Archive for the “Bad journalism” Category
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.
, Gail Collins
, New York Times
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UPDATE Jan. 22, 2012
(Much of this article was originally published on Salon.com on January 8, 2011, and that article was modified from this section in Mediactive.).
Joe Paterno died. No, he didn’t. (Ultimately, yes he did.)
The false reports of his death are yet another case of shoot-first, aim-later journalism. It’s not a new phenomenon in the Digital Age, but the way news moves now makes it a more significant problem.
We need to wait for facts in fast-breaking news events; jumping to conclusions doesn’t help.
Think back just a year, to the memorable events in Tuscon, Arizona.
Like so many other people today, I’ve been following the news about horrific events in Tucson, Ariz., where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is one of a number of shooting victims. As I write this, it’s not known how many have died. And as I write this, news reports say that Giffords is in surgery, in critical condition.
The reports from traditional news organizations, amplified by Twitter, blogs and other Internet media, have been a parade of unclear information — just what we’ve come to expect in such situations. CNN’s headline now reads “Congresswoman Giffords shot” — with a sub-headline saying, “There are conflicting reports on whether she has died.” No kidding: One of those conflicting reports was CNN’s own report, citing an unnamed sources, that Giffords had died. (UPDATE: See Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of Big Media misstatements, from which I grabbed the above screenshot of NPR’s mis-reporting of Giffords’ condition.)
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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 17, 2010.
Survey: The public gets that most political ads are bogus, but people still believe things that are false
A new study about media misinformation and media users’ ignorance is only the latest wakeup call for anyone who worries that the American press has gone badly astray. From the summary of “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” comes this bottom line:
- The public is thoroughly cynical about political campaign advertising.
- Much of the public is misinformed about major issues.
- Fox News viewers are especially prone to believing things that are not true.
The report, from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to national affairs and the media. We have an information crisis. Influence peddlers and opinion launderers can now spend unlimited amounts of money, much of it raised from anonymous sources, to push political issues and candidates. A system that has absolutely no accountability is almost guaranteed to become a sewer, and this one certainly has.
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This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 13, 2010.
Unfortunately, they’re not American journalists
It’s heartening to see some journalists standing up for principle in the WikiLeaks affair. A case in point is this letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It begins:
The leaking of 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables is the most astonishing leak of official information in recent history, and its full implications are yet to emerge. But some things are clear. In essence, WikiLeaks, an organisation that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret.
In this case, WikiLeaks, founded by Australian Julian Assange, worked with five major newspapers around the world, which published and analysed the embassy cables. Diplomatic correspondence relating to Australia has begun to be published here.
The volume of the leaks is unprecedented, yet the leaking and publication of diplomatic correspondence is not new. We, as editors and news directors of major media organisations, believe the reaction of the US and Australian governments to date has been deeply troubling. We will strongly resist any attempts to make the publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organisation in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.
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This article was originally published on Salon on October 29, 2010.
When the White House invited some progressive bloggers to interview President Obama this week, a few days before the elections, the motive was surely to toss a bone to what Howard Dean once called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” I’m sure the administration is delighted with the way the event turned out, because while the bloggers pushed the president (here’s a transcript) a teeny bit on a few hot-button issues, they didn’t come close to confronting him on the broken promises that in the end will mean the most.
I’m talking about civil liberties, where Obama’s record is as bad in most ways as his predecessor’s. In case after case, as Glenn Greenwald and a few others have painstakingly documented, this administration has claimed unprecedented presidential powers, including the right to order the assassination of U.S. citizens with no due process. Meanwhile, Obama has continued and even extended the Bush-era cult of secrecy in key ways.
Only on gays in the military and same-sex marriage did the progressive bloggers push the president in this area. I’d expected more. True, the session wasn’t all that long, but there’s nothing more fundamental to our future than basic liberties, without which there is no republic.
