Sherrod fiasco shows we must be skeptics

This article was originally published on Salon on July 21, 2010.

When the Andrew Breitbarts of the world can spread lies with lightning speed, knee-jerk reactions are dangerous


If you’re one of the people who believed, even for a minute, that former U.S. Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod misused her government position in racist ways, you have plenty of company — and you may also believe you have a plausible excuse. After all, you were told by Big Media, the Obama administration and the NAACP that it was true.

Except, as we’ve all learned, it wasn’t true. It was a brazen lie, pushed initially by the infamous Andrew Breitbart and his allies at Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, and given credence via the cravenness of other media organizations, Obama’s secretary of agriculture and America’s most prominent civil rights organization.

No surprise that Fox and others leaped aboard the Breitbart wagon: Here was “news” that A) fit their worldview and B) came with video. So what if the video was incomplete. Don’t look for even a shred of genuine remorse, ever.

(UPDATE: Looks like I spoke too soon on that; watching Fox this evening, I heard some commentators offering sound cautions about leaping to conclusions — and Bill O’Reilly has forthrightly apologized, according to the Washington Post. Let’s welcome these thoughts and hope the Fox audience pays attention. Further update: Josh Marshall, ina scathing piece on the media’s failure in this case, calls the Post story a whitewash.)

The other players named above, who credulously endorsed the lie, should be ashamed. Afraid that they might be seen as giving cover to a black person with racist thoughts, they leaped on the discredited “evidence.” At least the NAACP apologized for its role in the smear. (UPDATE: And, as we’ve all heard now, so has the administration.)

But the misdeeds by others don’t let the rest of us off the hook. And if this isn’t a teaching moment about media, politics and our twitchy culture, nothing is.

I’m lucky, in a way. I first heard about the story and Breitbart’s role in it at the same time. So I instantly had doubts.

I didn’t doubt that an African-American could express racist ideas. What I doubted was that Breitbart could be taken at face value. His record was evidence, beyond my reasonable suspicion from my perspective, that the only smart way to approach his work is to wait for absolute proof — and not trust anything until seeing it. And his sulphuric spin of the current situation is beyond disgusting.

In our evolving media ecosystem, we should be skeptical of everything we read, see or hear — online and in traditional media. But we should not be equally skeptical of everything. We need to find sources we trust (more than not) and recognize that even they will make mistakes.

This means, in particular, that we all need to take a deep breath before making knee-jerk assumptions, or at least before we act on them. The consequences of acting before verifying can be minor, or they can be ugly — as in Sherrod’s blatantly unfair forced resignation.

I heard some regret on CNN last night for its role in spreading the lies, and hope other big-media organizations are doing the same. That’s not the real test, however. What they do in the future is the test, and it’s an easy one: The next time you see a Breitbart-pushed story moved forward by a serious journalism organization that hasn’t checked out the facts in every particular, you’ll know that organization has failed.

Time for an office pool on which one will fail first. I can all but guarantee, with sadness, that someone in the office will win.

(Update also reflects that Fox was hardly the only conservative media outlets to find this story worth covering.)

America’s good, subservient press

This article was originally published on Salon on July 4, 2010.

On Independence Day, noting that the truly independent American journalists don’t work for big organizations

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa — Journalists tend to take themselves too seriously, and their craft not seriously enough. So it is apt that some famous and obscure quotations and aphorisms about the value and function of a free press adorn the tiled walls of the restrooms at Rhodes University’s African Media Matrix — the building that houses what is widely considered the continent’s top journalism school.

One of those quotes is from Nelson Mandela, spoken in 2002, and it feels dismayingly correct today:

“A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.”

In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America’s establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.

Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America’s major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprenensive political coverage have admitted — and, God help us, defended — their technically good subservience to the American government.

Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America’s post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration’s newspeak language — “harsh interrogation techniques” was a favorite — instead of plain old “torture,” the word they’d previously used to describe the same acts.

And then, when asked why, top editors and spokespeople at both papers effectively said that once the Bush administration and Republican allies had pushed for the new language, the news organizations were duty-bound to use it, too, or else be seen as slanting the news.

