Anonymous Sources and Fairness

You don’t have to be a supporter of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief who’s been charged with sex crimes in New York City, to be appalled at some of the journalism about this case. Sadly, you can find a prime example on the website of the normally high-minded Center for Public Integrity, a totally damning piece by John Solomon based on lurid new allegations from two unnamed sources “familiar with the investigation.”

The sources insisted on anonymity, Solomon reports, “because of the ongoing investigation….” What in the world does that mean? Nothing: It’s an empty non-excuse for refusing to stand behind their own words.

Here’s my take. These sources are almost certainly in law enforcement. I believe they are almost certainly trying to solidify the public perception of Strauss-Kahn as a criminal scumbag, and do this so thoroughly that almost anyone serving on any jury will come into the trial with a predisposition to find him guilty — and that his defense lawyers, knowing that this is the case, will go with a plea bargain.

I don’t doubt that Solomon has reported faithfully what he was told. That doesn’t make any of it true. Nor do I doubt that Solomon and his editors trust these sources. There’s no reason why you should, since they won’t stand behind their own words.

I’m no fan of Strauss-Kahn, nor of the French media’s habit of glossing over ugly behavior among the people — almost all men — who rule government and business. He may well have done this crime. But I’m sticking with innocent until proved guilty.

I’ve been a longtime fan of, and have contributed to, the Center for Public Integrity. That won’t change. But as I’ve said privately to a friend in the organization, I believe this piece was way below the center’s standards.

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

This article was originally published on 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

Hewlett Packard keeps digging its hole

This article was originally published on Salon on August 16, 2010.

HP has a lot more questions to answer about CEO Mark Hurd’s mysterious departure

I have no idea whether the Wall Street Journal’s lurid story today about Mark Hurd’s forced departure from Hewlett Packard is believable. It’s impossible to judge because the paper relies so thoroughly on unnamed sources who are said to be, in the latest journo-lingo that purports to explain a grant of anonymity, “familiar with the situation.”

But what we do know is this: HP hasn’t come close to making sense about Hurd’s resignation, which was demanded by the board several weeks ago. There’s clearly a scandal, but what is it, exactly?

When a journalist as smart as the New York Times’ Joe Nocera is reduced to sheer speculation — he believes the board canned Hurd essentially because they and the employees had come to despise the guy — you know that the situation has spun wildly out of bounds.

I don’t buy Nocera’s take for one main reason. The board totally enabled Hurd to become one of the greedier and nastier CEOs of recent times. He is clearly a talented man, but his record at HP wasn’t entirely the triumph that his acolytes in the business press trumpted. His tenure featuredmega-slashing of people, and mega-enriching of himself and his insider cronies.

I’m as lost as everyone else when it comes to understanding precisely what, if anything, transpired between Hurd and Jodie Fisher. She’s the actor who was, apparently, being paid $5,000 a pop to be a hostess at HP events.

I say “apparently” because, like everyone else except the insiders who do know, I’m not sure what happened. HP’s stonewalling on just about everything has been epic, and in particular the company hasn’t come close to clean about the precise nature of their relationship.

One question that has a plain answer is this one: What happened to the HP of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the men who built a company that held human beings — and their humanity and communities — as essential to the mission as anything the people created?

What happened was this: It was destroyed by market and political conditions that encouraged boards and CEOs to exemplify the worst of American capitalism.

HP’s board has dug itself a deep hole, and it keeps digging. I take some comfort in knowing that Marc Andreessen is becoming a more visible board member, because I have trouble believing he’s comfortable with what’s going on at HP. I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but I find myself hoping he’s leading a board uprising. Someone needs to do it. Quickly.

Rand Paul’s anonymous accuser

This article was originally published on Salon on August 10, 2010.

Without evidence, the “kidnapping” tale is an example of what media consumers should automatically disbelieve


So Rand Paul felt obliged to deny an accusation that he kidnapped a Baylor University swim teammate and forced her to smoke dope.