I also expected more from Jon Stewart, who went AWOL on civil liberties when he interviewed Obama this week on “The Daily Show.” In June, Stewart eviscerated the president’s record in an eight-minute tirade. This week, nada. The fact is that Stewart was more ferocious on an ongoing basis when Bush was shredding the Constitution.
I’ve long since given up on congressional Democrats, whose standard spinelessness has grown even more pronounced during this administration. Remember when Patrick Leahy, the Vermont senator, made fierce pronouncements on how badly Bush was wounding our liberties? He’s become Obama’s puppy dog.
And the Washington press corps, so addicted to being close to power and passionate about trivialities? The question answers itself.
But if so-called progressives won’t push Obama to justify his beyond-abysmal record on civil liberties, who will?
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This article was originally published on Salon on August 16, 2010.
HP has a lot more questions to answer about CEO Mark Hurd’s mysterious departure
I have no idea whether the Wall Street Journal’s lurid story today about Mark Hurd’s forced departure from Hewlett Packard is believable. It’s impossible to judge because the paper relies so thoroughly on unnamed sources who are said to be, in the latest journo-lingo that purports to explain a grant of anonymity, “familiar with the situation.”
But what we do know is this: HP hasn’t come close to making sense about Hurd’s resignation, which was demanded by the board several weeks ago. There’s clearly a scandal, but what is it, exactly?
When a journalist as smart as the New York Times’ Joe Nocera is reduced to sheer speculation — he believes the board canned Hurd essentially because they and the employees had come to despise the guy — you know that the situation has spun wildly out of bounds.
I don’t buy Nocera’s take for one main reason. The board totally enabled Hurd to become one of the greedier and nastier CEOs of recent times. He is clearly a talented man, but his record at HP wasn’t entirely the triumph that his acolytes in the business press trumpted. His tenure featuredmega-slashing of people, and mega-enriching of himself and his insider cronies.
I’m as lost as everyone else when it comes to understanding precisely what, if anything, transpired between Hurd and Jodie Fisher. She’s the actor who was, apparently, being paid $5,000 a pop to be a hostess at HP events.
I say “apparently” because, like everyone else except the insiders who do know, I’m not sure what happened. HP’s stonewalling on just about everything has been epic, and in particular the company hasn’t come close to clean about the precise nature of their relationship.
One question that has a plain answer is this one: What happened to the HP of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the men who built a company that held human beings — and their humanity and communities — as essential to the mission as anything the people created?
What happened was this: It was destroyed by market and political conditions that encouraged boards and CEOs to exemplify the worst of American capitalism.
HP’s board has dug itself a deep hole, and it keeps digging. I take some comfort in knowing that Marc Andreessen is becoming a more visible board member, because I have trouble believing he’s comfortable with what’s going on at HP. I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but I find myself hoping he’s leading a board uprising. Someone needs to do it. Quickly.
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This article was originally published on Salon on August 10, 2010.
Without evidence, the “kidnapping” tale is an example of what media consumers should automatically disbelieve
So Rand Paul felt obliged to deny an accusation that he kidnapped a Baylor University swim teammate and forced her to smoke dope.
I believe him. I believed him before he said he didn’t do it. (Update: And it turns out that no such thing happened, even according to the still-anonymous source for this story. See update below.)
Why? Because the accusation is about something that allegedly happened some 27 years ago, and his accuser is staying anonymous. Sadly, GQ magazine — which published an otherwise interesting (and better-sourced) account of Paul’s, uh, socially active college years — went with this tale.
Even more sadly, the state of American media is such that the accusation has made its way into the mainstream. Bloggers and traditional journalists alike have quoted the GQ piece and given it credence it absolutely hasn’t earned. Anonymous sources deserve no credibility unless they provide evidence.
I hope Paul loses in November, because I find his politics odious in many ways. But I hope this story doesn’t sway anyone.
