Archive for the “Ethics” Category

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.

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

UPDATED

(Note: My original title for this post was much harsher on the Post and its guidelines than it should have been, and did not reflect what I wrote below. That’s regrettable and I apologize for it.)

The Washington Post’s newly public “Guidelines for Digital Publishing” are more than 5,200 words long. That’s about 5,100 words too many.

This is not an attack on what the Post, which labored for many months before giving birth to this behemoth, has put together. The guidelines are, in fact, an interesting examination of how technology’s collision with journalism has forced journalists to rethink what they do and how they do it. The document offers examples that would be excellent teaching tools for journalism students and working journalists alike — and will be interesting reading for a public that has little understanding of what goes into journalism or how organizations consider, often deeply, the consequences of their deadline-driven decisions.

But the document, a copy of which I received before it was made public, starts off with an admonition that makes the entire exercise a bit weird:

These guidelines for digital publishing are meant to guide Washington Post journalism as we deliver news and information in a rapidly changing media environment. We consider these guidelines to be a “living document” that we will continually modify and update based on feedback from our journalists, from our readers, and from our perceptions of our changing needs.These guidelines supplement but do not supplant the established principles that govern our print publications in the Post stylebook. Because the circumstances under which information is obtained and reported vary widely from one case to the next, these guidelines should not be understood as establishing hard and fast rules or as covering every situation that might arise. You should consult with an editor if you have a question about how these guidelines should be applied in specific circumstances.

Boiled down, this seems to say: “The guidelines don’t actually mean too much, because when it comes to difficult situations we’ll just make case-by-case decisions.”

Still, it’s progress. The meat of the guidelines, reflecting the Post’s remarkably rigid view of its world, won’t surprise. The paper is essentially telling its journalists to remain professional even as they attempt to take best advantage of the new tools now available to us all in the social media era. Some of the examples tell me the newspaper is overly cautious, but again that’s not shocking given the organization and its longtime style.

I’ve had a copy of this document for months, and held up posting about it after the newspaper said it was being revised. The revisions are minor. (One absolutely hilarious change — part of a discussion of “Taste/Tone” — modifies the word “shit” to “s–t.” Really.)

The “living document” language (new in the final draft) is intriguing, and it suggests a strategy the Post might have used to develop its guidelines: It might have posted an early draft online, and then invited its readers and others who care about the newspaper and journalism to offer their own ideas. Instead, of course, the organization kept its own counsel.

The Post could do better, now that the document is in the public sphere, by taking seriously what it says it wants from the rest of us. Not only should the paper genuinely invite feedback and suggestions, but all subsequent changes should be easy to see and understand, annotated and explained as part of a longer conversation we all can have about the topics raised here.

In the end, I can’t help contrasting the Post’s endless semi-rules with the ones posted by John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Co., a small newspaper chain that may be doing more to adapt to the new world than any other traditional media company. (Paton can do this, in part, because he took over a company coming out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which gave him some running room to experiment in ways the Post undoubtedly can’t even imagine.) Here’s what Paton wrote on his blog:

Some of you have asked what are JRC’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media. To keep it simple I have reduced them to three:

1.

2.

3.

Had I been in charge of the Post’s rules, I would have (sort of) split the difference. I’d have written:

1. Be human.

2. Be honorable.

3. Don’t embarrass the company.

Then, I’d have added: “We will make some mistakes, and we’ll be honest about them and correct them. But we’ll keep working on this, because we are part of a conversation that includes everyone — and, besides, we have no alternative.”

Tags: ,

Comments 1 Comment »

The Economist asked me (part of its “future of news” series) what I thought the impact of the News Corp. voicemail hacking case would be. The link goes to my reply, which I’m cross-posting it here (and on Google+):

It is clear that the Murdochs’ appearance before the parliamentary committee did not begin to save them from further trouble. How far and high the scandal will go remains to be seen. For the news business, the impact could in the end be useful—provided, of course, that governments do not use this scandal as an excuse to clamp down on the proper role of the press.

