Archive for the “Principles” Category

UPDATED

It’s been more than a week since I asked a number of news organizations, chiefly the New York Times, to answer a few questions about their relationships with Apple. Specifically, I asked the Times to discuss what has become at least the appearance of a conflict of interest: Apple’s incessant promotion of the newspaper in pictures of its new iPad and highlighting of the Times’ plans to make the iPad a key platform for the news organization’s journalism, combined with the paper’s relentlessly positive coverage of the device in news columns.

In addition, I asked the Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today — following up on a February posting when I asked why news organizations were running into the arms of a control-freakish company — to respond to a simple question: Can Apple unilaterally disable their iPad apps if Apple decides, for any reason, that it doesn’t like the content they’re distributing? Apple has done this with many other companies’ apps and holds absolute power over what appears and doesn’t appear via its app system.

Who responded? No one. Not even a “No comment.” This is disappointing if (sadly) usurprising, but in light of other news this week it’s downright wrong.

UPDATE: A Times PR person emailed, 11 days after I first contacted the company about this, that the paper is “not going to comment.” Still no word from the others or, more recently, the Washington Post.

Yesterday, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Laura McGann had a story that should give pause even to Apple’s biggest fanboys and girls inside the news industry. In a post entitled “Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize, but he can’t get his iPhone cartoon app past Apple’s satire police,” she wrote of the newly minted Pulitzer winner in the cartooning category:

In December, Apple rejected his iPhone app, NewsToons, because, as Apple put it, his satire ‘ridicules public figures,’ a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which bars any apps whose content in ‘Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.’

My disdain for Apple’s tactics grows with almost week — and I’ll be saying more about that in a separate posting — but Apple isn’t the issue here. This is about journalism integrity, and the absolute lack of transparency America’s top news organizations are demonstrating by blowing off a totally reasonable question that these news people refuse to raise in their own pages to any serious degree. (The Times’ refusal to discuss its wider relationship with Apple is even more discouraging, and I’m getting close to selling my small stock holding to demonstrate my disgust with an organization I once absolutely revered.)

I was glad to see Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum pursue this yesterday when he wrote, “It’s Time for the Press to Push Back Against Apple.” Will anyone? The early signs aren’t encouraging.

In a Tweet today, Publish2‘s Scott Karp asked, “Do you think news orgs should refuse to create apps for iPad/iPhone?” It’s the right question.

The answer is a qualified no. While I won’t personally want to participate as a journalist in an ecosystem where one company controls content in this way, I can understand why others might — but any self-respecting journalist would want to have absolute, in-writing guarantees that Apple could not in any way interfere with the journalism.

I see no sign of this. And I’m disgusted with journalists who participate in this system or ignore its implications, or both.

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UPDATED

Recent days have reminded me of the many traits Apple and the New York Times share. Both are the best at what they do in certain domains. Each is emphatically elitist, and, in varying ways, self-confident to the point of arrogance. Neither is very transparent (though at least the Times has its Public Editor).

The differences, of course, are profound. In particular, there’s the business trajectory: Apple has reinvented itself several times, and lately has gone from triumph to triumph as a profit-making company. The Times Co.’s record in this regard is deeply mixed: Reinvention has come mostly at the edges, and the business has been heading downhill.

The affinities between Apple and the Times came into sharper focus in the past several weeks, but in ways that have raised some difficult and as-yet unanswered questions. Some background:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Screen shot 2010-03-20 at 10.20.40 AM.pngPolitico, the website devoted to all things political, almost certainly got pwned by scam artists Friday when it posted an unverified memo — a probable hoax — about health care. It’s an embarrassment for journalists who fall for fakery, but these kinds of things do happen.

What doesn’t usually happen is how Politico dealt with its inadequate journalism. And the case brought back memories of another, more significant mess: the “Rathergate” affair of 2004; more on that below.

It’s obvious, if you read the non mea culpa posted by Political’s White House editor, Craig Gordon, that his organization didn’t check the memo’s authenticity before putting it online, and only pulled it down after Democrats complained. But instead simply apologizing forthrightly, he basically said a) Politico now couldn’t verify anything about the memo’s authenticity; b) but it seemed real (as if that’s an excuse; c) and besides, the Democrats were probably doing what the memo said they were doing anyway.

Then comes his conclusion, a howler for a journalist:

“In the end, POLITICO followed an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: when in doubt, leave it out. By day’s end, it was still impossible to tell exactly what’s the real story behind the memo. But in the next few months, when Democrats try to pass a multi-billion-dollar ‘doc fix,’ maybe that will shed a little light on the Democrats’ real intentions.”