UPDATE: So, according to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, the accuser, who still won’t give her name, says the GQ piece was wrong in some vital ways. Namely, it wasn’t a forced abduction; she was essentially role-playing; no one forced her to take drugs; and the people involved were friends. In other words, however weird (and there’s definitely some odd behavior here) the situation may have been, it wascollege party-style weirdness, and nothing resembling the alleged criminality we’ve been hearing about.
Several comments have raised the appropriate question of whether what happened in college almost three decades ago is relevant to someone’s fitness for office today. A kidnapping, if it happened, would be relevant, no doubt. It didn’t happen.
And the other hijinks the GQ story discusses, as well as the anonymous woman’s latest account (the truth of which I still don’t take for granted)? Not relevant in the slightest, at least in any sense of disqualifying someone for public office, given how long ago this was and how we all change as we get older. If anything — given that practically everyone I liked in college was “lewd, crude and grossly sacreligious” (characteristics attributed to the group he apparently joined at Baylor) — they tend to make Paul sound more interesting.
Finally, some of the comments on this item reflect a disturbing reality. Many folks want to believe the worst about Paul, and don’t care if there’s any real evidence. I hope they’ll consider how they’d feel if someone made this kind of accusation against them or someone they like.
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This article was originally published on Salon on July 29, 2010.
Andrew Breitbart should be held accountable for his deceptions, but is there a libel case here?
This is no surprise: Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced out in the wake of false claims that racist views affected her work, says she’ll sue Andrew Breitbart for his bogus “journalism” about her. But are the courts the best place to hold him accountable for his sleaze?
I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to predict the outcome of any Sherrod libel claim. A court — and Sherrod herself — would have a number of issues to consider, however.
One is whether Sherrod was a public official or public figure at the time when Breitbart posted his now-infamous Web article featuring an excerpt from a video that purported to show her, an African-American, acknowledging racial bias against white farmers and then acting on it to their detriment. (Your town’s mayor is a public official; Lindsay Lohan is a public figure. Which makes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both, I suppose.)
Public officials and public figures have higher hurdles in libel cases, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that required a showing of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the false statement. Essentially, malice means that the defamatory material was published with the knowledge that it was false, or that the publisher showed “reckless disregard” for the truth. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s page on defamation law for more detail.)
Breitbart has claimed he didn’t know the video was a hack job — purporting to show racism when in fact her point, made clear in the context of the full recording, was that the issue was class, not race and that she did her best to help the farmers. If he didn’t know, did he try to find out? Would that matter in a libel case?
Even if he’s telling the truth about not knowing the true nature of the video, and even if that is enough to make the commentary non-libelous, Breitbart may have another problem: his bogus “correction” of the original. Here’s the correction:
While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.
As friend and colleague Scott Rosenberg has pointed out, this is not much better than the original.
A genuine correction, Scott writes, would read something like this:
Our original story was wrong. We quoted Sherrod to suggest that she drove an old white couple off their farm because she was a racist. In fact, she helped that couple hold onto their farm and used the tale to argue against racism.
So, even if the original wasn’t libelous under the current public-figure standard, is Breitbart’s refusal to admit he was wrong about so much — in the face of utterly clear evidence — legally actionable? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out the answer.
David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’sBerkman Center for Internet & Society (I co-founded the project when I was a fellow at the center several years ago), says the correction “appears to give her a stronger case on the question of actual malice” than the original posting — again assuming Breitbart wasn’t complicit in the video’s editing. These cases depend on state of mind, he says, but it seems clear that Breitbart knew at the time he posted the correction what was in the full video.
Some other questions, legal and otherwise, that may come up include:
- Will California’s shield law let Breitbart keep the name of his source confidential?
- Should anonymous sources be permitted to launder their defamations through others? (I’ll be coming back to this in another posting.)
- Was Breitbart doing journalism, however crappy it may have been?
- Has Sherrod ever said or done anything that could fairly be characterized as having racist intent, regardless of what happened in this case?
