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)

Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach

UPDATE Jan. 22, 2012

(Much of this article was originally published on Salon.com on January 8, 2011, and that article was modified from this section in Mediactive.).

Joe Paterno died. No, he didn’t. (Ultimately, yes he did.)

The false reports of his death are yet another case of shoot-first, aim-later journalism. It’s not a new phenomenon in the Digital Age, but the way news moves now makes it a more significant problem.

We need to wait for facts in fast-breaking news events; jumping to conclusions doesn’t help.

Think back just a year, to the memorable events in Tuscon, Arizona.

NPR Mistakenly Reports Giffords KilledLike so many other people today, I’ve been following the news about horrific events in Tucson, Ariz., where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is one of a number of shooting victims. As I write this, it’s not known how many have died. And as I write this, news reports say that Giffords is in surgery, in critical condition.

The reports from traditional news organizations, amplified by Twitter, blogs and other Internet media, have been a parade of unclear information — just what we’ve come to expect in such situations. CNN’s headline now reads “Congresswoman Giffords shot” — with a sub-headline saying, “There are conflicting reports on whether she has died.” No kidding: One of those conflicting reports was CNN’s own report, citing an unnamed sources, that Giffords had died. (UPDATE: See Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of Big Media misstatements, from which I grabbed the above screenshot of NPR’s mis-reporting of Giffords’ condition.)

Continue reading Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach

Fix for anonymous sleaze is in our attitudes, not laws

This article was originally published on Salon.com on January 5, 2011.

It’s vital to protect anonymous speech; start by cleaning up the online cesspools

The people who want to control online speech have won some influential allies. New York Times blogger Stanley Fish has given a glowing endorsement to a new book of essays in which law professors — — who profess to believe in free speech — call for the curtailment of online anonymity.

Their hearts are in the right place. Parts of the Internet are cesspools of slimy speech, where anonymous cowards hide behind virtual bushes and say outrageous, untrue things about others. I’ve been attacked in this way, and I don’t like it.

So of course anyone with a conscience wants to encourage accountability and responsibility in speech. But the key word there is “encourage,” not “force.” It’s essential to preserve anonymity, and to appreciate why it’s vital. Anonymity protects whistle-blowers and others for whom speech can be unfairly dangerous.

If Fish’s description of the book is accurate, the authors are offering a cure that is much more dangerous than the disease: They would require Internet sites to take legal responsibility for what other people post on their sites.

Worse, they pay too little attention to the people who can do most to solve this problem. Who are those people? Us, you and me, who are the audiences for speech. We are the ones who need to take more responsibility. I’ll come back to this, but first let’s understand why the authors’ fix would stifle online speech in dangerous ways.

Fish writes:

The Internet and the real world, [essayist Brian] Leiter concludes, “would both be better places” if Internet providers were held accountable for the scurrilous and harmful material they disseminate.

How might that be managed? The answer given by the authors in this volume involves the repeal or modification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that no provider of an Internet service shall be treated as the publisher of information provided by another. That is, the provider is not liable for what others have said, and courts have interpreted that section as immunizing providers even when they “have knowledge that [a statement] is defamatory or invasive of privacy.”

Modifying Section 230 is risky business. This law has done more to encourage robust speech, by far, than any other piece of legislation in recent history. The immunity rests with the host. It does not extend to the person who posted the defamatory material. And courts have routinely required hosts to turn over information — such as IP addresses — about people who’ve posted defamatory material, while also generally resisting fishing expeditions by parties, especially companies, that want to shut down harsh but non-defamatory criticism.

If the law required Internet sites to monitor and control the speech they hosted, all kinds of conversations — mail lists, forums, comment threads and more — would simply disappear. The legal exposure for hosts would simply be too great for most people or companies to take the chance; being sued, even if you’re entirely in the right, can be ruinous financially.

What we need to modify most is our own attitudes.

This should start with the way we treat a kind of anonymous speech that I consider vastly more pernicious than the crapola I see on random blogs and comment threads: the too-common use of anonymity in Big Media reporting. As I’ve written in my new book, “Mediactive,” I have a rule of thumb. When a news report quotes anonymous sources, I immediately question the entire thing. I’m skeptical enough about spin from people who stand behind their own words, but downright cynical about the people who use journalist-granted anonymity to push a position or, worse, slam someone else. When someone hides behind anonymity to attack someone else this way, you shouldn’t just ignore it.In the absence of actual evidence, you should actively disbelieve it. And you should hold the journalist who reports it in contempt for being the conduit.

I have even less respect, if that’s possible, for most online comment threads. Anonymous commenters on blogs or news articles deserve less than no credibility on any BS meter. They’d have to work hard just to have zero credibility.

Pseudonyms are a more interesting case, and can have value. Done right, they can bring greater accountability and therefore somewhat more credibility than anonymous comments. Content-management systems have mechanisms designed to require some light-touch registration, even if it’s merely having a working e-mail address, and to prevent more than one person from using the same pseudonym on a given site. A pseudonym isn’t as useful as a real name, but it does encourage somewhat better behavior, in part because it’s more accountable. A pseudonymous commenter who builds a track record of worthwhile conversation, moreover, can build personal credibility even without revealing his or her real name (though I believe using real names is almost always better).

Conveners of online conversations need to provide better tools for the people having the conversations. These include moderation systems that actually help bring the best commentary to the surface, ways for readers to avoid the postings of people they find offensive and community-driven methods of identifying and banning abusers.

Again, while recognizing the real problem of anonymous sleaze, I emphasize again that it’s vital to preserve anonymity while encouraging its responsible use. And it’s even more vital for us to put anonymous attacks in their place: the virtual garbage pits where they belong. Only we can do that.

So when people don’t stand behind their words, we should always wonder why — and make appropriate adjustments in how we react to what they say.

(Note: I’ll be discussing this and other topics on Jan. 12 in a talk at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. You can find more information about the event here.)

Politicians lie: We know it and we don’t care

This article was originally published on Salon.com on December 17, 2010.

Survey: The public gets that most political ads are bogus, but people still believe things that are false

A new study about media misinformation and media users’ ignorance is only the latest wakeup call for anyone who worries that the American press has gone badly astray. From the summary of “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” comes this bottom line:

  • The public is thoroughly cynical about political campaign advertising.
  • Much of the public is misinformed about major issues.
  • Fox News viewers are especially prone to believing things that are not true.

The report, from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to national affairs and the media. We have an information crisis. Influence peddlers and opinion launderers can now spend unlimited amounts of money, much of it raised from anonymous sources, to push political issues and candidates. A system that has absolutely no accountability is almost guaranteed to become a sewer, and this one certainly has.

Continue reading Politicians lie: We know it and we don’t care

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.