Except that “leave it out” is not synonymous with “publish it and then take it down if we learn later that we can’t verify its authenticity” — or is this the news standard for news organizations boasting a co-founder who serves on the Pulitzer Prize governing board?

The standard Politico has applied here, is, of course, “truthiness”: Because they want it to be true, it’s close enough.

To be more fair to Politico than the publication may deserve, the memo seemed to many others like something some Democratic aide, somewhere in Washington, might have written, perhaps as a draft. This helps explain why so many journalists took the bait and became part of the vast spin machine that so defines our nation’s political press.

As Talking Points Memo’s Christina Bellantoni reports, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder had the honor to apologize for posting without checking. The Hill, a publication with apparently more traditional principles, got the memo but decided not to run it at all.

Remember, just a few years ago the journalism and political worlds went appropriately berserk when CBS’ 60 Minutes II team ran a story about George W. Bush’s “service” in the Air National Guard. The report was based, in part on memoranda that CBS not only couldn’t prove were authentic but which were at best highly questionable as to their authenticity. The journalism was awful; CBS and its people took a deserved hit to their reputations. Sadly — and I use that word partly because the journalists involved had long and outstanding records for doing great work — the people who made the mistakes held fast to the notion that they’d done nothing wrong.

It’s obvious, based on the verifiable record, that Bush got strings pulled to avoid Vietnam service and then all but ducked out on his duty. And it may turn out that some Democrat’s fingerprints are on the health care memo. In both cases, the journalism was lacking, and the journalists’ response even more so.

Politico is widely considered a new gold standard of political reporting. That worries me.

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Nora Young hosts CBC Radio’s “Spark” program, and we chatted the other day about Apple and its controlling ways.

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John Darnton is a good novelist, and was a superb journalist in a long career at the New York Times. Now he’s curator of the Polk Awards, one of only a couple of journalism prizes that means anything. (Journalists have a tedious tendency to give themselves prizes, more so than any other business I can name.)

The Polk awards have been ahead of the game in recent years. Two, notably, have recognized that journalism has moved squarely into the Digital Age, even though most of the kinds of journalism achievements that win big prizes — notably investigative reports — continue to be done by organizations willing to spend serious money and devote serious time to the efforts.

The first pathbreaker, which falls into the category of organization-based media that happens to live on the web in this case, went to Josh Marshall and his team at Talking Points Memo in 2007. The one making waves this year, and the more relevant here, went to the still-anonymous person who captured the video images of the death Neda Agha-Soltan in the Iranian election protests early last year.

Darnton, interviewed by Mediaite, an online publication, offered left-handed compliments to the Neda video — making it entirely clear that he doesn’t really believe average people (as opposed to journalists with years of experience) have much to offer beyond bystander status. From the column by Willard C. Rappleye Jr.:

“(Darnton) does take umbrage, though, against the term ‘citizen journalist.’ ‘If you’re walking down the street and somebody collapses in front of you and somebody else runs over and administers CPR because they happen to know it, and saves the victim, you wouldn’t go home and say you saw somebody saved by a citizen doctor. You’d say you saw someone saved by a bystander who happened to know CPR. Right? ‘Same thing here. I like to call them bystanders — not journalists. Just good bystanders.’”

I’ve long since stopped taking umbrage when people don’t get it. But to hear stuff like this from someone with Darnton’s track record is dismaying.

He clearly does not understand — or if he does, he deeply regrets — that journalism is no longer the province of the people like himself, who rose on well defined career tracks through a business that was comprised mostly of big monopoly organizations or a few members of an oligopoly, businesses that achieved their economic power due to conditions that no longer apply.

He does not get that journalism is an ecosystem, and that it is becoming more diverse over time.

The regular people who capture important videos and pictures — or who blog authortitatively what they’ve seen, etc. etc. etc. — are not journalists. But they have committed acts of journalism, profoundly important acts of journalism. That is their role — or more accurately one of their roles — in the ecosystem, and it’s becoming at least as important as any other role including the one played by the people who do it for a living or for a few freelance dollars.

Just as reporter shield laws (assuming we should have them) should protect journalism, not the people who are accredited or licensed to be journalists, in these awards — and in everyday life — it is the act of journalism we should be celebrating.

Darnton’s instincts are sound. And his wish to recognize the values of great journalism is absolutely correct. But I hope he’ll expand his field of vision. And I hope he’ll join those of us who are working on ways to help those people he relegates to bystander roles become even more active and knowledgeable participants in the journalism sphere.

