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A New York Times editorial about newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan gets tough on Brennan and his allies regarding torture:

(A)t his Senate confirmation hearing in February, he appeared to be one of the few people (apart from maybe Dick Cheney and some other die-hard right-wingers) who thinks there is some doubt still about whether the Bush administration tortured prisoners, hid its actions from Congress and misled everyone about whether coerced testimony provided valuable intelligence.

The editorial writer might have added another large group of quasi-deniers to this list: the news media, including the New York Times’ own news pages, which for years have refused to call torture what it is.

In fact, the editorial links to an article the Times ran a day earlier. This piece, by Scott Shane, discussed a Senate report about U.S. practices. But while it edged closer to honesty than what we’ve seen before, Shane and his editors went into all kinds of contortions to avoid a simple, declarative statement on the topic. Look at the language.

  • “…so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding…”
  • “…Democratic critics of what they call a morally and practically disastrous experiment in torture…”
  • “…Republican defenders who say the report is biased and fault President Obama for banning coercive interrogations…”
  • “…brutal interrogations…”
  • “…enhanced interrogation techniques…”
  • and so on.

At one point, the article  comes close to telling the literal truth, when it calls the Senate report

by far the most thorough examination of how the United States came to use nudity, cold, sleep deprivation, stress positions, wall-slamming and waterboarding, methods it had long condemned as abuse or torture.

The Times news pages have demonstrated utter  journalistic cowardice for years on this topic. After 9/11, when the Bush administration insisted that it was employing “harsh interrogation techniques,” the Times joined the vast majority of major American news organizations that adopted this Orwellian language to describe techniques that are, in fact, torture by any rational definition — and which the U.S. has officially prosecuted as torture when used by others.

The Times’ behavior in this regard has been particularly reprehensible given the feeble excuse offered by the paper after a Kennedy School study made clear news organizations’ hypocrisy. The newspaper said it would be “taking sides” to use the correct language, unaware that channeling Orwell was itself taking sides.

The Times editorial page found its spine a while back. As the Brennan editorial shows, the editorial writers are allowed to call torture what it is, with none of the evasions the news page editors have insisted on for all these years.

As the Shane story this week makes apparent, the news sections staff members are beginning to recover their collective spine. His piece comes after a December article about Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that all but endorsed torture, when the Times referred to “CIA torture” in the headline, though the story itself bent over backwards not to follow suit in a direct way.

Someday the New York Times — America’s best and most important newspaper — will re-declare independence from whatever fear or calculation led it to be so cowardly for so long. May that day come sooner than later.

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The Washington Post says it’s ending the ombudsman’s job, formerly occupied by an independent full-time person, and replacing it with a “reader representative” post, staffed from inside the newspaper and reporting to the editor of the editorial pages. Publisher Katherine Weymouth writes, in part:

The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.

Beginning Monday, you may send questions or complaints to readers@washpost.com. We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles.

In short, while we are not filling a position that was created decades ago for a different era, we remain faithful to the mission. We know that you, our readers, will hold us to that, as you should.

Faithful to the mission? Really?

First, an employee won’t be independent in any way that matters.

Second, the editorial pages of the Post have distinguished themselves — the op-ed columns in particular — as a bastion of mediocrity in recent years. The editor, who has no influence in the newsroom anyway, is hardly the right person to put in charge of this post — and in my own experience he’s been unwilling to correct even this blatant error in a Post editorial.

Finally, it’s not enough to say that media inside and outside the paper will hold it accountable if the organization isn’t really interested in being accountable.

(By the way, I can agree with Weymouth on at least this: The ombudsman’s traditional role makes no sense in a digital world. What does? Here’s what I told the New York Times, at the paper’s request, when it was considering how to move ahead imagining in this role.)

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This package of files (Mediactive Lesson Plans — a zip archive of about 18MB) is for teachers who want to help their students become more media literate in this digital age.

The package includes:

  • Lesson plan documents (Word format)
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • WordPress files that let you easily create a WordPress.com site based on Mediactive. (Here’s a screenshot of what you’ll see after importing the file into a new WordPress install:
  • mediactive wordpress installation

The lesson-plan project was created by Kristy Roschke, a former high-school teacher who’s now getting her PhD at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; and Josh Sprague, who came up with the idea of creating a WordPress version. Huge thanks to both of them!

I hope you’ll find these useful — and that your students will, too. And please let us know how we can improve these teaching aids.

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Journalism you simply aren’t seeing in the traditional media anymore: Bill McKibben’s “Global Warmings Terrifying New Math” is telling truth to a society that doesn’t want to hear it. Our grandchildren will loathe us for this and other thefts from their future, and they will be right.

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In a clear example of the asymmetry of power that now exists between Facebook and just about everyone else on the Web, check out the way The New York Times has handed a huge gift to the social networking giant: The Times is requiring that anyone who wants to be a “verified commenter” — and with that a higher form of commenting privileges — must a) have a Facebook account; and b) use that account for identity verification.

This is vastly, vastly better for Facebook than the Times. Given Facebook’s tendency to track what people do online whenever possible — something you can take for granted in this case, given the attractive (for marketers) demographics of Times readers — the company will gain deep insights into what these people read and buy.

What does the Times get? A bit of extra convenience, nothing more.

News organizations that use Facebook for login to comments and other features are unbelievably short-sighted. Which, of course, is absolutely nothing new.