The case could be useful for several reasons: first, it might lead tabloid journalists to behave a little bit more like human beings and a little bit less like jackals. Tabloid journalism can be excellent, when it is focused on genuine wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. The private lives of these people are rarely relevant, but actions that affect people outside their families and social circles are entirely relevant.

Second, it might prompt all journalists to do a bit of soul-searching about the bargains we make with our sources. Reporters at the best organisations may not pay the police, but they have tacit arrangements, including the reality that few journalists will probe as hard at the motives or actions of their best sources as they do at the targets of their stories. Careers are enhanced by favourable coverage; this may not be payoff (and it may not even strike the journalist as a payment of any sort) but there is a connection.

Third, and most important (if least likely), it might lead the consumers of the tabloid press—this particularly applies to television and talk radio as well as newspapers and magazines—to consider their own role in the sleaze that so often passes for journalism. So many people now say they are appalled by the tabloid press and the doings in London, yet they still click on stories that give details of the latest celebrity scandal or news about the warped among us. These consumers of sleaze are the reason the Murdochs and their fellow bottom-feeders do what they do, and why they’ve found it so profitable. I hope they’ll at least make that connection in the future.

We should all worry, however, that governments will seize on this particular case to further restrict journalists’ ability to do their work. On both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in much of the world, the wealthy and powerful and their patrons in government would like nothing better than to curb the press.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, among other Murdoch-controlled properties, has fretted loudly about the attacks on News Corporation since the scandal broke open. They claim the fierce criticism of their company threatens the freedom of the press itself. In fact, if this case does lead to further press restrictions that inhibit robust journalism, it will have been Murdoch and his cronies who caused the damage. That would be a shameful legacy.

Comments No Comments »

In the days ahead — and especially after New York prosecutors drop their increasingly pathetic case against former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as they surely will — you’ll see some media coverage of journalism’s role in this debacle. There will be a few notes about how everyone rushed to judgment.

But almost no one will be asking more basic questions about the way journalists go about their business in criminal cases. You will see little or no self-reflection about the way reporters work in concert with law enforcement in almost all such cases, in ways that are designed by the police and prosecutors to stack the deck against the accused.

It starts with the “perp walk” — the parading of the accused before cameras. Try this thought experiment. Imagine you’ve been arrested, and have spent a night in a filthy jail cell, getting maybe an hour of sleep in the clothes you were wearing the day before. Or, perhaps, you’ve been told to put on an orange jump suit that prisoners wear. Either way, now you’re shackled and frog-walked into a van that takes you to the courthouse. Then you’re manhandled out of the van and are frog-walked through a gauntlet of cameras and shouting reporters.

How do you imagine you’d look, whether or not you were innocent? You’d look guilty as hell, because the perp walk is designed to make you look guilty. (For more on perp walks, see this piece from the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins.)

The deck-stacking extends to the charges themselves. Charges are only accusations; they are not proof. Yet they are repeated verbatim by reporters in ways that make them sound like “this is what happened,” and putting “alleged” into the story doesn’t change that perception.

Then comes the tendency journalists to get on-the-record (can be published) material from people who refuse to attach their names to what they’re saying, often from law enforcement sources who are, again, working hard to ensure that any potential juror will assume guilt. I mentioned an example of this several weeks ago: a reprehensible story describing supposed details about what the alleged victim in the Strauss-Kahn case had told police and co-workers.

Look. I don’t know what happened in that hotel suite. Only two people know. One of them has an alleged record in France of being promiscuous and pushy with women (stories I tend to believe, in part because some of the women have gone public). The other, we have learned, has lied repeatedly to police and prosecutors, according to on-the-record statements from law enforcement people — though even now the anonymous sources continue to have a field day in supposedly responsible media outlets.

What’s blatantly obvious, based on what is known for sure, is that the woman is not a credible witness. Period. It is certainly possible that she was sexually assaulted in that suite. But “possible” is light-years away from the level of proof needed to send another person to jail for what would likely be the rest of his life.

