What a 21st Century News Ombudsman Should Do: Aggregate, Curate, Debate

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.

Wall Street Journal’s (Fail)SafeHouse: Keep Trying

In 2005, intending to innovate, the Los Angeles Times published a “Wikitorial” — an editorial from the paper in a wiki that allowed readers to make changes. The idea was interesting. The execution was a classic in news organization stupidity, because after putting up the piece the news people went home for the night. Naturally, some bad folks took over, and early the next morning they’d thoroughly polluted the thing. One image that found its way onto the wikitorial was an infamously disgusting photograph. Down came the page, and that was that.

The LA Times learned the wrong lesson. Rather than giving up the experiment, it should have tried again.

The failed LA project comes to mind in the wake of the Wall Street Journal’s launch of a WikiLeaks-like experiment, a site called SafeHouse. The page pitches these bullet points:

  • Help The Wall Street Journal uncover fraud, abuse and other wrongdoing.
  • Send documents to us using a special system built to be secure.
  • Keep your identity anonymous or confidential, if needed.

Uh, not really, at least on the second and third points.

Security experts immediately poked holes in the site security. And the site’s Terms of Service contain what might be termed a “Get Into Jail Free Card” — reserving “the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.”

Unlike the LA Times, the Journal isn’t abandoning the experiment and seems to be working to fix at least some of the site’s flaws. That’s good news, even though I’d still advise any whistleblower to steer clear of this for the moment, not least because the notion of trusting a company controlled by Rupert Murdoch is, well, problematic even if one might trust (as I would) many of the Journal’s lower-level editors.

Which raises the larger question in any case: While I tend to believe that every news organization should have a drop-off point for documents from whistleblowers, there’s always going to be a question of how much a leaker should trust any private company on which a government can exert pressure, apart the issue of whether the company itself can always be trusted. Remember, the New York Times has frequently felt obliged to ask permission from the U.S. government before publishing a variety of things.

Still, these experiments are worthwhile. But it’s going to take some time before we can call them successes in any respect.

Two Recent WIkiLeaks Books Offers Context and Detail on Controversial Media Innovator

I’ve finished two recent books on WikiLeaks, and can recommend them both.

The first is by Micah Sifry, whose work has long been at the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and policy. (Note: He’s a friend.) In his new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, he does a terrific journalistic service: He connects the dots and offers context.

The book, as the title suggests, is less about WikiLeaks — though there’s plenty of nuanced discussion about that controversial media innovator — than about the emerging information ecosystem. Transparency is being forced upon opaque institutions and practices. On balance this is a positive development, but the downsides are not trivial.

If you want to know why WikiLeaks matters so much, how it fits into that wider ecosystem and why these developments are so important to the future of politics and policy, you won’t find a better place to start than this book.

You’ll also do well to check out The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond) by the Nation magazine’s Greg Mitchell. Mitchell has been a relentless curator of all-things-WikiLeaks on his Nation blog for months now, and his knowledge of the operation is correspondingly encyclopedic.

This book is almost entirely about WikiLeaks and the site’s founder, Julian Assange. There’s plenty of meat and analysis, and not too much speculation. Mitchell gives us a straightforward and helpful look at a phenomenon that (among others) anyone involved in media needs to understand — especially the professional journalists who’ve been so ambivalent if not contemptuous about something that is part of their own ecosystem even if they don’t realize it.

One of the more interesting elements of Mitchell’s book is the way he’s publishing it. He’s a self-publisher, and has been experimenting with different prices with the Amazon Kindle version, and has already published a second edition. (He makes me feel almost slothful by comparison…)

When I come up for air on some work I have to finish, I plan to read the Guardian’s book on WikiLeaks as well as a volume by a former insider. Meanwhile, as I said at the top, I recommend these books for anyone who wants to go deep on WikiLeaks and what it means.

Google’s (Partial) Retreat from Open Systems

Google’s “open source” promises regarding its Android mobile operating system have always been a bit exaggerated. Yes, anyone can download and use that software, but to get Google’s official stamp of approval for using it in a mobile device, you have to add in some distinctly proprietary applications that Google alone controls.

