so what? We are already under attack from left, right and in-between, so we shouldn't be shy about justifying our decisions. After all, all of us have argued at some point with editors over what should or shouldn't be in a story. Why are we so reluctant to engage in the same conversation with readers? It's OK to say: These are our choices and here is why we made them.

When the San Francisco Chronicle used its website last year to publish the newspaper's lengthy endorsement interviews with mayoral candidates Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez, editorial page editor John Diaz said he wanted to "give readers a window into our endorsement process."

Why not do the same for our reporting process?

Links
 Online Journalism Review: Mark Glaser Media Reports Are Fair Targets on Maverick Entrepreneur's Blog

Posted by Tim Porter at October 6, 2004 10:09 AM
Comments

Amen!
http://www.pegasusnews.blog-city.com/read/850761.htm

Posted by: Peg on October 6, 2004 11:11 AM

I think it is happening slowly, if for no other reason than the gate has been thrown open. Dave Copeland blogged on some ideas -- especially the posting of transcripts and the full interviews a couple years ago

http://www.davecopeland.com/Archive8.html

(look under the May 28 date, oh and my concurrent link a day later)

I've been seeing more and more transcripts on the web. Driven in no small part I think by the fact that government sites are now posting full transcripts to give people a chance to read what was said unfiltered at press conferences and speeches.

The sports world is also driving it. My alma mater, Pitt, now places a partial transcript and the full streaming video of the head football coach's weekly press conference on the web. Sure it is PR and not necessarily not that interesting, but it is a way to get the actual event out to the public. In a way the sports and entertainment areas of media may drive the "real news" portion to have to adapt.

I think most papers and reporters are still hesitant because you are talking about giving up control. I don't think it is necessarily conscious on their part, so much as a natural reaction to the feeling of things suddenly out of their control. What used to be a one way street (as characterized by Kevin Blackistone and his reaction) has now become a cloverleaf with lots of merging traffic.

Posted by: Chas Rich on October 8, 2004 06:13 PM

I suggested that Frontline post transcripts of interviews from a documentary on Rush Limbaugh back in 1995. Someone from Frontline said they went to court to keep transcripts from being released.

Now they put transcripts of interviews online. Though not long ago, a producer of ---- films was arrested. The justice department is using portions of an interview in their case which was posted on the website, but weren't in the televised documentary.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/----/interviews/black.html

---- = a four letter word describing a type of film that won't get through the comment filter.

When I was online editor at the Bay Guardian, we printed a 1500 word interview with Tom Frank in print and a 9000 word interview online.

http://sfbg.com/SFLife/35/10/feat.html

http://sfbg.com/SFLife/35/10/frank.html"

And I wrote a profile of Tom Tomorrow for the paper and posted a 10,000 word interview (along with graphics) online.

http://sfbg.com/News/35/04/04tom.html

http://sfbg.com/News/35/04/tominterview.html

Posted by: Steve Rhodes on October 14, 2004 06:29 AM
Post a comment