I believe him. I believed him before he said he didn’t do it. (Update: And it turns out that no such thing happened, even according to the still-anonymous source for this story. See update below.)

Why? Because the accusation is about something that allegedly happened some 27 years ago, and his accuser is staying anonymous. Sadly, GQ magazine — which published an otherwise interesting (and better-sourced) account of Paul’s, uh, socially active college years — went with this tale.

Even more sadly, the state of American media is such that the accusation has made its way into the mainstream. Bloggers and traditional journalists alike have quoted the GQ piece and given it credence it absolutely hasn’t earned. Anonymous sources deserve no credibility unless they provide evidence.

I hope Paul loses in November, because I find his politics odious in many ways. But I hope this story doesn’t sway anyone.

UPDATE: So, according to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, the accuser, who still won’t give her name, says the GQ piece was wrong in some vital ways. Namely, it wasn’t a forced abduction; she was essentially role-playing; no one forced her to take drugs; and the people involved were friends. In other words, however weird (and there’s definitely some odd behavior here) the situation may have been, it wascollege party-style weirdness, and nothing resembling the alleged criminality we’ve been hearing about.

Several comments have raised the appropriate question of whether what happened in college almost three decades ago is relevant to someone’s fitness for office today. A kidnapping, if it happened, would be relevant, no doubt. It didn’t happen.

And the other hijinks the GQ story discusses, as well as the anonymous woman’s latest account (the truth of which I still don’t take for granted)? Not relevant in the slightest, at least in any sense of disqualifying someone for public office, given how long ago this was and how we all change as we get older. If anything — given that practically everyone I liked in college was “lewd, crude and grossly sacreligious” (characteristics attributed to the group he apparently joined at Baylor) — they tend to make Paul sound more interesting.

Finally, some of the comments on this item reflect a disturbing reality. Many folks want to believe the worst about Paul, and don’t care if there’s any real evidence. I hope they’ll consider how they’d feel if someone made this kind of accusation against them or someone they like.

Shirley Sherrod’s revenge

This article was originally published on Salon on July 29, 2010.

Andrew Breitbart should be held accountable for his deceptions, but is there a libel case here?

This is no surprise: Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced out in the wake of false claims that racist views affected her work, says she’ll sue Andrew Breitbart for his bogus “journalism” about her. But are the courts the best place to hold him accountable for his sleaze?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to predict the outcome of any Sherrod libel claim. A court — and Sherrod herself — would have a number of issues to consider, however.

One is whether Sherrod was a public official or public figure at the time when Breitbart posted his now-infamous Web article featuring an excerpt from a video that purported to show her, an African-American, acknowledging racial bias against white farmers and then acting on it to their detriment. (Your town’s mayor is a public official; Lindsay Lohan is a public figure. Which makes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both, I suppose.)

Public officials and public figures have higher hurdles in libel cases, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that required a showing of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the false statement. Essentially, malice means that the defamatory material was published with the knowledge that it was false, or that the publisher showed “reckless disregard” for the truth. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s page on defamation law for more detail.)

Breitbart has claimed he didn’t know the video was a hack job — purporting to show racism when in fact her point, made clear in the context of the full recording, was that the issue was class, not race and that she did her best to help the farmers. If he didn’t know, did he try to find out? Would that matter in a libel case?

Even if he’s telling the truth about not knowing the true nature of the video, and even if that is enough to make the commentary non-libelous, Breitbart may have another problem: his bogus “correction” of the original. Here’s the correction:

While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.

As friend and colleague Scott Rosenberg has pointed out, this is not much better than the original.

A genuine correction, Scott writes, would read something like this:

Our original story was wrong. We quoted Sherrod to suggest that she drove an old white couple off their farm because she was a racist. In fact, she helped that couple hold onto their farm and used the tale to argue against racism.