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I published Mediactive a little over a year ago. The project, including the sale of publication rights in Japan, is in the black financially. And I’m ready to try some experiments as I move toward version 2 of the book and website.

Barry Eisler, who published his latest thriller, The Detachment (highly recommended) with Amazon, suggested I try this: Cut the price, temporarily, to 99 cents — and watch what happens. In his case, the book rocketed up to the top of the Kindle sales rankings.

So I’ve done that. For a limited time, the Kindle version of Mediactive is just $0.99. Obviously I’m not going to move to the top sales spot. But I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.


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It’s time to change the role of the news ombudsman. Two new posts/columns from the people who are best known in this job today prove it.

The most recent was a head-scratching query from the New York Times’ Public Editor (aka ombudsman), Art Brisbane — asking whether the Times should be telling its readers when sources don’t tell the truth. Brisbane, a friend, has taken a lot of heat for this, and I’m one of the people who’s disappointed that he would even ask this question. (He later said people misinterpreted what he was asking — and he’s not totally unreasonable about this — but from my perspective he invited the misinterpretation. Sorry, Art…)

His post followed by days an even odder piece from the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, who wondered if the organization was innovating too rapidly. Answer: Of course not; one of the Post’s biggest problems is that it’s not innovating fast enough.

These pieces highlighted how strange the ombudsman’s job has become, and why I think it needs to be updated in this networked age. Here’s how I’d change it, and I hope both of these men will consider at least adding some of these ideas to their portfolio. There would be two main approaches: aggregation and conversation.

The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls. I would stop writing my own critiques, and then:

  • Make it a core part of my role to aggregate every responsible critique of the organization’s work that I could find;
  • Call bullshit when the critics are wrong; and thank them when they are right;
  • Encourage the best critics cross-post on my page.
  • Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these debates. UPDATE: Brisbane got a reply from the Times’ editor, Jill Abramson, and replied to that; good to see…
  • Ask readers to flag mistakes of fact and analysis, and put the corrections (easier with facts) into a database with or without the cooperation of the newsroom
  • Create a robust, open forum about the organization’s work.

In other words, I’d stop trying to be the go-between and overseer of what matters in the effort to bring media criticism inside the organization. It’s obvious — look at how the NY Times buries Brisbane’s work on its website; you can barely find it without a search — that the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.

They have a great role to play, in fact. But they should use the ample resources of the blogosphere, coverage by other news orgs (which occasionally, though not nearly often enough), and social media to bring attention to the paper or whatever kind of organization they are.

To have someone in this role implies a news organization that isn’t afraid of its own shadow — where people welcome criticism rather than dreading it. I hope some forward-looking editor/publisher does this. John Paton comes to mind.

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The New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some sound advice in her column about the latest presidential campaign: “Ignore Iowa.” She writes:

Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous.

I tend to agree with Collins’ general point. The caucuses are unrepresentative, quirky and even idiotic. What disappoints me about her column, however, is the utter lack of self-awareness it demonstrates.

On the Times’ Politics web page, an aggregation of articles from the past several days (but mostly current stories), you will find no fewer than seven pieces from Iowa. See where I’m going? Of course you do: Collins is dissing the event that her own newspaper has helped make such a national production.

The column Collins could have written would have made all of the good points of the original. It then would have gone one step further: to urge her bosses and colleagues to stop being among the chief promoters of the absurdity.

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My friend (and editor of Mediactive) Tom Stites has written a three-part series of postings for Nieman Lab, the increasingly excellent site that scopes out the latest in journalism thinking (and doing). These posts are about business models for our future sources of information. In order:

Part 1, a survey of the debris-strewn digital and print journalism landscape.

Part 2, news deserts as a frame to elevate the issue of how weakening journalism weakens democracy.

Part 3, why it’s time to test co-op business models.

The third installment is closest to Tom’s current work: the Banyan Project (I’m an advisor), a news cooperative that I believe is one of the most interesting models we’ve seen in a long time. When you finish reading his terrific pieces at Nieman Lab, take a look at the Banyan site, too. If you care about the future of community information, this is important stuff.

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As a diehard believer in the value of what good newspapers can bring to communities, I’m pleased that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has purchased its “hometown” newspaper. I very much doubt that this corporate owner, unlike many others, will manage the newspapers in ways mostly or solely designed to extract money from the community while providing the least amount of useful journalism.

Berkshire Hathaway already owns the Buffalo News, and is a major shareholder in the Washington Post Co. But Buffett has long been on the record as, to put it mildly, a newspaper-industry pessimist. He called this new purchase “a reasonable investment” — hardly the language he’s used with other deals.

So as a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway, I’m a bit baffled. And for the first time since I bought this stock back in the 1980s, I have the feeling that Buffett — who has said again and again that he would treat his shareholders like the co-owners of the company that they are — has arranged for Berkshire to buy something for his own personal reasons, rather than his typically sterling business strategy for the parent company. 

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve reached a bottom for newspapers and there’s happier times ahead. But I’ve seen nothing to suggest a serious long-term value proposition for newspapers like the Omaha World-Herald, especially ones run in traditional ways.

I’m fairly sure this is more about Buffet’s belief that quality newspapers matter and that his hometown needs one — I applaud that sentiment — or, as a source in the Bloomberg article suggests, ensuring a positive first draft of history for Buffett and his family. If either or both of those motives is true, Buffett should have spent his own money, not Berkshire’s.

The World-Herald purchase is a rounding error on Berkshire Hathaway’s balance sheet. But it’s still real money.

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