What seems to have escaped most of the journalists covering this case, from the very beginning, is the same thing that the media ignore in almost all criminal cases: an actual presumption of innocence. If we believed in the presumption of innocence, we wouldn’t collaborate with the prosecutors and police on perp walks. We wouldn’t let ourselves be used to seed a presumption of guilt into the jury pool.

The defense you’ll hear is simple, and sounds compelling: The fact is that the most of the people arrested and prosecuted are in fact guilty. Law enforcement almost always operates in good faith, to get the bad guys.

But there are well-documented cases of bad faith. And even the best police and prosecutors make mistakes. That’s why a presumption of innocence is so essential — and why it’s shameful that journalists persist in mocking it.

Tags: ,

Comments 4 Comments »

I’m writing an occasional online column for the Guardian, one of the great English-language media organizations. The latest piece, “The Web’s Weakest Links,” implores creators of online content to link to original material, not the rewrites that have become so common by so-called “aggregators” that (in my view) do a disservice to everyone but themselves. Quoting myself (very briefly):

So, the next time you link to something, check it out a bit more. If it’s just a summary of someone else’s original reporting or analysis, take the extra few seconds to link to the original. Let’s all raise our linking standards, and give credit where it’s genuinely due.

 

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, has looked into the newspaper’s extremely questionable actions in a recent situation — withholding key facts from articles at the request of the Obama administration and then actively misleading readers — and concluded that the paper did the right thing. I could not disagree more.

Let me note here that I’ve known Brisbane for many years. We’ve been colleagues at several news companies, and he’s a friend. But I believe he got this one very wrong.

The case at hand: Raymond Davis, who either works for the CIA or has extremely close ties, shot and killed two people in Pakistan recently. (The Times says he’s a “private contractor” — read: mercenary — who provided security for CIA agents; the Guardian says he’s a CIA spy.)  The U.S. government persuaded the Times and several other news organizations to hold back on his affiliation/employment after the shootings, which have caused a huge uproar in Pakistan, a nation that has increasingly tense relations with America.

But the Times didn’t just withhold that information. It actively dissembled. As Brisbane writes:

For nearly two weeks, The Times tried to report on the Davis affair while sealing off the C.I.A connection. In practice, this meant its stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading. Here’s an example from an article on Feb. 11 that referred to a statement issued by the American government:

“The statement on Friday night said that Mr. Davis was assigned as an ‘administrative and technical’ member of the staff at the American Embassy in Islamabad. But his exact duties have not been explained, and the reason he was driving alone with a Glock handgun, a pocket telescope and GPS equipment has fueled speculation in the Pakistani news media.”

How can a news outlet stay credible when readers learn later that it has concealed what it knows?

The answer is it cannot. And, as Brisbane himself notes, what the Times did was more than simply conceal. When it reported that “Davis’ exact duties have not been explained,” it was, quite simply, being deceitful to its audience.

I appreciate that the newspaper was trying to do the right thing here. It wanted to help protect the life of someone who might be in serious jeopardy if it told the truth it knew. The editors believed they had two options only: Tell the full story (or as much as they actually knew), or deceive the readers by telling only part of it truthfully and using deliberately misleading language in places. I’d have some discomfort picking either option, though if those were genuinely the only two choices I’d have picked the first.

But there was a third option: Say nothing at all — pretend the situation doesn’t exist and write nothing about it. The Times makes daily decisions about what it considers newsworthy, not to mention what stories it feels it’s gathered enough information to tell in the first place.

The say-nothing option wouldn’t have been a lot more palatable; indeed, it would have made the paper look as if it didn’t have a clue about a major story, or, as people would have speculated, that it was not publishing anything for its own (probably political) reasons. But it would have been less dishonorable than the route the paper chose to travel.

Printing nothing would have been journalistic nonfeasance, what Webster describes as the “failure to do what ought to be done.” What the newspaper printed was, in my view, malfeasance — outright journalistic wrongdoing.