Citizens who commit acts of journalism: Instead of semi-sneers, they deserve our support in every possible way.

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UPDATED

NY Times Public Editor: The Olympics? Don’t Tell Me: “‘Could you please ask the editor of the front Web page to not name the winners within the headlines/sub-headlines?’ asked Ken Waters of Phoenix. Matt Gooch of Harrisonburg, Va. said he was disappointed when The Times reported the results of the men’s downhill before NBC showed the event. ‘This is not Taliban news, nor TARP news, or even Paula Jones type news,’ Gooch said. ‘There is no meaning to this except the anticipation and suspense that sports viewers feel watching the event live. Please help me understand why your organization needs to spoil the experience.’”

Good. Grief.

The fact that the ombudsman of the New York Times needs to explain to readers why his newspaper reports actual news as it happens — and Olympic results are actual news — is a depressing commentary on our nation’s entertainment-driven culture.

NBC bought U.S. TV rights to the Olympics, and NBC has chosen not to present live coverage. It wants to put the high-profile events on at night in the U.S. when it can score the biggest audience. It’s entirely about money, as the Olympics are in a general sense at this point.

But to suggest that real news organizations should defer to NBC’s greed is beyond idiotic. It’s pathetic.

Mr. Waters of Phoenix and Mr. Gooch of Harrisonburg, and others like them, need remedial education in at least three respects. First, they need to understand that news organizations are in business to report news. Second, no one is forcing them to look at the Times website in the first place.

And, third, remember: The spoiler here is NBC, which wants you to live in a fantasy world. Blame the entertainment moguls there, not real journalists, if you learn who won an event before NBC deigns to show it on TV.

Any news organization holding back on news because entertainment consumers want to live in their fantasy worlds deserves utter contempt. As a (very small) shareholder in the New York Times Co., I’m glad to see that America’s best newspaper has the right standards in this regard.

UPDATE: Several commenters have defended the notion that news organizations have some kind of duty to hold back their reports or put reports on pages where news viewers won’t have to see the reports. One commenter, who says he’s a journalism school graduate, even suggested a “civic function” in such a method. This is head-slappingly strange logic (as I responded):

To suggest there’s some kind of civic function in asking news organizations to withhold breaking news of an entertainment event (I agree the Olympics are entertainment more than anything else) is bizarre. There is no civic value in two corporate media giants colluding to help one of them make enough money to justify its overpayment for TV rights. NBC has absolutely no interest in performing a civic function; its entire motivation is the bottom line.

Your idea of “timeliness” is equally odd. No one is preventing you from structuring your news the way you want to. If you prefer not to learn about news events until later in the day, or tomorrow or next week, you have an easy way of doing this: Don’t read, listen to or watch news reports until you’re ready to learn what’s happened. You will also need to stay away from the water cooler and conversations with friends and colleagues who don’t share your desire to learn about the outcome of ski races only when a giant media corporation deems it most profitable.

I watched the skiing last night on NBC. The network severely edited the race, ignoring the runs of roughly half of the top seed (first 15 racers) because the women crashed or were otherwise deemed uninteresting to the American audience by the NBC entertainment editors. It inserted a vast number of commercials into what little of the event it decided to broadcast. This is the civic virtue you want to reward? Please.

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UPDATED

Today’s Washington Post editorial pages feature an “op-ed” column entitled Sarah Palin on the politicization of the Copenhagen climate conference. Never mind that the column is full of falsehoods; the Post and most other papers often run letters, op-ed columns and editorials that contain falsehoods. (Sometimes they correct the errors; often they don’t.)

My issue here is with the column’s tagline:

The writer was the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president and governor of Alaska from 2006 to 2009.


Does anyone who understands media and PR really buy this — the notion that Palin wrote the column in question? Of course not.

Op-ed pieces that run under the bylines of famous politicians, celebrities and business people are almost never written by those people, just as they rarely write their autobiographies, even first drafts, by themselves. They don’t have time. Their staffers and PR people research and write the pieces.

Society has a serious blind spot about this kind of thing — and applies a pernicious double standard. If we catch a student paying someone to write his or her paper for a class, we give the student an F. Or, in some cases (like a journalism school), we might even ask the student to leave.

So why do newspaper editors think it’s fine to wink at obvious deception? They could put a stop to the fiction tomorrow, but probably won’t. The continuing lure of “free content,” especially with famous names at the top, is an ingrained habit, however wrong.

Ghost-written op-eds are often compared with speechwriter-written speeches. Since we all know that most famous people don’t write their own lines for speeches, goes this logic, we should assume the same with a byline — whether on a book or an op-ed.

