Archive for the “Transparency” Category

UPDATED

A few days ago, following up on questions I’ve asked a number of other news organizations about their relationships with Apple, the Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro put a query to his bosses — and, unlike me with any traditional news company (including his), got an answer.

Here’s the operative quote from his story today, entitled “App rejected? There’s a rule for that” –

So, can Apple remove news organizations’ apps for their content? Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti wrote that “this is our understanding”; National Public Radio’s Danielle Deabler agreed but said NPR saw no evidence that Apple wanted to do such a thing. Publicists for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and USA Today declined to comment or did not reply to e-mails.

We now have confirmation from two of America’s most respected news organizations — the Post and NPR — that they willingly participate in a distribution/access ecosystem where the company that owns it can remove their journalism from that system for any reason it chooses.

I suspect that the spokeswomen for the Post and NPR have technically violated the terms of their companies’ developers agreements with Apple even by saying that much. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

Anyway, kudos to Pegoraro, who has shown more spine than his colleagues at other news organizations. From all appearances, they’re just hoping this will all go away. It won’t.

UPDATE: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism today in Austin, I asked three panelists — from NPR, the New York Times and the Guardian — about this issue. Only NPR’s Kinsey Wilson responded, and he was more forthright than I’ve heard anyone be from any media company so far.

The situation is “not ideal,” he acknowledged. No news organization, he assumes, has the individual leverage with Apple to insist on contract terms that should be standard for people who believe in their journalism.

NPR, based on Wilson’s other panel comments, is creating what sounds like a multi-platform strategy: creating a back-end system that can feed to any platform. All smart news organizations are trying to move this way.

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UPDATED

Eleven days after I first raised the subject of the New York Times’ complicated relationship(s) with Apple (follow-up here), I’ve finally received an answer, of sorts. Sadly, the answer wasn’t to the questions I asked.

A PR person from the company, responding to one of several subsequent emails, wrote back today: “No, we are not going to comment.”

This stonewalling — this deliberate statement that the newspaper chooses to be opaque on matters that go to its editorial integrity — is disappointing, but unfortunately not entirely surprising. But it left me with no real choice on a decision I truly hate to make:

I’ve sold my small (300 shares) holding of New York Times Co. stock. I’ll be taking a loss on the transaction, but I’d never expected to make much money, if any, on my purchase in the first place; I bought NYT stock because I wanted to demonstrate my support of quality journalism.

For decades I’ve revered the New York Times. I still believe that it’s loaded with superb journalists. I hope it survives and thrives in a media environment that grows more challenging every day.

Journalism is in enough trouble as it is, and the Times’ challenges are truly daunting. Arrogant non-transparency about basic integrity only makes the situation worse. So I’ll put what money I have left from this already poor investment into something else.

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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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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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Rupert Murdoch’s influence on the Wall Street Journal has not been the disaster many feared it would be when News Corp., the company he controls, bought Dow Jones several years ago. In many ways, the paper has actually improved.

The worry was that Murdoch would do what he’s done at almost every other media property he controls: Turn the journalism toward political ends. The Journal’s editorial page has been an entirely predictable arm of the American political right for some time now. Would that infect the news columns as well?

It appears that this is indeed happening. That’s the significance — assuming this is not a one-time case of an editor going overboard — of a news story in yesterday’s paper, which carried the headline, State Death Taxes Are the Latest Worry and began this way:

With the federal estate tax disappearing for most people, state death taxes have emerged as a surprise new worry.

This is not neutral language. Nor is it accurate. It’s a deliberate perversion of language to make a political point; dead people do not pay taxes. Their estates and heirs do.

(The people who oppose estate/inheritance taxes have a variety of arguments against the practice. I side with Bill Gates Sr., Warren Buffett, several Rockefellers and lots of other people who believe the arguments against the tax are specious and, more than that, dangerous to the nation’s future should massive, untaxed transfers of wealth to people who haven’t earned a dime of it become the law of the land.)

The Journal’s editorial page has called the estate tax a “death tax” for years, in keeping with its wealth-equals-good stance on just about all issues. Moving this language to the news pages is a sign that the newspaper is taking on a more overt world view — a view that takes its lead from the truth-be-damned ideologues on the editorial page.

I don’t mind that the Journal is doing this, though I suspect more than a few of the journalists who write for the paper must be having major qualms. In fact, it strikes me as healthy that the paper is showing its world view in such a deliberate way.

There are risks for News Corp. in taking this stance, not least a repeat of the self-marginalization that Fox “News” has chosen with its incessant BS, to the point that no one who cares about honest journalism has much respect for the channel. Fox has thrown away any reputation it might have had for being even remotely interested in contrary facts, because even its supposed straight news reporting so often takes a political stance and the lies of the commentators are so astonishingly in-your-face.