Now comes the word, via BusinessWeek, that Google is delaying plans to open-source the OS — built on top of Android (itself a Linux variant) and called Honeycomb — that it wants tablet makers to use. The decision is disturbing for many reasons, but here’s the most important one: It erodes trust.

Google seems to be playing favorites in the rollout of Honeycomb tablets. It’s currently partnering with a relatively small number of manufacturers, such as Motorola, that are bringing out the first of what Google hopes will be many tablets in the next several years.

But the main reason to be excited Honeycomb, from my perspective, is that the OS will be widely in play in a number of form factors and devices by a wide variety of manufacturers. They need the code to experiment with all kinds of ideas, and they aren’t getting it in a timely way.

Google is still leagues ahead of other big tech companies in the openness arena. But people who want to believe in the company should remember that Google is, first and foremost, going to protect itself.

If the Honeycomb code release occurs soon, the impact of the delay will be minimal. No matter when it takes place, however, Google has cost itself a bit of the trust it’s earned in recent years — and that seems like a poor bargain for a company that in the end will live or die based on its users’ trust.

Washington Post’s Transparency Experiment: Labeling Columnists

Post op ed stances
Give the Washington Post editorial page some credit for labeling its columnists as “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” — it’s an attempt to offer a little truth in labeling. The exercise makes the paper look more silly than transparent, though it nicely illuminates the way Washington insiders work and think.

Let’s start with the idea that Richard Cohen — a reliable supporter of torture, among other non-liberal stances — can be remotely considered left of anything but the far right. He’s a statist, a militarist and a member in good standing of the inside-the-Beltway crowd that insists rules and laws are for little people, not the ones in power.

The larger issue, of course, is the assumption that these labels hold any meaning whatever at this point. They certainly don’t in Washington policy circles, where what once was called the near-radical right controls the Supreme Court and one legislative chamber; where the Democratic president has embraced and extended the civil liberties abuses of his predecessor and refused to serious investigate, much less prosecute, not just torturers but also the Wall Street barons who looted the nation and nearly wrecked the economy. Washington’s main fealty today is to the corporate interests that have bought the government.

As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan points out today, the Post’s new policy, which extends even to Twitter feeds, pushes further the an anachronistic notion about journalism:

This, at last, is the full realization of the simplistic and rotten Washington journalistic ethos: as long as we have an equal amount of “left” and “right,” we are completely and totally balanced, and insulated from any legitimate criticism. True journalistic perfection. Anyone whose beliefs fall anywhere outside of these boxes is simply not to be taken seriously.

The most unfortunate element of the Post’s policy, however, is that it ignores the real elephant in the newsroom: the human biases and world views that are never acknowledged. The Post’s news pages, during the run-up to the Iraq war, pounded the war drums more loudly than almost any other major newspaper, pushing the Bush administration’s fear-mongering on page one while relegating serious questions to deep inside the paper. The paper’s world view was obvious, yet it was never stated.

Tell us the world views of the top news section editors — which are reflected in the journalism at every major news organization — and then the Post will be doing something novel, at least in America.

If the Post editorial page pursued real transparency, meanwhile, it would consider being a little more forthcoming about the editorials it writes, not just what the op-ed writers say. For example, the Post might consider correcting its mistakes, such as the embarrassment of October 2009, when it published an editorial based on an entirely false premise — a flagrant error it has never even acknowledged, much less corrected. Transparency? When?

Washington Post Ombudsman Signs Off

Andrew Alexander photo.pngAndrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudsman for the past two years, signs off today in a column that expresses great admiration for the institution he has served—and frustration at its failures, which add up to what readers and he agreed he has been a drop in quality. He writes:

I’ve written before that The Post on its worst days is better than most newspapers on their best days. In print and online, it retains immense influence through journalism that can frame public discourse. And it still produces stunningly ambitious work, such as last year’s “Top Secret America” project on the huge national security buildup and the “Hidden Life of Guns” series tracking firearms used in crimes. Priced lower than most competitors, the newspaper is a bargain.

But it has become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable “small” factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered. The Post often trails the competition on stories. The excessive use of anonymous sources has expanded into blogs. The once-broken system for publishing corrections has been repaired, but corrections often still take too long to appear. The list goes on.