Call me naive, but I’d like to hold journalists to a slightly higher standard. Newspapers have given away enough of their credibility in recent times. Maybe this is a place to regain a little.

UPDATE: A Twitter commenter asked, essentially, what’s the harm if everyone knows it’s happening. First, not everyone does know. Sure, media-savvy people are well aware of the fakery. I’m not certain that everyone takes for granted that these are ghost-written, however.

Again, the point is not that celebrity politicians are going to stop doing this. It’s that newspapers, which should care about little things like credibility, should stop being complicit in the deception. Even if it turns out to be true that everyone knows, it’s still wrong.

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More than seven weeks since it ran an editorial based on a false premise, the Washington Post has neither acknowledged nor corrected its mistake. Shameful.

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Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and now one of the Washington Post’s assemblage of conservative columnists, bemoans today what his headline writer calls “journalism’s slow, sad death.” It’s yet another paean to the demise of monopoly/oligopoly media that, at its best, did perform occasional acts of public service. (Like so many pieces of its ilk, the column complains, among other things, that all those bloggers and other Internet news sites are living off the work of actual reporters; but the column contains no actual reporting other than a visit to a museum of journalism.) He writes:

Professional journalism is not like the buggy-whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.

It wasn’t economic progress, but technological progress, that did in the buggy-whip industry. Did anyone ever mourn it, much less miss it, other than the people it employed and the communities where they lived?

Journalism’s social value is real. But the social value of the journalism business? Of the professional class of journalists that rose to claim white-collar, insider status and abused it so royally?

I suspect that what Gerson really misses is the subservient lapdog the Washington press corps, with a few honorable institutional exceptions, became during the early part of this decade.  And what, for example, is the social value of his own newspaper’s continuing refusal to acknowledge, much less correct, an egregious error on the editorial page that employs him?

My disgust with American newspapers grows with every such woe-is-us piece. They complain and complain about what we’re losing, and howl at the moon over the flaws of what’s emerging, even as they so often fail at remotely living up to their own proclaimed standards.

In my last posting, “That Hallowed Standard of Accuracy: Oops“, I deconstructed, at perhaps tedious length, a column by a Tennessee editorial page editor, Tom Bohs, who got so many things wrong in a piece that briefly discussed me and my work. The errors included misspelling my name and the name of a university with which I was once affiliated, and those were emblematic of the pure sloppiness and incoherence of the overall piece.

My name and the university’s have been corrected in the online column. But there is not even a hint that anything was wrong before — a correction method that holds ethical transparency in contempt –and none of the other points was addressed.

What kind of standards do these news organizations have? They don’t seem close to the allegedly professional ones Bohs and Gerson claim for their craft’s traditional members.

For years I’ve argued that we need to keep the good things that newspapers and the (vanishingly few) good broadcast journalism outlets do in the course of their work. We do need good journalism, but it’s increasingly clear that we’ll have a lot of it from the new entrants in the digital media ecosystem.

As for the old guard, I’ve just about given up caring. Their organizations are committing slow-motion suicide. Maybe the people left in the business, apart from the few serious innovators, lack the imaginations and/or talent, or are so overworked by corporate bosses that they can’t even try. But I’m not sure anymore what we’d really lose if their organizations all died tomorrow.

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(UPDATE: Since I posted this on Nov. 24, the two misspellings in the newspaper column discussed below have been corrected, without a hint (in the online version, anyway) that there was ever a mistake in the first place. The other inaccuracies and questionable information remain in place.)

My heart goes out, at least a little, to Tom Bohs, editorial page editor of the Jackson Sun in Tennessee. He is undoubtedly wishing he’d spent a little more time on a column he published this week.

His piece, entitled “Citizen journalist, pick your beat.” featured some standard, boilerplate stereotypes — such as people with mobile-phone cameras who contribute what they shoot to “real” media organizations like, uh, the Sun — with just the barest effort to acknowledge the enormous variety and in some cases quality of non-traditional offerings that are diversifying the media ecosystem. Overall, the column comes off as yet another semi-informed member of the old guard wishing he could turn back the clock. No big deal.

So why am I feeling some sympathy for Bohs? It’s because of his column’s final four paragraphs, which may well have earned him a spot in the Irony Hall of Fame, or at least the Media Criticism wing.

Bohs wrote:

To give you a little perspective, however, the guy who folks say invented modern citizen journalism is former San Jose Mercury News journalist Dan Gilmour. He was a technology columnist for the newspaper which operates deep in the heart of Silicon Valley. He allegedly wrote the first newspaper online blog. Then he wrote a book about citizen journalism titled ‘We the Media.’ Then he got out of the news business.

