May 18, 2005

Newseek Blowback: Risible Pomposity, Obsolete Power & Eating Advice

Here's some after matter from the Newsweek mess. I'm behind, but some may be new to you.

The No-Show Symposium: I was among a group of folks - with Katrina Heron (Wired, "Safe") and Sandy Rowe (the Oregonian) invited to speak at the Knight Fellowships 2005 Symposium at Stanford the other night. The topic was credibility. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker was supposed to keynote the event, but he canceled. Here's the Stanford Daily's report on it. I spoke about the need for new values in journalism. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]

Best lines of the evening: Heron quoting Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future: "Obsolete power corrupts obsoletely." Also, Heron's definition of community: "Community is the people you're stuck with."

When You're Wrong, Bite Big: In the New York Times story about Newsweek's retraction, Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a consumer loyalty firm said the magazine's initial we-apologize-but-we-stand-by-the-story statement was too wishy-washy. "They tap-danced," he said. "They should have immediately bit the bullet and admitted they were wrong. There was no middle ground here."

A friend, who is CEO of a Bay Area startup, once said: "When you have to eat shit, don't nibble." Good advice for journalistic error-makers of the future.

Play with Fire, Get Burned: As I've said, I'm not against use of anonymous sources, but I believe stories should not be based on a single nor should anonymity be granted with the routine disregard that it is these days, especially in Washington. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post speaks in a similar vein in this Times' profile of Michael Issikof, the well-regarded reporter who wrote the Newsweek item.

"It's hardly surprising that Mike would write a controversial story based on an anonymous source," Mr. Kurtz added. "Sometimes that is the only way to get at sensitive or classified information. But when you live by unnamed sources, you can also get burned badly when the source is wrong." (Emphasis added.)

Comments and Criticism: My Newsweek post [Read: Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.] drew a fair amount of response, including:

 Mark Trahant of the Seattle P-I says my call for context in reporting isn't new, that it dates from the Hutchins Commission 58 years ago, but it is "essential now."

By the way the Hutchins Commission recommendations for journalistic standards remain particularly relevant today. They are:

 A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning.
 A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
 The projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in society.
 The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.
 Full access to the day's intelligence.

 Skimble says the news media is more upset about a press brouhaha than the about the government detention policies that led to the reporting in the first place. CJR Daily echoes that sentiment, saying "the press has largely ceded control of the story to the White House."

 Will Bunch, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, says in his blog the real problem is - me. He labels me "a poster boy for everything that is wrong with American journalism" because, to paraphrase, I argue that context is a better standard for journalists than scoops. Bunch points out, rightly, the need for investigative journalism, the powerful role of whistleblowers and the seriousness of the prisoner abuse done by the U.S. government to war on terrorism detainees. Regardless of Bunch's personal opinion of me ("risibly pompous"), we don't disagree about those issues. We part ways on the blanket defense of techniques like the routine use anonymous sources that contribute to further public confusion about and negativity toward journalism.

(Will: I have written for a couple of years that only the type of serious, deep and, yes, contextual reporting you mention above can help journalists distinguish themselves from the cacophonous mess that is modern media. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.] I wrote it a couple of years ago and my thinking has changed somewhat, but the last graf still summarizes my core belief.)

I am sorry for the folks at Newsweek caught in this miss, but the magazine's misfortune can be turned to journalism's benefit by contributing to a re-examination of our values and causing us to ask questions like this one posed in a Wall Street Journal article by Time White House correspondent John Dickerson: "Is it better to have a piece with no anonymous sourcing that gets you five feet down the road? Or one using anonymous sourcing that gets you 10 feet down the road, that tells you more?"

The Prime Directive: To me the whole argument over anonymous sources is condensed in these comments made by Mark Whitaker and Jeff Jarvis on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer.

Whitaker answers the question, do you now know whether or not the event involving the Quran happened or not?:

"We have -- we are not in a position to know that."

Later, Jarvis replies to a question about the overuse of anonymous sources:

"What is our prime directive in journalism? It is to tell the truth that we know. And in this case the editor just said that he had only one source; there were no direct witnesses; there were other problems. And what was the imperative to tell the story even if we weren't sure of it as journalists?" (Emphasis added.)

Our job is "to tell the truth that we know," not what we think we know, not what we can't back up because we can't hold a source to it when the story gets hot (as investigative pieces do), not the truth according to someone who's selling us his version of it for partisan reasons. That's not so hard, is it? To just print what we know to be true.

Will Bunch ended his dressing down of me by stating: "We prefer to go down fighting." Me, too. But if we are going down, I prefer to go down fighting with the truth.

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 18, 2005 01:23 PM

Check out the Oregonian's great editorial today slamming the military in Abu Grahib in their "defense" of lows. I have the whole editorial posted on my site, and it is available on the Oregonian's site. What is so hard about aknowledging the severity of the mistake, studying the causes, correcting procedures, and holding people the press was demanding in the prison story? Double standards anyone?

Posted by: Major Mike on May 18, 2005 01:39 PM

Tim, something I neglected to say regarding the last post: I thought that the Newsweek story was a bad illustration of your good thesis, namely that scoops and exclusives have become an obsession.

Proportionality has to be factored into the analysis. A Persicope item is not the same as a touted "exclusive" multispread cover story. If Newsweek had promoted the story that way, your point would have been made.

Conversely, Iraq is the Bush administration's version of a cover story -- the issue it was willing to stake its existence on. The fact that it isn't going as well as hoped leads them to politicize the purported naysayers -- the Dan Rathers and Newsweeks who can get 10% of the details wrong but 90% of the essence of the story right.

Of course you're right about going down fighting with the truth. But the political distortion of your role -- you, collective journalists -- may hasten the fact that you simply go down.

Ask Dan Rather.

Posted by: skimble on May 18, 2005 05:56 PM

The Hutchins Commission was a big deal and had some good things to say, but be careful of any body that says the press has mission x and if it doesn't do it the government should move in an make sure they do.

The Socially Responsible Press theory has always been a bit worrisome to those who see it as an invitation to government control of the media.

Posted by: John Meunier on May 18, 2005 09:42 PM

Aw, come on. The priciples you state are just fine. But they only apply when the information presented is contrary to the Bush/GOP line. Publish the most outrageous outright lies in favor of the administration and you will get a pat on the head.

Also reading the previous post "Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toitet" makes me think your reactions are not very balanced. They made a mistake within the article, but the entire article was not wrong. They should admit the mistake and make clear what was correct and what wasn't. If this type of mistake had been 'in favor' of the administration we wouldn't even be having this discussion. The only way Newsweek flushed their credibility down the toiled (further than it already was) is by completely caving in. Instead of standing up for themselves they helped this administration pull the noose tighter around the media in general and themselves in particular.

I am part of the public and definitely part of the public that distrusts the media. But I don't think you understand, at least in my case, where that distrust comes from.

Posted by: gail davis on May 21, 2005 06:39 AM
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