If Sherrod proceeds with this case, her adult life will almost certainly be put under a microscope — this one with a court order behind it in discovery proceedings — where Breitbart’s lawyers look for even a hint that she’s the kind of person Breitbart was claiming in the first place. Can anyone whose father was lynched by white racists not have had such things to say, ever? My sympathies lie strongly with Sherrod, and I’d hope a jury’s would as well, but I wonder if she’s ready for the legal attack dogs who may demonstrate even less honor, if that’s possible, than Breitbart.
David Ardia notes that individuals seeking libel damages, even when totally justified, often don’t get the results they expect in an often vicious process. In fact, he tells me, it’s fairly rare to get anything close to full satisfaction.
There’s one more question, and I still think it’s the most important one.
- Why should anyone believe anything Breitbart says at this point?
The answer, of course, is that Breitbart has no credibility whatever among those who count honor and fairness as an element of journalism. He could regain some with a forthright admission of what he did, but at this point that looks unlikely.
Sadly, he still has a substantial audience. I hope anyone reading this is not among its members.
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This article was originally published on Salon on July 21, 2010.
When the Andrew Breitbarts of the world can spread lies with lightning speed, knee-jerk reactions are dangerous
If you’re one of the people who believed, even for a minute, that former U.S. Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod misused her government position in racist ways, you have plenty of company — and you may also believe you have a plausible excuse. After all, you were told by Big Media, the Obama administration and the NAACP that it was true.
Except, as we’ve all learned, it wasn’t true. It was a brazen lie, pushed initially by the infamous Andrew Breitbart and his allies at Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, and given credence via the cravenness of other media organizations, Obama’s secretary of agriculture and America’s most prominent civil rights organization.
No surprise that Fox and others leaped aboard the Breitbart wagon: Here was “news” that A) fit their worldview and B) came with video. So what if the video was incomplete. Don’t look for even a shred of genuine remorse, ever.
(UPDATE: Looks like I spoke too soon on that; watching Fox this evening, I heard some commentators offering sound cautions about leaping to conclusions — and Bill O’Reilly has forthrightly apologized, according to the Washington Post. Let’s welcome these thoughts and hope the Fox audience pays attention. Further update: Josh Marshall, ina scathing piece on the media’s failure in this case, calls the Post story a whitewash.)
The other players named above, who credulously endorsed the lie, should be ashamed. Afraid that they might be seen as giving cover to a black person with racist thoughts, they leaped on the discredited “evidence.” At least the NAACP apologized for its role in the smear. (UPDATE: And, as we’ve all heard now, so has the administration.)
But the misdeeds by others don’t let the rest of us off the hook. And if this isn’t a teaching moment about media, politics and our twitchy culture, nothing is.
I’m lucky, in a way. I first heard about the story and Breitbart’s role in it at the same time. So I instantly had doubts.
I didn’t doubt that an African-American could express racist ideas. What I doubted was that Breitbart could be taken at face value. His record was evidence, beyond my reasonable suspicion from my perspective, that the only smart way to approach his work is to wait for absolute proof — and not trust anything until seeing it. And his sulphuric spin of the current situation is beyond disgusting.
In our evolving media ecosystem, we should be skeptical of everything we read, see or hear — online and in traditional media. But we should not be equally skeptical of everything. We need to find sources we trust (more than not) and recognize that even they will make mistakes.
This means, in particular, that we all need to take a deep breath before making knee-jerk assumptions, or at least before we act on them. The consequences of acting before verifying can be minor, or they can be ugly — as in Sherrod’s blatantly unfair forced resignation.
I heard some regret on CNN last night for its role in spreading the lies, and hope other big-media organizations are doing the same. That’s not the real test, however. What they do in the future is the test, and it’s an easy one: The next time you see a Breitbart-pushed story moved forward by a serious journalism organization that hasn’t checked out the facts in every particular, you’ll know that organization has failed.
Time for an office pool on which one will fail first. I can all but guarantee, with sadness, that someone in the office will win.
(Update also reflects that Fox was hardly the only conservative media outlets to find this story worth covering.)
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