I’m not sure what that means. Today, Gilmour runs an operation called the Center for Citizen Media at UC Berkely. I guess he figured with all these citizens running around doing his job, he needed to find a new line of work, teaching them to do his former job – for free.

As the news business continues to evolve at the mercy of technology, citizen journalism is going to play a major role. Here is a simple guideline to help you evaluate what you read on the blogs and forums, chats and tweets. It is a guideline old school journalists still live by: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

I hope our new era of citizen journalists adopt the standard, as well.

Oh, my, where to begin…

  • I don’t know which folks say I invented modern citizen journalism. I’m not one of them. I’ve definitely been among the many people who’ve worked to help it happen, and to make it as good as possible for everyone involved.
  • My last name is spelled Gillmor, not Gilmour.
  • I “allegedly wrote the first newspaper online blog”? (Copy editors: All blogs are online.) Not sure what the “allegedly” is all about, except possibly to suggest some faint unseemliness or false claim. Who’s alleged to have said it, anyway? Mine may well have been the first blog by a daily newspaper journalist, but that’s all I’ll claim.
  • Aha, a true fact: I did write We the Media.
  • No, I didn’t then get out of the news business. I started what turned out to be an ill-fated Bay Area news site, Bayosphere, which was definitely part of the news business. I started the Center for Citizen Media (see below for current status), one of the purposes of which was to help extend the news business. I’ve invested in and/or advised a number of enterprises — some for-profit and some not-for-profit — that have been deeply involved in the news and information sphere. I’ve been a paid speaker or consultant for several newspaper companies, and wrote occasional columns for the Financial Times (which I trust Bohs will concede is part of the real News Business) and still contribute periodically to other publications. My current position at Arizona State University is all about the news business: working with students studying journalism, business and other disciplines to help them create what we hope will be some of tomorrow’s lasting local-information enterprises. I’m more in the news business than I ever was as a columnist for a California newspaper.
  • The Center for Citizen Media still exists, but is mostly dormant at this point. It was affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley (that’s Berkeley with an “e” between the “l” and “y”), as well as Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and is now affiliated with Arizona State. I haven’t been affiliated in any way with UC Berkeley for almost two years at this point, though I’m still fond of my former colleagues and students.
  • At no point in my work on citizen journalism have I pitched it as a replacement for traditional journalism. From the beginning I’ve said it would be a great addition, in its myriad forms, to the ecosystem, and competitive only in some spaces. I’ve also said, again and again in talks and in public writing, that while I hoped citizens would help traditional news organizations by participating in community journalism, I was and remain flatly opposed to business models that assume citizens are offering nothing but free labor for others to monetize.
  • Who’s running around doing my old job as a business and technology journalist? Lots of people, including traditional journalists and online-only creative types whose work has greatly increased the amount and in many cases the quality of tech information. Some bloggers are doing it for little or no money, for lots of reasons — they may be in the business; they may be building their brands; they may just love to cover a small niche — while other online journalists are making serious money at it, building important and well-funded new media organizations. The very last thing I figured when I co-taught a course at Berkeley was that I needed the job because citizen journalists had priced me out of the market. (When Bohs says “I guess”, that’s a point I won’t argue.)
  • The news business is clearly being affected by technology. It is not at the mercy of technology. Journalists will continue to do journalism, using the evolving tools of the trade in enterprises that adapt to change, long after newspapers have faded from the scene. The only news people at the utter mercy of technology are the ones who have given up on themselves.

And now we come to Bohs’ stern advice — preceded, to be fair, by an acknowledgment that citizen journalism is here to stay — to all those who need to decide what to make of what they find online. Follow the lead of the pros, he says: Don’t trust it unless you’ve checked it out.

Bohs could have checked out everything he said about me and got so absurdly wrong, even without picking up the phone and calling. He could have used that new-fangled Google thing, where typing in “Dan Gillmor” — or even “Dan Gilmour” — returns links to dangillmor.com (the top one with the correct spelling, third on the list for the one Bohs used), where I lay out in some detail exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few years and am doing now, with links to the blogs where I’ve been saying what I actually believe about journalism and its future, not what other people may claim (or imagine) I’ve said. Even my Wikipedia entry, which has some small inaccuracies, has my current gig listed correctly.

This is why Bohs, who clearly cares about journalism, surely must have had a sinking feeling in his gut last night or this morning when he discovered his mistakes. I hope he’ll turn that into a renewed dedication to the principles in which he says he believes.

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