So, even if the original wasn’t libelous under the current public-figure standard, is Breitbart’s refusal to admit he was wrong about so much — in the face of utterly clear evidence — legally actionable? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out the answer.

David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’sBerkman Center for Internet & Society (I co-founded the project when I was a fellow at the center several years ago), says the correction “appears to give her a stronger case on the question of actual malice” than the original posting — again assuming Breitbart wasn’t complicit in the video’s editing. These cases depend on state of mind, he says, but it seems clear that Breitbart knew at the time he posted the correction what was in the full video.

Some other questions, legal and otherwise, that may come up include:

  • Will California’s shield law let Breitbart keep the name of his source confidential?
  • Should anonymous sources be permitted to launder their defamations through others? (I’ll be coming back to this in another posting.)
  • Was Breitbart doing journalism, however crappy it may have been?
  • Has Sherrod ever said or done anything that could fairly be characterized as having racist intent, regardless of what happened in this case?

If Sherrod proceeds with this case, her adult life will almost certainly be put under a microscope — this one with a court order behind it in discovery proceedings — where Breitbart’s lawyers look for even a hint that she’s the kind of person Breitbart was claiming in the first place. Can anyone whose father was lynched by white racists not have had such things to say, ever? My sympathies lie strongly with Sherrod, and I’d hope a jury’s would as well, but I wonder if she’s ready for the legal attack dogs who may demonstrate even less honor, if that’s possible, than Breitbart.

David Ardia notes that individuals seeking libel damages, even when totally justified, often don’t get the results they expect in an often vicious process. In fact, he tells me, it’s fairly rare to get anything close to full satisfaction.

There’s one more question, and I still think it’s the most important one.

  • Why should anyone believe anything Breitbart says at this point?

The answer, of course, is that Breitbart has no credibility whatever among those who count honor and fairness as an element of journalism. He could regain some with a forthright admission of what he did, but at this point that looks unlikely.

Sadly, he still has a substantial audience. I hope anyone reading this is not among its members.

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.)

When the “Writer” Isn’t: Ghost Writing for Editorial Pages


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.

Tabloid Journalism’s Future? Or Just an Extension of the Present?


animation woods.pngOn the front page of Sunday’s print edition and home page of the online edition, the New York Times is clucking about an animation it puts in the category of “Maybe Journalism.” The widely seen video, from a Hong Kong media company, purports to show what transpired between Tiger Woods and his wife in the recent incident that has dominated our celebrity-addled news programming lately.

Here’s the top of the Times’ story, entitled “In Animated Videos, News and Guesswork Mix”:

Welcome to the new world of Maybe Journalism — a best guess at the news as it might well have been, rendered as a video game and built on a bed of pure surmise.

A computer-generated ‘news report’ of the Tiger Woods S.U.V. crash — complete with a robotic-looking simulation of Mr. Woods’s wife chasing him with a golf club — has become a top global online video of the moment, perhaps offering a glimpse at the future of journalism, tabloid division. (No matter that the police said she was using the club to release Mr. Woods from the car.)

The minute-and-a-half-long digitally animated piece was created by Next Media, a Hong Kong-based company with gossipy newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The video is one of more than 20 the company releases a day, often depicting events that no journalist actually witnessed — and that may not have even occurred.

A glimpse at journalism’s future, tabloid division? How about journalism’s present, in a somewhat different form?

It looks more to me like the latter. Next Media is following in the footsteps of what American journalism has made a trademark, particularly in the book, magazine and tabloid-TV businesses. Modern books about politics and business, in particular, are loaded with direct quotes and minute details of events “no journalist actually witnessed.”

These techniques have a purpose. They’re designed at least as much to capture and hold the attention of print and video audiences as to enlighten them.

I acknowledge that this is a bit of a stretch. I’m emphatically not saying that fly-on-the-wall print accounts, which journalists claim are based on extensive interviews with principals, are close to the same thing as this maybe-it-happened video.