Comments No Comments »

We already know that Arianna Huffington is smart. She and her small team have built a media company from nothing in just a few years, and now they’re flipping it to AOL, where she’ll be content editor in chief. The price sounds bizarrely high to me at $315 million, but so do lots of prices these days in what looks like a new Internet bubble.

Others have commented at length on the synergy of the deal. If AOL is going after a link-driven community, the blend could work in the long run. The Huffington Post has been evolving from its origins, as the left-wing op-ed page of the Internet, into a blend of aggregation, curation, pandering — all of which have been done with some genuinely intriguing if not innovative technology initiatives — and some home-grown content. The first three of those are likely to be, in the end, much more important for the business than the original content.

AOL has been rolling the dice at an ever-more-frantic rate lately on digital content. The reported $25 million it paid for TechCrunch made sense to me, and I think it’s way too early to say, as many are doing, that the Patch local-news service is failing. But there’s a common thread in many of the content initiatives: paying low (or no) money to the people providing the content, and having lots and lots of it.

Indeed, the Huffington Post’s home-grown content, for the most part, has been especially notable for its low cost to Huffington: low as in free. Although some actual paid journalists work for the organization, her blogger network is an amazing achievement; she’s persuaded untold numbers of people to write for nothing, to have their names on the page as compensation for their labor. Exploitive? Sure, in a way, but let’s also recognize the fact that people want to put their stuff on the site. No one writes for the New York Times op-ed page for the money; it’s for the platform to spread ideas.

And, based on the email Huffington sent to her bloggers, that’s the model she plans to continue. Here’s part of that email:

Together, our companies will have a combined base of 117 million unique U.S. visitors a month — and 250 million around the world — so your posts will have an even bigger impact on the national and global conversation. That’s the only real change you’ll notice — more people reading what you wrote.

It’s hard to imagine something that sends a more dismissive message. Which is why I’m hoping that Huffington will recognize how this looks and then do the right thing: namely, cut a bunch of checks to a bunch of the most productive contributors on whose work she’s built a significant part of her new fortune. They’ve earned some of the spoils. I think Huffington is smart enough to know not just the PR value of doing this. And, and feel free to call me naive for saying this, I also think she’s wise enough to know why she should do it on more ethical grounds, too.

Comments 16 Comments »

This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 6, 2010.

Journalists should wake up and realize that the attacks on the whistle-blower are attacks on them, too

Journalists cover wars by not taking sides. But when the war is on free speech itself, neutrality is no longer an option.

The WikiLeaks releases are a pivotal moment in the future of journalism. They raise any number of ethical and legal issues for journalists, but one is becoming paramount.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments 1 Comment »

This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 29, 2010.

Among others: How secret are diplomatic cables when 3 million people have access to them?

UPDATED

Once again, WikiLeaks has thrown governments and journalists into a maelstrom of fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’ll be weeks, if not longer, before we know the full scope of the diplomatic cables, but a few things are already clear enough.

What we know is being covered relentlessly here and across the Web. It’s what we don’t know that I’d like to note. So, here are some questions, many of which prompted by tweets and commentary elsewhere, for the major players in this drama.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments No Comments »

This article was originally published on Salon on October 18, 2010.

It’s beginning to penetrate the public consciousness that the 2010 elections are being purchased, mostly for Republicans, by a shadowy group of wealthy cowards. These anonymous buyers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into attack ads, mostly against Democrats, via organizations that launder their money into an increasingly corrupt political system.

There’s not much anyone can do about it during this election cycle. The response time of the people being attacked has been slow, at best, while journalists have been in typical form, discovering the problem too late to matter. The campaign season is essentially over, and what was plainly going to be a big Republican gain could well become a rout, no small thanks to the opinion launderers and their paymasters.

But unless we want our nation to be entirely governed by puppets, on strings wielded by people who stay entirely in the shadows, we’ll need to find a way to put a hard stop to this — or force the anonymous cowards into the open where we can learn who’s doing the manipulating.