That the news organizations had changed their language was itself disgraceful. That they then compounded the damage, with a defense that was almost the definition of a subservient press, was heartbreaking.

But George Orwell was rolling in his grave — perhaps with joy that he’s been proved so right, but also pure despair.


I’m participating at a pair of conferences in South Africa this week,Highway Africa and the World Journalism Education Congress. (Some of the travel costs for me and a companion have been covered by theconference sponsors.) It’s my fourth time at Highway Africa, a gathering that brings together many of Africa’s most forward-looking journalists for conversations, among other things, about the way technology is enabling the future.

Africa is a huge and diverse place, and the state of journalistic freedom reflects the differences: nil to relatively robust. Guy Berger, head of the Rhodes University journalism program (and someone who’s become a friend), says there’s more and more bad free press, and a positive trajectory in terms of quality.

But he shows me a bulletin board, the old-fashioned analog kind, on which clippings describe the ongoing struggles for freedom in many places; jailings, beatings and assassinations are a growing reality for journalists around the world — the victims typically  people who are trying to shine a light on what their governments or other powerful interests are doing.

On my first trip to Africa in 2001, I was with a group of journalists who visited nearby Zambia to offer Internet workshops to media people who were just getting wind of the potential in the emerging networks. We were scheduled to meet Fred M’membe, editor of the Post, an independent newspaper there, but he was in court defending himself against government pressure. Now he is in prison.

I told the journalists I met then, and at the two other Highway Africa conferences where I’ve spoken, that I feel great humility in their presence. Like others around the world who risk their liberty, and sometimes their life, for their work, they remind us all of why telling the truth to and about the rich and powerful is so important.


Today is Independence Day in the United States. I’m proud of what we have done so right in America, and believe, more than ever, in the ideals of our nation. For me, it’s America, right and wrong. We do get it wrong, horribly so on occasion, but we have had the institutions in place to correct ourselves time and again.

One of those institutions is the press. When it does its job.

I’m not naive about the long-standing flaws of American journalism. It’s never been as great as our mythology. But it has often shone when the chips were down.

They are today. Never have we needed truly independent journalism institutions — which despite great progress in the developement of online media still convey most of what we call “news” to most of the people — more than we do now.

The honorable exceptions aside, they are failing. And they’re failing arrogantly, insisting that they are doing their jobs well when the evidence is so obviously to the contrary.

I have less and less confidence that the technically excellent journocrats who work in the newsrooms of most major media organizations, especially the ones that have become so embedded in the political and economic power structures, will ever recover their independence.

Bloggers and other entrants in the newer media were barely on the radar in 2002, but I suspect Mandela would agree that some of the “bad free press” today comes from their ranks. I actually believe some of the best good journalism is coming from the new media, but we have to acknowledge that most online conversations don’t hit the high points of our best journalistic principles.

So, yes, my hopes increasingly are with the free-for-all — call it the cacophony or whatever you want — that may frequently be bad but which is getting better. I have absolute confidence that people who join this new journalistic ecosystem for the right reasons, and who do it badly, can learn to be good, because they can learn why it matters to do things in a trustworthy way.

The New York Times and Washington Post have done wonderful work through their modern existence. But their failures are so profound in recent years that it’s hard to maintain any confidence in them.

So for all of the excellence they’ve fostered, the editors at these famous institutions who refused to call torture what it was — bowing to the bogus and odious idea that channeling partisan propaganda was serving their readers — harmed their organizations with those cowardly word games.

And when they defended their acts of cowardice and dismissed criticism as tendentious, they went beyond harm. Their pride in subservience was a disgrace.

What, I wonder, does Independence Day mean to them?

(Updated to fix originally misguided Orwell reference.)

Kagan confirmation hearing: Why bother covering tired theater?

This article was originally published on Salon on July 1, 2010.

Journalists should report rather than playing bit roles in what the nominee herself once called a “vapid charade”


By the third day of the Elena Kagan hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Washington press corps had pretty much moved onto other things. Two days earlier, journalists had crowded the room where Kagan, President Obama’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, faced committee members in what was billed as her only remotely serious public discussion of the court and her likely role on it.