I am saying that when people ask you to trust their depictions of “events that no journalist actually witnessed — and that may not have even occurred,” you take them with a serious grain of salt.

Some of this stuff has been going on for decades. In 1965 Truman Capote called his masterwork — In Cold Blood, about the killing of a Kansas family and the killers’ path to their executions — a “nonfiction novel”. He helped create a new form of literature. He also helped spark the form of journalism that has become so standard now: the fly-on-the-wall pretense that pervades so much of what we see.

Critics later questioned Capote’s motives and methods, and ultimately the basic honesty of the book. But he was honest at least in the sense that he acknowledged that he was writing a novel, and more rigorous as a reporter than a lot of modern journalists even pretend to be. (Norman Mailer also called his brilliant book about a real crime, The Executioner’s Song, a novel.)

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward is the most famous current practitioner of the nonfiction novel, though he’d undoubtedly insist that his work is pure journalism. I don’t trust a thing he writes, and haven’t for some time.

Woodward’s books are loaded with direct quotations of people he says he interviewed, and some he didn’t. How can you have faith, beyond assuming that he’s telling the truth  when he says he has it right, that it is right? Why should you?

Now everybody, or seemingly everybody, follows the Woodward lead. Novelistic journalism is the order of our times. But I’m convinced it’s one the reasons people have concluded, rationally, that they can’t really believe anything anymore.

situation room obama.pngNewspapers, too, play the fly-on-the-wall game. Consider what the Times itself did today.

The “Maybe Journalism” piece runs at the bottom of the front page, while at the top is a long story about how President Obama, after long consultations with advisors, reached his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. The story is based, says the reporter, on “dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama’s 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants wherever possible.”

We readers are still being asked to trust the word of people who violated the confidentiality of the White House Situation Room and other internal deliberations. I tend to believe the overall thrust of the story — that Obama and his team struggled mightily with this decision — but I don’t have any faith in most of the particulars, including the anonymously sourced direct quotes of the president and others in the deliberations.

Why is this not, in the words of the story about the Hong Kong animators, “depicting events that no journalist actually witnessed — and that may not have even occurred”?

This isn’t the first draft of history. It’s the first draft of someone’s nonfiction novel on the Obama presidency.

(Disclosure: I own a small number of shares in the New York Times Co. They’re worth a lot less than I paid for them. Updated to make clearer that I’m not equating in any apples-to-apples way the animations and the fly on wall journalism.)

Who’s the Hero?

Anderson Cooper CNNThe photo at left is from the back cover of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It exemplifies much of what can be right with American journalism, and some of what’s wrong, too.

The part to celebrate, of course, is CNN’s decision to highlight some eminently praise-worthy people. Yes, there’s an element of cliche about it — running the show in Thanksgiving — but so what? If we can’t give thanks for (some of) the people who deserve it on our best holiday, when can we?

The best part of the program, at least from the promos and articles about the people being honored,  is that they’re “regular folks” doing out-of-the-ordinary things. (Military personnel seem to be ineligible for these awards, which is an odd omission, but the honorees are certainly impressive in their own right.) You can find instructions on the website on how to donate your own time and/or money to various causes championed by the honorees. All in all, CNN is doing something good for the world with this event.

But look again at this image. Who’s that towering over the honorees? Why, it’s Anderson Cooper, the host of the program. Apparently he and his network are the real heros.

Look, I know this is about promoting an event. And I  know that Cooper is the face people will recognize.

But the way this is framed tells the story of network “journalism” today — a celebrity-infused system that conflates news readers with the people they cover.

Anderson Cooper may well be a fine journalist. I can’t really say, as I’ve given up on CNN and the other U.S. “news” networks for anything but stenography for the rich and powerful, fluff and, occasionally, breaking news where the events tell their own stories.

If Cooper is a indeed good journalist, or even a respectable one, this image should make him cringe. And someday, sooner than later, he should say so out loud.