My short-term, personal response to the attack ads, and the one I hope you’re adopting (as I suggested several weeks ago) has been to treat them exactly the way I treat anonymous comments on news sites and blogs: Someone who is so cowardly that he attacks others anonymously doesn’t just deserve to be ignored; he invites active disbelief. Even the political organizations that do disclose their donors rarely do so in a timely way, so I’ve come to treat all attack ads as lies.

Maybe Congress will act, but probably not. The political class is most culpable in this growing offense against our republic’s bedrock, fair elections. A bill in Congress, called the DISCLOSE Act, has languisheddue to the opposition of Senate Republicans who say they’ll filibuster against it, and who have tacit collaboration from Democrats – always hypocritical on these issues, but never mind that — who never actually force Republicans to actually filibuster, that is, stand up and talk for hours or days on end.

Journalists, by and large, are nowhere near up to the task of sorting out truth from lies in this media avalanche, and they barely care enough even to attempt to learn who’s behind the onslaught. A few news organizations have devoted some resources to the issue during the past few weeks, such as the New York Times, NPR and Rachel Maddow’s teamat MSNBC. Naturally, there’s been near-silence from the media companies profiting the most from the lies, namely the local TV and radio stations that have been absolutely raking in cash this summer and fall.

The American public knows something is wrong. Several new polls showa deep unease with a system that allows anonymous but wealthy cowards to pollute the airwaves with their lies and deceptions. But if people don’t have a clear sense of how vast this pollution has become, it’s because they haven’t been given the data.

One way we could begin to get a grip on the size of the spending at local levels — apart from anecdotal guesswork — is to look at what broadcasters are raking in from the opinion launderers. Every local station is required by federal law to keep logs of political ad spending. NPR looked at stations in Pittsburgh last week, and in an unsurprising finding, reported major spending on behalf of Republicans by shadowy groups. From the show’s transcript:

PETER: So the groups are filing their paperwork with stations but they’re not taking it very seriously.

Some answer a few questions, most leave the important lines blank. It’s an indication that TV stations can’t act as a watchdog of these groups.

ANDREA: This is where the trail goes cold. We called some of the groups behind these ads. They either said they were busy, they’re complying with the law, or they didn’t call us back at all.

And they don’t have to. For most of these groups there’s almost nothing required in terms of donor disclosure. They can keep their funding sources comfortably hidden.

But from sifting through the public files at two Pittsburgh TV stations we did learn a few things.

PETER: We learned that these groups are spending amounts of money that were unimaginable just a few years ago. One group can easily spend $100,000 or more at one station, in a few weeks.

Multiply that by four or five local stations in each area, and five or six groups spending at that level, and the amount of money flowing from secret sources to fund attack ads across the nation is easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But how can we, as a nation, get the actual number? What we need is a compilation of every station’s logs. And while no single media organization could possibly do such a project on its own, and it’s obvious that local media outlets aren’t doing it themselves, there are ways to pull this data together — and the best way is to crowdsource it.

If I could be media czar for a day, I’d get every newspaper behind this project:

  • The first step would be, with the public’s help, to visit every station, get a copy of every log of political advertising, and then compile numbers at local, state and federal levels.
  • The next step would be to see who’s benefiting from the spending, i.e. who’s not being attacked, and disclose that.
  • Then, see if the spenders are following the law in how they describe what they’re doing with the money; as NPR observed, the gaps in the forms showed that the spenders were blatantly flouting even the minimal disclosure requirements.
  • Then get every media outlet that cared to trumpet the results for their own regions and the nation.

That’s the easy part, unfortunately. Learning how much is being spent, and on whose behalf, won’t uncover the names and businesses of the anonymous cowards who are pouring so much cash into buying a new Congress. But perhaps, just perhaps, wider understanding of the vastness of this enterprise would generate sufficient public outrage to force some changes later on.

It’s getting harder to be optimistic about our future. I fear that the corruption of the public sphere has become so overwhelming, and the public’s helpless acceptance such a dead weight for reform, that no amount of disclosure will help.

But if we don’t even try, we’re lost.

Comments No Comments »

Creative Commons License
Mediactive by Dan Gillmor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://mediactive.com/cc