Talking Points Memo mentioned the journalistic drop-off in a terse item titled “Media Losing Interest?” I promptly tweeted along with a comment about “Journalism’s short attention span” — and got a Twitter reply from Howard Weaver, who said, “I wouldn’t staff Kagan hearings if it were my call. It’s all Kabuki theater; if any news manages to emerge, it will be reported.”

Howard Weaver is former vice president of news for the McClatchy Co., and when he says something like this it’s worth thinking about. Keep in mind that McClatchy, which bought Knight Ridder a few years ago and has faced the same financial woes as the rest of the industry, maintained the high standards of the Washington bureau that consistently outclassed the rest of the Washington press corps in covering the run-up to the Iraq war (mainly by letting reporters do their jobs, not serving as bended-knee stenographers for the Bush administration).

So I did think about it, and ended up mostly agreeing with him. There is little point to sending platoons of reporters to largely ceremonial events where the players all know their tedious roles and do their absolute best not to stray into territory that might conceivably make actual news. In Kagan’s case, it was a non-surprise that she did a nearly total retreat from her 1995 law review article (pdf) in which she accurately called modern nomination hearings “a vapid and hollow charade.”

The senators, for the most part, are part of the charade. Like most politicians in front of video cameras, they preen more than probe. So, with live-streamed video capturing everyone’s words and live-bloggersfeeding tidbits to anyone who cares, why bother to use staff time for such affairs? Any news that emerges will reach the world soon enough.

The days when it made sense for every major media organization to be at almost anything have long since passed, especially given the traditional news industry’s well-chronicled cutbacks. Political campaigns are one arena where news folks have realized it’s not necessary to “compete” for tiny changes in stump speeches.

The worrisome cuts are in places like state capitals, where legislators, regulators and lobbyists are learning they can pretty much do what they want without the inconvenience of being observed. The same is increasingly true in the nation’s capital, as major agencies get covered sparsely by traditional media while specialized media with small, paying audiences pretty much take over what coverage there is.

Washington bureaus already know this, but maybe they’ll start acting on it: There’s plenty to keep an eye on in Washington without spending more time than absolutely necessary at the Judiciary Theater.

You Don’t Always Need to Read the Book to Know It’s BS

One of the favorite media outlets of the “conservative” fringe — the semi-to-full-cuckoo faction of the right wing — is WorldNetDaily, which has just run an article about journalists who declined to read a new anti-Obama book. The story, which I’m deliberately not linking to so that I don’t help its search ranking, does make one interesting point: that journalists using email with people they don’t know well should remember that their own words can be used to make them look either foolish or petty, as several do in this case.

I’d heard about this book and wasn’t interested in reading it for several reasons. The main one, as I told a Twitter user who pushed me to read the thing, is that whatever truth it contains, it can’t be trusted at all. How do I know that, since I haven’t read it? Because people who have read the book have noted that an entire chapter is devoted to promoting the idea that Obama is occupying the White House illegally because he either isn’t a citizen or (it gets complicated) has lineage that prevents his office-holding. This is birtherism on steroids.

When I pointed this out to the Twitter person, he tweeted (seriously): “Not all who question the exalted messiah is a ‘birther’. Love how libs shut down discourse w/ BS buzzwords. “

No, I shut down discourse, first, when people make the ridiculous assumption that I regard Obama as an exalted messiah; anyone who’s read what I’ve written and Tweeted about his extension of the Bush-era civil liberties abuses, among other things, would understand that. I also shut down conversations when the other parties use over-the-top language to push their own political agenda without regard to what I’m actually saying.

Again, it’s simple: An author who pushes birtherism as a basic part of his anti-Obama tract loses me before he starts.

Politico’s Lame Excuse for Posting Unverified Memo

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.

10 Weeks Later, Washington Post Editorial Error Still Uncorrected

More than 10 weeks since it published an editorial based on a false premise, the Washington Post has neither acknowledged nor corrected its mistake.

Then again, the same editorial page routinely publishes op-ed columns that are not truthful. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who write the unsigned editorials do the same.

In any event, the Post’s refusal to even address this error — I’ve expressed my disgust to the newspaper’s ombudsman, who says the editorial page is off limits for his reviews — is disgraceful.