It’s obvious that the Post newsroom, on all too many occasions, has either paid insufficient attention to his advice or has ignored it entirely. Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Ombudsmen are never popular inside the organizations they serve, because their job is to hold the insiders accountable.

And never mind the newspaper’s editorial pages, the quality of which has plummeted in recent years. The edit pages have never been part of Alexander’s purview, but they need a reader’s representative vastly more than the news pages, which, as Alexander notes, are still more than capable of doing extraordinarily important journalism.

I had several encounters with Alexander during his tenure. He has been unfailingly gracious, even when we have disagreed on several issues, and when he quoted me he did so accurately and in context—something I cannot say happens consistently..

The ombudsman job at the Washington Post is almost entirely thankless. I can’t imagine why anyone would want it. Alexander Alexander deserves credit for his tenure.

(Photo from Post website)

Data Point: Lots of Book Downloads

In the three days since Mediactive was published here in PDF format, about 1,500 visitors here have downloaded the book, and many more have visited the Table of Contents, which connects to the HTML version. Far fewer have purchased the book, of course, but it’s selling — and I’ve barely begun the real marketing process, which will take place in the new year.

Anonymous cowards are buying the 2010 election

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.

Daily Kos gets transparency in media right

This article was originally published on Salon on June 30, 2010.

The political website, discovering serious problems with its pollster, comes excruciatingly clean with its audience

Here’s how Markos Moulitsas started a post yesterday at the Daily Kos:

I have just published a report by three statistics wizards showing, quite convincingly, that the weekly Research 2000 State of the Nation poll we ran the past year and a half was likely bunk.

If there’s a Mother of All Corrections, this comes pretty close. When the proprietor of a well-known and widely followed media organization brings something this awful to the attention of his audience, and in such a forceful and prominent way, he’s doing something fairly rare — and noteworthy.

My survey research and statistics skills aren’t strong enough to vouch for what the statistics wizards came up with, but the redoubtable Nate Silver is doing just that. In short, there is a huge problem — and that’s the best possible construction — in this data.

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher has an excellent aggregation about the fighting, legal and otherwise, surrounding this debacle. Lots of it, as you’d expect, is purely political, unsurprising given the Daily Kos mission. I suspect this will be a case study worthy of a masters thesis.

I cannot imagine a traditional media organization — and more than a few have used this pollster — showing the same level of transparency that Markos has done. (Speaking of transparency, I should note that Markos is a longtime friendly acquaintance.) I can only imagine how he must have felt when he learned of the problems with the polling.

It’s what he did next that matters here: He gathered facts and then issued, in excruciating detail, a report to his readers.

Let’s be clear on one thing: If, in fact, Daily Kos has been running fraudulent polls the past several years, the site has taken a credibility hit, a serious one. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to delete the site from my browser bookmarks or RSS feeds, and the main reason I won’t do so is that the site is being so up-front about what happened.

Media organizations have traditionally been among the most opaque of institutions. Trust us or don’t, they’ve said in the past — and what they’ve meant was, you can take what we say as The Truth. That’s no longer good enough, not that it ever was, and the smarter ones are opening up, though the notable examples tend to be exceptions, not the rule.

The more honest we are about our errors, and we all make them, the more we may feel we’re letting people assume that what we do is flawed. Well, in journalism and other fast-moving media, what we do often isflawed. The best we can do is to try hard to follow the other principles of journalism that include accuracy and thoroughness, and then own up, fast, when we get it wrong.

For those of us creating media, genuine transparency will lead audiences to believe us less. That’s fine, because healthy audience skepticism is the first principle of smart media consumption.

But transparency will also lead people to trust us more. That’s not a paradox.

Salon and Me

I’ve been a fan of Salon since the day it started, and a paying subscriber as long as the company has offered that option. If you visit Salon often, you already know why.

So I’m delighted to be bringing some of my blogging there, including many of the items I’d normally be posting here. My arrangement with Salon gives them exclusive access for one week to new posts, after which they’ll appear here — as always, under a Creative Commons license from this site.

Here’s my first post.