The greater risk, in the short run, is whether the Journal’s journalists will let themselves be turned into propagandists. This need not be the case.

The Telegraph in London has a right-of-center view of the world, proudly so, even in its news pages. But its journalism is generally excellent, rarely (from my reading, at any rate) propaganda.

I’m all for the Wall Street Journal turning itself into an American equivalent of the Telegraph: a responsible news organization with a transparent world view. But should the Journal turn itself into a newspaper/Web version of its Fox TV channel, it will be making a fatal mistake in the long run.

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(Note: These are first impressions, and I’ll be updating this posting.)

The Federal Trade Commission noticed a while back that marketers of brands, products and ideas have used new media in some incredibly dishonest ways. These include paying people or giving them freebies in return for positive mentions and not requiring (or even encouraging) them to disclose that they’re being compensated.

So with laudable goals, the commission issued a document (390k pdf) aimed at better disclosure — with penalties of up to $11,000 in fines for violations. Basically, the FTC is saying that if you have a “material connection” to a product or service you’re praising, you are an endorser who must disclose that connection.

Sounds good, doesn’t it. But when you read the FTC’s ruling, published today, you get the sense of a government-gone-wild travesty. Why?

First, the new system is unworkable in practice, which is bad enough. Worse, the rules are worryingly vague and wide-ranging. Worse yet, they appear to give traditional print and broadcast journalists a pass while applying harsh regulations to bloggers (and others using conversational media of various kinds). Worst and most important, they are, in the end, an attack on markets and free speech, based on a 20th Century notion of media and advertising that simply doesn’t map to the new era.

The advertising of the past was a one-to-many system. Call it broadcasting. The Internet is a many-to-many system. Call that conversation. They are not the same.

The FTC would deal with this essentially by throwing sand into the gears of online conversations. The rules are explained through examples — which means that almost no one can be sure that what he or she is doing, at least at the margins, is allowed or forbidden.

Here’s an example of the practical unworkability of what the FTC demands.

I disclose my various affiliations with companies when I do blog posts relating to them (or at least I try; I don’t doubt that I’ve forgotten to do this from time to time). And I have a long “About” page that includes my various financial and other interests. That page notes, among other things, that Google has loaned me a bunch of Android phones to use with students for experiments.

I’ve posted a number of Twitter tweets about Android, including my preference for that environment than Apple’s restricted system. Where, exactly — in a post with a total length of 140 characters — should the disclosure go? Has the FTC, for all practical purposes, just forbidden all positive comments about products and services on Twitter when the person doing the posting has a relationship of any kind with the company? Do I want to be the FTC’s guinea pig in a lawsuit where the world works this out?

And what about the extremely common practices of traditional media? Every news organization covering technology gets freebies by the container-load. Book reviewers’ offices overflow with volumes sent by publishers. Subsidized or even complimentary travel, food and other things of this sort are common but too-rarely disclosed.

The answer is transparency. But do I want the feds enforcing it, especially when their rules can be interpreted narrowly or widely, depending on the circumstance?

Again, let’s be clear that the motives behind the FTC’s rules seem to be well-intentioned. I also loathe the odious practice of using bloggers and other online conversationalists as commercial sock puppets in a sleazy online word-of-mouth operation. Let’s also agree that disclosures are always better than hiding one’s affiliation with a company.

We already have laws against fraud. Let’s enforce those — first against the serious fraudsters, who keep getting away with it — before we even consider harsh regulations on speech.

We all want more transparency. I don’t see this as the right way to get it.

But I do predict one outcome of this FTC action: a slew of court cases. This is a full employment act for First Amendment lawyers, who have better things to do.

Note: Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society (disclosure: I’m a co-founder of the project), corrected me on my initial language, in which I called today’s document “revised rules” from the FTC. He writes:

They are non-binding guidelines meant to help advertisers, bloggers etc comply with the FTC Act:

“The Guides are administrative interpretations of the law intended to help advertisers comply with the Federal Trade Commission Act; they are not binding law themselves. In any law enforcement action challenging the allegedly deceptive use of testimonials or endorsements, the Commission would have the burden of proving that the challenged conduct violates the FTC Act.” (from FTC press release today).


As a matter of substance, you’re right that they will have much the same effect as rules because one would have to face an enforcement action by the FTC to challenge them — not a pretty prospect at all. And their status as guidelines doesn’t lessen your concerns with practical workability, vagueness, and lopsidedness because the FTC will use them itself as guidelines for when to pursue investigations and bring enforcement actions.

I’ll be updating as I learn more. Meanwhile, for more reactions, take a look at some of these postings:

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